“We adopted a boy from Guatemala who is 7 years old…and he has attachment issues…Today was the last straw — he is just getting worse and worse. We must dissolve this adoption for our sanity!” This is a direct quotation from “Adopting-from-Disruption,” a Yahoo webpage set up to facilitate the “re-homing of children.”
Originally a term used to describe the transfer of ownership that occurs when a family no longer wants a pet, re-homing has evolved to cover the transfer of guardianship over adopted children. This new type of re-homing — or adopting-from-disruption as it’s also called — is a growing problem in the United States. By connecting adoptive parents with prospective new families for their children, Internet forums and social networking sites have made adopting-from-disruption easier to do.
Since the late 1990s, when adoption from foreign countries became commonplace, 243,000 children have been adopted from foreign countries. While there are no statistics on the rate of failure for foreign adoptions, if it’s analogous to that of domestic adoptions — it’s in fact likely higher (partly because foreign-adopted children are often older and more likely to have attachment disorders) — the frequency with which foreign adoptions fail could be somewhere between 10 to 25 percent. This would mean that roughly 24,000 children adopted from abroad may no longer be living with the parents who initially brought them to the United States.
The traditional method of dissolving adoptions requires parents to place their children in the custody of the state or the adoption agency they initially worked with. If placed with the state, the child enters the foster system and stays with an approved family paid to take them in. However, because the Internet facilitates adopting-from-disruption and subverts traditional methods of coping with failed adoptions, it is becoming increasingly likely that tens of thousands of children have been re-homed through this gray market. A Reuter’s investigation found that on one site, a new ad for a child was posted once every week for five years; 70 percent of these children were foreign-born.
Inga was born in Russia to a mother who was a prostitute and never knew Inga’s father. Inga grew up in an orphanage dreaming of being adopted. When she was 12 years old, her dream came true when Priscilla and Neal Whatcott, an American family, adopted her. In her words, “My picture was, I’m gonna have family, I’m gonna go to school, I’m gonna have friends.” But unbeknownst to the Whatcotts, Inga struggled to read and write, suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and smoked. Unequipped and unprepared to handle these challenges, the Whatcotts soon found the adoption to be more than they could bear and sought out ways to relieve themselves of custody.
Unfortunately, Inga’s case is not uncommon as far as foreign adoptions go. Oftentimes, children placed up for adoption have undisclosed mental or physical disabilities or psychological or behavioral disorders that the adoptive parents find it difficult to cope with. Because these children are adopted from abroad, state social services are reluctant to take in the children, and the adoption services that connected the parents with the child are unhelpful. Faced with few resources to help them navigate a difficult situation that few couples signed up for, the adoptive parents feel they have no choice but resort to child markets like Adoption-from-Disruption where they can ‘offload’ their children onto others.
Adoptive parents are able to informally offload a child onto a new and often improperly vetted family with as little as a notarized letter. That is exactly what happened to Inga. Priscilla Whatcott became involved with a group on Yahoo for people who had adopted children from Russia. As Mrs. Whatcott explained to Reuters, “There are a lot of these Yahoo groups. Everyone is chatting about various challenges with their children. I expressed what was going on. People started saying talk to so-and-so.” Eventually she was referred to Mary Gayle Adams, a facilitator for parents wishing to re-home children. Through Adams, the Whatcotts found Inga’s first replacement family. When the government places a child in a foster home the family is vetted by a social worker to examine their suitability. But, because this transferal was done through the Internet, there was no government involvement or vetting process before the Whatcotts transferred custody of Inga to the new family.
This informal transfer of children is entirely legal in many states. It rarely takes more than a notarized letter to transfer custody from one adult to another. In many states you don’t even need a lawyer, just a note signed by both parties. By transferring the “power of attorney” from one adult to another, the adoptive parent can declare the child to be in the care of another. Furthermore, the new guardian is able to enroll the child in school and collect government benefits for the child. In some cases this mechanism can be useful and even beneficial to the child — when a parent loses their job and needs to send their child to a relative for a period of time, for example. But the rise of the Internet has allowed this quick and easy transfer of guardianship to be abused. Adoptive parents apply this mechanism in a way it was not intended — to informally offload a child onto a new and often improperly vetted family.
The only legal barrier that exists (and even it is mainly theoretical) to discourage the trafficking of children is a little known state pact called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, that tries to ensure the oversight of custody transfers by child welfare authorities and review prospective parents. In theory, the pact is designed to hold state governments accountable for what happens to children sent from one state to another. But this pact has no enforcement mechanism or prescribed penalty for noncompliance. As a result, it does little to motivate states to keep track of adopted children and address the problem of re-homing.
The process’s limited legal oversight and the lack of investigation into the suitability of prospective parents increases the chance of improper placements. The ability to quickly find prospective families online further depersonalizes the process and makes it all the more likely to end in failure. Inga’s first re-homing was ultimately unsuccessful due to similar difficulties as those experienced by the Whatcotts. After returning to the Whatcotts for a brief period, Mrs. Whatcott was able to find a second home for Inga, through Internet forums. The Whatcotts transferred custody of Inga over to this new family with little investigation into their suitability. This couple routinely took in children and had adopted roughly a dozen. The family was very dysfunctional and ultimately abusive; the mother and Inga regularly traded slaps and Inga says that one of the brothers had sex with her and urinated on her afterwards. Unable to endure this living situation any more, Inga ran away and tried to return to the Whatcotts. In the months following Inga’s flight, the mother of this family was found to have been “neglectful” of her children and authorities received “allegations of sexual abuse between the siblings,” separate from Inga’s.
A Reuter’s investigation found that on one site, a new ad for a child was posted once every week for five years; 70 percent of these children were foreign-born. Unfortunately, that was not the end of Inga’s plight. The Whatcotts refused to let Inga return to their home and re-homed her to a family, which for the third time, they found over the Internet. The father of this new family was incredibly violent and the couple ultimately divorced. According to the mother, “It was nothing for him to get angry at one of the older, adopted children, and grab them by their throats and press them up against the wall, and there were incidents where he actually left bruises on the necks of the children.” Inga says that the abuse went further and that she was sexually assaulted on several occasions: “He’d kick out the other children, watch porn with me and say, ‘I bet you can’t do that,'” she says today.
By March 1999, just two years after being adopted by the Whatcotts, Inga was left without a legal guardian. The Whatcotts refused to take her back in and the families she was re-homed with were clearly unsuitable. With nowhere to go, Inga was placed in state care. The state of Michigan ultimately sued the Whatcotts for neglect. The judge fined the Whactotts $5,000 and placed Inga with a vetted legal guardian. Inga says that this custodial change was for the better and that her new guardian “took a place like my mom. No matter how I behaved or stressed out, whatever, I had problems in my life, she’d always be at my side.”
Inga’s story is incredibly tragic, and sadly it is one that is representative of a larger problem. Given that the failure rate of adoptions is potentially as high as one out of ten adoptions, the dangers that Internet re-homing presents cannot be ignored. Our social services system has yet to catch on to the effect of the Internet on rehoming. Because children can only be removed from a home after the problem has been brought to the attention of Child Protective Services, they are unable to intervene in cases of private re-homing such as Inga’s. Not only has the Internet greatly increased the ease with which parents can conduct re-homing, but in most states nothing in the law prevents the re-homing of children through the Internet.
In response, many lawmakers at both the state and national levels have made an effort to modernize child trafficking laws to criminalize re-homing. Since the Reuters investigation initially shed light on this problem last fall, four states — Wisconsin, Louisiana, Florida and Colorado — have passed stricter laws against the advertising of children online or have prohibited permanent custodial transfer without court approval. Hearings on the federal level are being conducted and several bills in states around the country have been introduced.
Nevertheless, we have a long way to go before fully solving this problem. At its root is the fact that when children are adopted from abroad, very little is done to ensure that they are placed in a home equipped to handle the child’s particular and sometimes challenging needs. Furthermore, adoption agencies provide little follow up and state social welfare systems neglect to track these children. Add the ease of finding new homes on the Internet to the mix and we are essentially left with an unregulated and quasi-legal child trafficking system. As long as we fail to provide a legal stop to re-homing and support to the families who resort to this tactic, this problem will continue and ruin the lives of countless children around the country.