At 6 weeks old Julius was adopted from foster care into a family that was supposed to take care of and protect him forever.
“But it was the furthest place from safe that you could imagine,” he told Children’s Rights. His adoptive father beat him, sometimes with a baseball bat, other times a two-by-four, and he was forced to watch his siblings suffer horrendous abuse, he said.
Julius’ life took a sudden turn when he was about 9. His adoptive mother’s voice, threatening his brother, was recorded on her doctor’s voicemail. A few hours later, child protective services workers were at their door to take Julius and his siblings away. “We went from home to home, because no one wanted four kids,” he said. “Then we were split up. It was heartbreaking not being with them. We had always been there for each other and tried to protect each other. If I didn’t have my brothers and sisters, then who did I have?”
While most children adopted from foster care join loving families that last, too often kids like Julius are placed into “forever homes,” only to have their stability shatter. Studies show that 10 to 25 percent of adoptions “disrupt” before they are legally finalized, but accurate, comprehensive statistics on those that “dissolve” after finalization are harder to come by. Just over a year ago, New York-based Lawyers For Children took a point-in-time count and determined that 150 kids on its caseload had broken adoptions, according to Betsy Kramer, director of the organization’s public policy and special litigation project.
Experts say adoptions dissolve for a variety of reasons, such as allegations of abuse or neglect, the failure to bond as a family, a lack of post-adoption services, children not receiving help for mental or behavioral health challenges or aging or ailing adoptive parents. Some kids — like Julius — end up back in care, others with family members or on the streets. And in some extreme cases, adoptive parents simply “rehome” or give away their children to people who have not even been properly vetted, a practice that often ends in tragedy.
In one such case that made national headlines this year, Arkansas Rep. Justin Harris and his wife adopted two young sisters from state care, then said they struggled to cope with the girls’ mental and behavioral challenges. Harris said the state refused to help, so the couple gave the girls to a family they knew. Since then, the man who took the children has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for raping one of the sisters.
“WHAT DO WE NEED?”
“There is probably no greater pain than thinking you have found a family that will be yours forever, and realizing that is not the case,” said Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Too many children who have already been abused or neglected and separated from their birth parents are being re-traumatized. It is devastating for them to lose yet another family after the pain and grief they have already suffered.”
At 21, Jaquan, who experienced a broken adoption, said he still struggles with the idea of trust and knowing how to love. “I feel love has a limit. If you never got it young, you will be confused when you get older,” he said. “You will be questioning everyone’s motives.”
Jaquan said he was adopted into a home where he was hit with extension cords and bottles, before he was kicked out at 16 or 17. He was working, attending school and trying to pay rent when he applied for welfare to help make ends meet. But he said he was denied assistance because his adoptive mother was still receiving subsidies to support him. Before that, he had no idea she was getting paid to care for him and his siblings, he said. “We always wore clothes that were donated to us … Where did all that money go?”
Dawn Post, co-borough director at the Children’s Law Center — a Brooklyn-based organization working to shed light on broken adoptions, improve data collection and push for changes to help kids — wants people to think about, “How do we make these adoptions better? What do we need?”
To start, Post said, better education for pre-adoptive parents on how children work through trauma, quality mental health treatment for kids and more thorough processes for matching children with the right families could all help.
Adriana Luciano, staff attorney at Children’s Rights, who is joining Post and other advocates to work toward legislative changes to reduce broken adoptions in New York City, said post-adoption services, like mental health counseling, are sorely needed. “By the time adoptions are on the brink of failing, families have already hit their breaking points and are throwing up their arms,” Luciano said. “If we could ensure they have somewhere to turn before a situation reaches crisis level, many of these families could stay together.”
And young people have ideas of their own. Jaquan believes children should be regularly checked on after adoptions are finalized and subsidies should follow the child, no matter where they live. And Julius thinks more thorough background checks on his adoptive parents, as well as follow up after his adoption, could have helped in his case.
“I WAS ABLE TO THRIVE”
After bouncing between foster homes, Julius arrived with his final family — one he said was different. “I trusted them because they genuinely cared about me, advocated for me and supported me,” he said. Julius was adopted again at 15, and said, “because of their love, I was able to thrive.” His parents got him involved in sports and church and helped him catch up in school. And with their support, he testified against his former parents — they were sentenced to life in prison. Now 21, Julius is in college, and feels “like I have what every kid should have — a good, safe family.”
Read additional articles in Notes From the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: