Blog Archives

Three Things Every Kid with RAD Needs

There is NO silver bullet and NO easy way to overcome Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Kids exhibiting RAD symptoms have endured deep loss and continue to grieve.
As I understand it, their brains have rewired to compensate. They may experience low levels of emotion or pain. Our daughter was able to turn off her emotions at will, but some of her lack of emotion was not intentional and concerned her. She used to ask me if there was something wrong with her because she didn’t always cry when she thought it would be appropriate (e.g., funerals, pet loss).
Our son’s pain receptors don’t work properly; at the treatment center, our guy broke his hand by punching a wall in a fit of rage. When I confronted the nurse on duty after seeing his hand (swollen three times normal size), she said they’d checked it earlier and assumed he was ok because he went back to activities with no complaint. He played basketball with a broken hand all afternoon.
He had to have an MRI for something else and I mentioned this to the neurologist. She said lack of response to pain is typical of kids who’ve been through trauma.

Kids with RAD need three things:

  1. True belief that you will not abandon them and will never give up on them

  2. Motivation (external or internal; sometimes related to #3)

  3. Definite realization they want to stay with you 

Finding ways to help them accept #1 and identifying #2 are equally difficult. When you’ve been abandoned by the people who should have been your rock solid forever protection (bio family), you have a hard time understanding why anyone else would stick with you. When everything that matters has been stripped away, you cease to put value in anything because it will likely be taken as well.
It is impossible to create #3, although this often grows from #1 and #2.
Seven years of CONSISTENT love, positive and negative consequences and promises kept worked for our daughter. About two years ago, we openly discussed the fact that we needed to consider residential treatment for her (because if your kid has cancer and you’re not a doctor,  you go to the hospital…we’re not psychiatrists and nothing was working). This shocked her into realizing that she did want to be with us. She asked us to give her time to try to change her behavior, and we gladly agreed.
That same amount of time has not worked for our son…YET. We had the same conversation with him last August, but he had a different reaction. He’s been in residential treatment with wild swings in his behavior and very little progress until last month. The one thing that does motivate him externally is television; he’ll do anything for TV time. Unfortunately, the treatment center hasn’t been the most cooperative with behavior modification; it’s “too difficult” to tie TV time to behavior. We’re looking at moving him elsewhere due to many factors, and as a part of that process our post-adoption social worker (whom he’s never met) needed to visit him. I asked her not to introduce herself as a social worker or as from social services because every time a SW showed up at our house during the foster years, he freaked out.
I was sure he’d assume she was there to take him, because I know he still doesn’t believe we’ll keep him.
The center therapist wasn’t aware (I didn’t realize she was going so soon and didn’t have time to prep him or our son) and introduced her to our son as “from DSS.” Our guy immediately went there.

They’re sending me to a new family?! I knew it!! 

The therapist said he morphed to scary-angry on the spot. Once they calmed him down and explained, he relaxed a bit. We called later that day and reinforced that we are not going anywhere and neither is he.
I think the misunderstanding shocked him into realizing that he really DOES want to be with us. Since her visit, he’s had a completely different tone with us, both on the phone and in person. His behavior is suddenly better; he’s like a different kid. We are praying that this will be his turnaround.
RAD is a roller coaster that never fully ends. I never get completely comfortable or expect things to be wonderful forever, because ridiculous expectations = death to healthy relationships. Expect that things may sometimes be rocky, and know that you’ll survive.

To anyone parenting a kid with RAD symptoms: ENJOY the quiet ride while it lasts, and just know that the crazy ups and downs are all related to their pain. As they heal, things will get better. Keep in mind that they’ll likely never be “over” the hurt, but they can move past it in many ways.





Care for Disrupted Families: Part 2

Our experience would have been easier if I’d had time (and awareness) to research disruption five years ago.

We entered the foster-adoption realm with no idea of the mammoth task we undertook. Helping disrupted children find peace, security and closure is no picnic.

Actually, maybe it is a picnic. One with a Mad Hatter. An insane, unbelievably weird picnic. Pretty much the only way we differed from Alice: we weren’t on drugs.

NIKON D700, AF Zoom 24-70mm f/2.8Gf/8, 1/250, ISO 500, 70mm

Photo Credit: Sean McGrath

Our kids were 5 (he) and 7 (she) when they came to us through a foster placement. They expected to be reunited with their biological family. In their minds, we were temporary.

If we’d had the following information, our first two years together might have been very different.

Caring for Children who’ve Experienced Disruption

1. If possible, maintain consistent care for the child immediately after a disruption, keeping the same daycare, childcare, school and teachers.

This particular point still makes me grit my teeth; our kids had three families, three schools and three home environments in forty days. If social services had honored my request to enter them in our school district with family #2, we could have at least cut out the school change. (And if they hadn’t lost our fingerprints, we might have eliminated family #2 altogether…but that’s another story…)

If at all possible, collaborate with your social worker to limit the number of environments to which your child must acclimate.

Think of the last time you switched employers. The stress of learning all-new expectations, routines and ways to perform tasks. Imagine how much deeper the “newness” anxiety affects a  child.

2. Just as children need to be prepared for each step of the adoption process, adults need to explain each step of a disruption in a way that children can understand.

Social services didn’t tell the children termination of parental rights (TPR) was in process. Instead, they cut off all visitation in anticipation of the TPR and moved them to our house with no warning or explanation to the kids. Although we hoped to adopt, we agreed to foster them even if reunification was still the goal. Within six months, TPR was complete and adoption with us was the new target.

We were new to the foster-adopt situation and followed the directions given by the social worker (“don’t tell the kids anything”). She sprung a “last visit” on all of us after the TPR was complete. We weren’t allowed to tell the kids it would be the last time they saw their biological family.

And yes, looking back, I realize that keeping the kids in the dark was not the way to go, but the social worker made it clear that if we rocked the boat they’d take the children from us because she already felt we “couldn’t handle” them (they have severe behavioral issues).

We’d already seen them moved twice and knew they’d had 7 placements in just over 3 years. Not wanting to take the chance of having them removed, we went along with what the SW told us to do.

Every facet of the above situation exacerbated the stress and negative feelings already pulsing within the two small, angry creatures residing in our home.


Photo Credit: Angry JulieMonday

3. Engage a therapist well versed in adoption and in disruptions.

Our first counselor, referred by the social worker, was very sweet. He did a great job of encouraging Hubby and me to continue survival. He recognized that the children were angry and behaviorally…challenged.

He gave us behavior charts and tried to help us address the behavior issues. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much to address the feelings BEHIND the behavior.

Three years in, we finally found counselors appropriate for the kids. These therapists are very familiar with Reactive Attachment Disorder, PTSD, grief and, of course, behavioral issues.

I can’t give strong enough encouragement here: find a counselor for your children. Ignoring the underlying grief will not make it go away. Be sure the counselor has specific experience with RAD, PTSD, grief and any other issues you’ve seen.

4. While the first tendency is to sever all ties between the child and the family, consider if this is the best practice and if it benefits everyone involved. Contact may be advisable in some cases to take care of unfinished tasks.

In our case, the social worker denied any access to the family. When the final visit was scheduled, we were instructed to hand the children off to a social worker in a grocery parking lot. We were allowed no contact.

On one hand, this is probably for the best. Knowing what they did to the kids, I might have done something regrettable. Or, if not regrettable, at least illegal.

However, the kids left an apparent treasure trove of toys behind This caused a great deal of angst; to this day, they talk about those toys. Supposedly, the social worker asked the family for the toys and they refused to hand them over. I have a feeling we’ll get a different side of that story eventually. Either the SW never even asked for them, or there were never toys to begin with.

We also requested pictures of the family and of the kids as babies/small children; the SW said this was denied as well. Again, I wonder if she really asked. Having those pictures would have been great. Our daughter frequently mentioned a photo of herself as an infant and wished she had it, especially when her class did a project using everyone’s baby pictures.

5. Consider holding a ritual around the unraveling of the adoption, after consulting the child’s counselors and therapists. If indicated, carry out the ritual in a way that the child can understand and can participate.

Our kids are under the impression that the foster family (where they lived for 18 months) was happy to be rid of them. They don’t understand what went wrong. One reason for the move was their behavior, but it wasn’t the only reason. The family had already adopted one child and decided not to adopt further children. It wasn’t “just” our kids—they haven’t adopted any others.

Because we took the kids to the same dentist (trying to find some ways to keep continuity), I found a note in their file. The parents told the dentist that the kids needed a family with no other children willing to take them on and give them stability long-term. They weren’t able to do it. (Why they felt the dentist should know…I’m not sure.)

We weren’t allowed contact with the former foster family, either. I wish we’d been able to communicate; we might have learned that the placement ended for a completely different reason. Regardless, being able to talk through the reasons, grieve the loss and move on would have been better than having no information whatsoever.

6. Therapist Vera Fahlberg suggests that a child’s placement history be reconstructed, identifying a person to whom the child was able to attach and working cooperatively with that person in planning the child’s future.

In our case, the unfortunate truth is that there was no individual with whom the kids had attachment of any kind except possibly the grandparents. However, according to the SW, they were unwilling to get involved or help in any way. If the disrupted child does have someone in their life with some attachment, I imagine this could be very helpful.

7. Some school age children may need permission from a significant attachment figure in their past (face-to-face,  via video or audio tape or in written form) before they feel free to join another family. The task of building a bridge for the child from one placement to another can be invaluable.

I wish we’d known to ask for this. A letter from a family member—especially from the grandparents—stating that “it’s okay” to settle in with the new family would have been extremely helpful. Our girl, in particular, still feels very loyal to their biological family. Attaching to us seems like betrayal. Permission to be happy might have ameliorated some of these feelings.

8. Just as parents need to describe their personal experience in order to move towards healing, so do children, often under the guidance of a trained professional during the adjustment period after a disruption.

As mentioned earlier, we’ve found a pair of excellent counselors. Our guy rarely talks about the past; I assume that will come out in teen years. Our girl, on the other hand, raves about how angry she is at her biological mother.

She’s still angry but has made great progress in talking her feelings through. We’ve even worked through some of that anger in positive ways (journaling, focusing on not allowing negative feelings to precipitate actions).

As I mentioned above, it’s possible that having some of this knowledge would have saved the kids—and us—from experiencing such high levels of heartache and stress.

I hope you’re able to use some of it to bring strength and healing to your family and the children you love.

Did I forget anything? Add your advice in the comments below!

*All quotes directly from the Fact sheet.

Care for Disrupted Families: Part 1

“If we sweep disruption under the rug, will anyone notice?”


Photo Credit: uni multimedia

Adoption disruption is an unfortunate—and often glossed-over—part of the adoption narrative.

Like mental illness in the 1950’s, stories of disruption are minimized, ignored and even hushed. If you’ve been involved in the adoption/foster community for any length of time, you likely know of a failed placement.

The failed placement may even be your own.

We’ve experienced disruption. If our two adopted children had voiced their initial thoughts (wishing death and destruction on us), they might have found themselves in another home.

Thankfully, we were oblivious. About a year ago, our son described his daydreams of the first few months: locking us in the house and burning it to the ground. Our daughter fantasized about bashing our noggins. “But we didn’t know how much we would love you, back then.” Charming.

Parents and children alike need care after a disruption. Both sides need healing.

On arrival in our home, our two were reeling from their own recent disruption. In their minds, two families kicked them out in swift succession (they didn’t fully understand the second family was a temporary situation).

As they dealt with the grief, we (uneducated and ill-prepared) muddled through. Often, we reacted to their behavior instead of responding to the underlying pain. Had we been better equipped, we could have handled the situation with more understanding. We received very little up-front information and didn’t grasp the situation in entirety until much later.

Here’s some information I wish we’d seen earlier. Knowledge we would have been thankful to use. Feel free to pass it on! 

Healing after Disruption: the Parents

 1. Normalize the wide range of strong feelings experienced in a crisis that, like a death in the family, rocks the souls of parents and immediate family members. Feeling raw for a long time is a normal expectation after living through a disruption. Families who experience a disruption are survivors of chronic trauma and need interventions that address more than grief and loss.

Our disruption happened during a temporary respite situation; even so, I saw myself as a failure for months afterward. I can’t imagine the stress and loss after a longer-term placement. Encircle friends or family members who’ve experienced disruption. If you’re a personal survivor, seek out a support group. You can even tell your story here. 

2. Because parents in a disrupted adoption come in conflict with personal, public and cultural beliefs about parenting, they may be blamed and misunderstood. Try to avoid seeking validation from those who may not have the knowledge nor the capacity to understand.

This applies to foster and adoption situations across the board, not just disruption. Individuals with no foster/adopt experience may, on occasion, provide insight. However, they don’t have the understanding another foster parent or social worker possesses. In general, we’ve learned not to ask for advice from other non-adoptive parents—no matter how experienced they seem—because most of the time, their wisdom just doesn’t apply.

For instance: child with bio-mom has tantrum because she won’t give him candy in his bedroom. Bio-mom leaves room, shutting the door. “Call me when you’re done.” 

Foster child, traumatized, has similar tantrum, apparently about candy. Tantrum is actually about grief and loss. Child needs to be held and assured of security.

3. Join with parents who have experienced disruptions to validate and honor your efforts. When others you expected to support you withdraw, build a new support system with those who are in the know.

When we adopted, some of the people we expected to support us (mostly because we’d supported them and cared for their kids) vanished from our lives as soon as they realized these kids aren’t perfect. On the other hand, a family we barely knew called, visited, checked on us and made certain we knew we weren’t alone. Let go of expectations. Try not to be hurt or angry when someone doesn’t “come through” for you. Plenty of people care. Join a support group or form one of your own. It doesn’t have to be official.

4. Pay attention to the impact of the disruption on children within the family. Help them find their voice and grieve what happened to them.

We thought the kids were ecstatic when “monster baby” (their name for the loud creature invading their space) left. And on some level, they were thrilled. In a deeper place, they worried. Could they be “bad enough” for us to kick them out, too? What if they screamed and cried?

5. Couples will need to spend time on rebuilding the foundations of their marriage that may have been rocked by the disruption experience.

Thankfully, in our case, this didn’t happen. However, if our adoption had disrupted, I imagine we’d need time for ourselves. If you’ve experienced disruption, seek a counselor familiar with loss and grief. Give yourselves time. Work together.

6. Put words around the pain of disruption as a first step in reclaiming your lives in a healthy way.

Speaking about pain can diminish the enormous blackness. We use this tactic with the kids often: “you’re worried, I can tell. Say it out loud. What’s bothering you?” Writing helps, also. Keep a journal. Start a blog. Get it out of your head; the longer we hold pain inside, the stronger it becomes.

7. Practice describing how you personally were affected, telling your story with a focus on yourself rather than on the child or on the adoption.

Find your voice, whether writing or speaking—for YOU and for THEM. As you draw strength from the telling, others will find connection and the knowledge they aren’t alone.

8. Don’t get stuck blaming social workers. Rather, practice reclaiming yourself through giving up the role of teaching others until you feel healed enough to advocate for change in a way that you may be heard.

I used to cringe when I called the social worker who placed the baby in our home. Will she think I’m incompetent? Does she roll her eyes when my number appears on her phone?  Researching disruption has been therapeutic for me. I now know I’m not the only foster parent to call her, frantic. I also realize Hubby and I are not the only adults with regrets; she probably felt responsible/guilt for the disruption since she talked me into taking the baby.

9. Move towards honoring and paying homage to the memory of your relationship with the child.

Remember the good moments; savor the memory of what you did right. Although permanence wasn’t attained, you made a difference in the life of a child. Even if it ended in unfortunate circumstances, the child will be impacted positively by some of the time in your home.

10. When you are able, make a list of the good you found inside yourself around your heroic efforts in raising this child.

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” it’s cliche, but true. Even when it doesn’t work out, every placement is an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

For me, our disruption was the moment I knew for certain that the two kids we adopted come first. I’d love to assist every child in the world. And up until that time, I tried to help as many as possible.

Hubby and I worked with the youth in our church. We volunteered with a fabulous child development organization, Compassion International. All of our friends’ kids saw us as extra parents.

The day we agreed it was no longer in the best interest of our children to keep any other foster children, I found focus. We still volunteer on occasion and we still love the other kids in our life, but they don’t come first. The two kids who live in our house are priority.


As you or your friends recover from disruption, know that you’re not alone. Our disruption was “mild” in the sense that we hadn’t had time to attach, and it was never intended to be a long term placement. My examples don’t come close to the depth of loss others have survived.

If you’ve experienced a more difficult disruption, look for others with similar life trauma. Find a counselor with disruption experience—and keep in mind that to seek counseling isn’t an indication of weakness. Getting the support we need enables us to be healthy enough to continue providing help and healing to others.

Feel free to share your story below. We’re here to support, not judge.

Up next: Care for Disrupted Families: Part 2 (the Kids)


*All quotes directly from the Fact sheet.

Preventing Adoption Disruption

No adoptive parent plans to send a child back  into the system.

No one argues that keeping foster or adopted children in one stable environment is best.

And yet,

the rate of disruption is up to


especially for older children.


Here are some ways we—as parents, social workers and advocates—can change the odds.

  • Get help/support in school. Involve the educators.

A good school system can make all the difference for a child on the edge.

When children do well in school, disruption in foster family placement is less likely. Conversely, studies show that behavioral challenges leading to frequent school suspensions and expulsion cause greater lengths of stay in foster care and disruptions in placements. That, in turn, leads to more school changes and more involvement with the judicial system.

When children experience greater school stability and success, foster parents feel supported and better equipped to help the child in their home, not only with school related activities, but with other issues. This increases the likelihood of permanent, stable placements.


Education can be a critical component to improving outcomes for youth served in the foster care system as you heard from the studies I cited, and it is critical to, at a minimum, share data between systems to track outcomes. Education, the courts and child welfare agencies can and must work together to achieve improved outcomes.

David Sanders, Casey Family Services, delivering plenary address at the Third National Judicial Leadership Summit in Austin, Texas. (Emphasis mine.) 

Alternate options may be necessary. Not all children of trauma can survive in mainstream school environments. On the other hand, some children must acquire socialization in order to survive.

We considered homeschooling in the beginning, but our entire support team (in-home and in-office counselors, psychiatrist, psychologist, occupational and speech therapists) recommended we keep the kids in a traditional school setting.

Within a few weeks of enrolling the kids in their first school with us, the administration was ready to cut our boy’s Kindergarten day in half. “He’s just not ready for this.”

We fought to keep him in school; obtained a one-to-one behavioral aide, applied for (and received) mentoring and in-home counseling services. I volunteered at the school for hours every week to be on hand if he had issues. His Kindergarten teacher and the Assistant Principal joined “our side” but everyone else…not so much. Those two years were grueling.

Then, we requested approval to move schools. The new principal denied my request to volunteer and wouldn’t allow an aide in her domain. I was shocked (and terrified) but she assured me, “we’ve got this.”

And they did.

Principals, teachers, guidance staff and paraprofessionals met with us. They asked questions. I brought handouts outlining RAD, PTSD and how to deal with children coming from trauma. They listened. Teachers and staff dispensed necessary consequences with grace and care.

The children learned boundaries. They began to recognize school as a safe place.

Hubby and I are thrilled with the level of support and understanding. The kids are thriving. I can’t imagine where we’d be without such amazing people behind us.

Seek out specialized education that fits the child such as alternative schools, home schooling or a school that excels in understanding and serving the educational needs of children who have special needs.

MN Adopt Fact Sheet

  • Extended Visitation with New Family

Extended visitation: meeting with the new family for dinner, spending a few hours with the new family in a neutral setting, touring the new home and neighborhood, spending a night, then two.

This kind of gradual introduction to the new family is not always possible.

Several of our friends adopted from other countries. They were able to send scrapbooks of pictures and descriptions to their new child, but communication was difficult. In-country visits were required prior to adoption, but this did nothing to acclimate the child to new surroundings.

In our case, the agency lost our background checks (requiring re-printing). In the meantime, the kids needed a month of respite housing.

Because we knew the family providing interim care, we saw the children several times and they even visited our house—albeit with no idea we were possible new parents.

If not for that mistake (or God’s providence), our kids would have been dropped off with us: outright strangers in new, unfamiliar surroundings. As it was, they were terrified. I can’t imagine how they’d have felt if they’d never visited our house or met us.

Sure, giving the children time to get used to new surroundings and mentally prepare themselves for a move takes more time and money at the outset than plopping the kids into their new lives. However, disruption requires even more resources. Encourage your agency to consider extended visits prior to moving the kids, if possible.

Extended visitation is even more important for older children. No (sane) adult moves into someone else’s house during a first date, but this immediate commitment to live with strangers is required of many foster kids.

Visitation gives the child a chance to get familiar with his or her new neighborhood, see his or her new school, and perhaps make friends with some of the neighborhood children. It allows for a gradual “getting used to” all the new people and places that will be a part of the child’s life in the adoptive family.

Making a lifetime commitment like adoption should not happen quickly or under pressure. In many ways, adopting the older child or a child who has special needs is more like entering into a marriage than becoming a parent. Especially with older children, adoption brings together individuals with unique experiences, ideas, habits, and values, and asks them to suddenly live together in a family unit., Thoughtful Visitation Practices Prevent Disruption


Click here for Part 2 (and to learn two of the most important ways to prevent disruption).

Adoption Disruption, Part 2

Adoption disruption* destroys families.

*For this series, “disruption” is used as an umbrella term, to include dissolution.


“Crooked House.” Photo Credit: Alan Strakey


Having already discussed the nature of disruption and some risk factors in Part 1, let’s look at effects of disruption.

But first, our own disruption story. 

About a year after our kids arrived, a social worker called, frantic.

“We have to find a place for an 11-month-old child.”

When I agreed to provide occasional respite months earlier, I was clear: no children under age two. We have dogs and cats and many sharp edges and corners. Our house wasn’t baby-proof—or even baby-safe.

“We’re getting ready to place her with a permanent family, but they’re not approved yet. The current foster family is going on vacation and they had expected her to be moved, so they didn’t plan to take her. We’ve called everyone else. You’re our last hope.”

I reminded her of my concerns.

“No problem;” said the social worker. “She’s not walking. In fact, she’s not even crawling yet. She’s used to being on the floor or in a carrier when no one can hold her. The foster family said she is very low maintenance and she’s a beautiful little girl. You’ll love her.”

Against our better judgement, Hubby and I agreed to take her. It was just for a week. How bad could it be?

On Saturday, the foster father met me at a gas station (which, in itself, seemed a little weird), transferred baby paraphernalia to my vehicle and left. He barely looked at the child, whom he’d parented for ten months. Odd.

The baby was unbelievably good. She slept through the night in her portable crib. The next morning, she seemed a little warm to me but I didn’t have an infant thermometer. I asked a friend at church. She was instantly concerned. “That baby is too warm.” I decided to stop at the pharmacy after church. Even so, the baby slept, cuddling against me during the church service. She never budged.

Nothing gets to me like a sleeping baby. Starry-eyed, I looked up at Hubby and whispered, “Maybe we could adopt a baby, too.”

He rolled his eyes. “No.”

Yeah…we already had our hands full with the hyenas.

That evening, she started screaming. 

She refused to eat. She pulled her ears. After a childhood of chronic ear infections, I knew exactly what that meant.

She screamed for hours.

I left messages for the social worker. For the emergency contact. For the doctor on-call. I couldn’t take her to urgent care; the foster family forgot to leave her insurance card.

NO ONE called me back.

She finally stopped screaming around 2 am but started again every time I tried to put her in her crib. Afraid I’d roll over on her if I fell asleep, I strapped her in the carrier and lay beside her, drifting near sleep and rocking the carrier. If I stopped rocking, she screamed. All. Night. LONG.

The next morning I threw water on my face and called the doctor. She was okay until he touched her. That kid may grow up to sing opera. She screamed for the next three hours.

Yes, double ear infection. He called in a prescription. The antibiotic did not work immediately. It did not appear to work at all.

By Wednesday, I was a sleep-deprived zombie. She screamed. And screamed. When I encountered our son in the hall, rocking with hands over ears, I gave up and left a voice mail for the social worker. “You have to move her. We can’t keep her. It’s affecting my kids.”

On Thursday afternoon (after I’d left four similar messages), she called with an address.

I have never felt such simultaneous guilt and relief.

Yes, it was only a respite week, but we had to move her prior to the intended date. Instead of staying in one home, she ended up in two.

Why did this placement fail?

  1. We did not receive all information. There is NO WAY that a foster mother with ten years of baby experience didn’t know the little girl was sick, but she wanted her baby-free vacation.
  2. We had no support available.
  3. The child’s behavior (although involuntary) created high stress for everyone. I couldn’t risk my children’s already-teetering mental health.
  4. We took on a child for whom we were not prepared.
  5. We allowed the agency to “guilt”us into accepting.

That experience is part of the reason I advocate for disruption prevention.

Perhaps (adoption disruption) should be referred to as adoption catastrophe, or devastation, or casualty; because it is that significant to all involved.

Simi Riesner, Living Hope Adoption Agency Staff


Why Prevention is Important


  •  Disruption is Expensive

For families: especially in international adoption cases, which can cost upwards of $30,000. That money isn’t refunded if the adoption is ended. Families may be responsible for legal fees or court costs.

For agencies: hours of time for social workers, court costs, transportation, respite care…the agency may have to bear the expense of placing the child twice.

For taxpayers: in a normal adoption (no special needs), parents take on all costs for children, including health care. Children in foster care receive Medicaid. I’m not saying it’s bad or good; it’s just a fact. If the adoption disrupts and the child ends up back in state-funded care, taxpayers foot part of the bill.

Reducing the odds of disruption is in everyone’s best interest. If your wallet is the only way to get your attention, I’ll use it. (When it comes to the kids, I’ve been known to hit below the belt. Because most of us keep our wallets below…never mind.) 

Cost isn’t the main—or even a major—consideration when compared to other effects. I throw this one in for the individuals who think disruption won’t affect them. It affects EVERYONE. 


  • Disruption Affects the Foster or Adopted Child’s Self-Perception

Children are ego (self)-centric. This can make them appear selfish, but also causes them to tend toward blaming themselves in cases of failure (consider the children who feel they caused their parents’ divorce). Especially in the case of a child who knows his or her behavior is less than ideal, self-incrimination and perceived guilt is likely.

(Disruption) can cause lifelong issues of distrust, depression, anxiety, extreme control issues and very rigid behavior. They don’t trust anyone; they have very low self-esteem.

They’ll push away teachers and friends and potential parents and if you put them in another placement and they have to reattach again and then if they lose that placement, it gets tougher and tougher.”

Mia Freeman, as quoted in It Takes More than Love

Our daughter happened to break a coffeepot the day she and her brother were removed from their biological family. She was five. Three years later, she casually mentioned their removal was her fault. For THREE YEARS, she carried the burden of thinking she’d destroyed what she knew as a family.

Our children were moved several times as a direct result of their negative behavior, and someone unfortunately informed them of this.

For two solid years, our boy tested us at every turn, sure we would “kick them out” for misbehaving. Only when he truly believed that we were committed to keep him did he relax. The first time I read Mia Freeman’s quote (above), I thought, “she must know our children personally.”

Disruption causes emotional and mental anguish for children who are already at-risk. 


  • Disruption Affects Parents

Parents who’ve lived through disruption experience great loss. They may feel guilty or feel that they’ve failed. The loss of a child through disruption or dissolution can, I imagine, bring many of the same feelings associated with the death of a child.

We hosted “Monster Baby” over three years ago. I still feel guilt about not being able to finish the week.

Sammie, who was placed with a family at age seven, exhibited problems and behaviors that turned her family´s life upside down…

By the time Sammie left (three years after placement), the family was scarred and traumatized by the ongoing stress and the guilt they felt for ending the adoption.

-North American Council for Adoptable Children, Disruption Support is Crucial

I didn’t follow this thread of research to the fullest extent because, to me, the conclusion seems obvious. However, in the brief Google searches I performed, I found a glaring absence of studies on families after disruption. If you find some you’d like to contribute, please post links in the comments and I’ll revise this section. 


  • Disruption Affects other Children in the Family

When we had to return the infant (dubbed “Monster Baby” by our kids), I worried how it would affect our not-yet-adopted kiddos. Sure enough, negative behavior ratcheted up. We explained again and again, “We were only supposed to keep her for a week. You are staying permanently. Your well-being has to come first.”

Still, bringing the behavior back to an acceptable level of “crazy hyena” took months. They worried we might “send” them back, so dedicated themselves to testing our commitment in every possible way.

When Brady joined his new family, his dad and brothers tried hard to make him feel at home. “I accepted him 100 percent,” says one brother. “I learned to endure his rages and hoped to help him somehow.” After Brady tried to seriously injure his grandmother, the family knew he needed more help than they could offer. When Brady left, however, at least one of the remaining brothers (also an adoptee) suddenly felt insecure about his role in the family. As he explains:

Several months [after Brady´s disruption] I decided to leave home, to run away. Dad was being his firm self about my curfew and I just decided that I wasn´t going to take it. I don´t know if it was because of Brady or not, but I remember feeling unsure about my own place in the family when he was removed from the home. It seemed that I looked at Dad differently. Though I knew why he had to have Brady removed, I wondered if he would do the same thing to me.

-North American Council for Adoptable Children, Disruption Support is Crucial   (Emphasis mine)

Other children in the home may feel less secure after another child is removed. 


  • Disruption Affects Education

We saw firsthand the effects of multiple moves.

Upon arrival, our seven-year-old girl couldn’t read three-letter words. Before coming to us, she attended Kindergarten twice (failing the first year), plus summer school after the second year of Kindergarten. She knew the alphabet but did not understand all the sounds, nor could she decode letter combinations.

Our boy, then five, knew less than half the alphabet. His vocabulary was limited (and yet, when I suggested we learn the alphabet by attaching words to the letter sounds, he knew a curse word for each of the sounds A, B, C, D, F, G and H). He couldn’t visually recognize words like “the” or “cat” on a page. He’d never attended pre-school; instead, the foster family left him almost 12 hours each weekday in daycare.

This blew my mind: half of children in foster care do not finish high school by age 18. While 84% of foster youth want to attend college, only 20% attend. Fewer than 9% earn a Bachelor’s degree. (See below for additional stats.)

Educational Experiences of Children and Youth in Foster Care: Reasons for Concern

-Table from Practice Notes Vol. 21

Here’s good news (if we can reduce moves):

Regarding education, a 2003 Casey national study found that youth who had had one fewer placement change per year were almost twice as likely to graduate from high school before leaving care.

David Sanders, Casey Family Services, delivering plenary address at the Third National Judicial Leadership Summit in Austin, Texas. (Emphasis mine.)

Education and literacy are key to success for any child.

Disruptions cause academic delays and even failures. Education and literacy become secondary to survival.


The above list is not comprehensive. What are some other ways disruption interferes with healthy lives? Add your voice below. 


Coming up next: Ideas for Disruption Prevention

Disrupted Adoption, Part 1

Disruption of adoption (failure to adopt when adoption is in process, but not finalized) is more common than you think, unless you’re a foster or adoptive parent. If you are, this may be no surprise.

In most cases, disrupted adoption happens quietly. The children are “moved” with little fanfare.

Dissolution of adoption (failure of adoption after finalization) is less common but highly publicized.

Everyone heard about the TN mom who sent her 7-year-old son back to Russia alone. More recently, a mom in the U.K. returned her son after he began having seizures.

She requested a child with no problems, being a single mother. When the child had developmental delays—and then seizures—she returned the boy and went to court so the record would show she was not at fault (and the judge agreed).

She’s now looking for a 3 to 6 year old.

Many factors affect disruption, including

  • age
  • placement instability
  • multiple siblings
  • special needs (behavioral or physical)
  • parental expectations

Disruption of adoptions involving older children can be up to 25% higher than for children under 3 (several sources linked here noted lower stats but did not provide actual numbers).

Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the likelihood of disruption rises 6% for every year the child’s age increases. The chance of disruption also rises with multiple siblings of 2 or 3 (but surprisingly, drops when there are 4 or more siblings adopted).

Compared with an infant, a child older than four is 13 times more likely to have a disruption. Placement instability (the number of times a child is moved) also impacts a child’s ability to succeed in adoption.

The North American Council on Adoptable Children site recounts several stories of disruption stemming from out-of-control behavior.

You may know the “Disney effect” (young girls believe their prince will arrive, bringing “happily ever after,” then grow up disillusioned with their imperfect relationships).

Adoptive parents enter the arrangement with the same starry-eyed expectation. The “Jolie-Pitt family effect.” Just look at that beautiful, happy, diverse family! Adopting a bunch of kids will be AMAZING!

Sure, we all agree. We took the class and understand that kids have issues. But our family will be different. We’re going to change the world for one starfish.

(Pretty sure you’ve read that story, but if not…there’s the link.)

We will beat the odds. This kid will be different. Our love will overcome! 

-Every Adoptive Parent, Ever

And then reality crashes down.

Part of the blame belongs with the agency facilitating the placement; in one survey, 45% of respondents said they did not receive all the information available about the child.

Some of the blame belongs simply on inexperience; it’s no one’s fault. Hubby and I attended many classes, read many books, researched like grad students. We had an idea of the trauma to come. None of it prepared us for the actual experience.

Imagine the difference:

  • reading “Astronauting for Dummies”
  • rocketing into space

It’s impossible to be prepared for all eventualities, but parents should receive all background information about a child before a placement and especially prior to adoption.


Our kids have multiple risk factors:

  • placed as a group of two siblings,
  • they were older children (then 5 & 7)
  • moved seven times in 2.5 years (at least twice due to uncontrollable behavior)
  • they needed services for physical issues (speech therapy, occupational therapy, heart surgery)
  • both had severe behavioral problems requiring in-office counseling, in-home counseling and (for him) a dedicated behavioral aide during school hours
  • social services did not provide full disclosure of the extent of their special needs

We not-so-affectionately dubbed our first two years, “HellonEarth” and “DefCon1,” respectively.

4.5 years from D-Day (D for Drop-off), we’re able to relax and “be a family” most of the time.

Hubby and I acknowledge that we contemplated disruption. Like other bright-eyed new foster parents, we had no concept of life with traumatized children. What saved our family? He and I never freaked out at the same time.

Throughout the summer of HellonEarth (I stopped working to be with the kiddos), I called Hubby every day around 4 pm, angry, frustrated, frazzled and tearful. He joked darkly to a friend that one day he’d come home to the three of us drowned in a bathtub.

Although drowning was never a true danger, there were definitely times I empathized with families who disrupt. He and I experienced weekly “step away from the cliff” moments in which one of us freaked out and the other played negotiator.


Photo Credit: Lorenia

These conversations became sporadic during DefCon1, then obsolete.

By the adoption date, we had full knowledge of the meaning of “I will.” As we said those words, we’d already agreed that dissolution would never be an option.

We survived HellonEarth and DefCon1 thanks to

  • multiple counselors
  • support from our family and church
  • Hubby’s tenacity and strength
  • my hypervigilant attitude
  • our unshakable faith that God put these kids in our lives and will continue to give us grace to deal with their (now occasional) insanity

I’d like to name this year “Cautiously Optimistic.”

There are still days (and weeks) of frustration, but we’ve invested our hearts. We tell our kids, “There’s no such thing as ‘un-adoption’ in this family.” 

In heated moments, we remind each of them, “No matter how horrendous your behavior, regardless of what you say and do, and even when you destroy things like a wild hyena, we will never, EVER let you go. We will always love you.”

After almost five years, I think they finally believe it.

Up yours, statistics.

Coming soon—Part 2: Resources for Preventing Disruption


*Some information in this post is from a previous post. Additional research and information added to update.

Adoption = Disruption

Disruption of adoption (failure to adopt when adoption is in process, but not finalized) is more common than you think. One qualification: if you are a foster or adoptive parent; this may be no surprise.

In most cases, disrupted adoption happens quietly. The children are “moved” with little fanfare.

Dissolution of adoption (failure of adoption after finalization) is less common but highly publicized. If you’ve never heard of the TN mom who sent her 7-year-old son back to Russia alone, call a moving company and find a house built on a rock, not under one.

As you may imagine, statistics for disruption are much higher for older children (listed as anywhere between 6 and 25%) than for children under 3 (several sources linked here noted that these stats are lower, but did not provide actual numbers). Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the likelihood of disruption rises 6% for every year the child’s age increases. The chance of disruption also rises with multiple siblings of 2 or 3 (but surprisingly, drops when there are 4 or more siblings adopted).

A child older than four is 13 times more likely to have a disruption, compared with an infant. Placement instability (the number of times a child is moved) also greatly affects a child’s ability to succeed in adoption.

Our kids have multiple risk factors, beginning with (but not limited to) the following: they were placed as a group of two siblings, they were older children (now age 8 & 10) and were moved at least seven times in two years (three of those moves within the 40 days before they arrived with us).

We not-so-affectionately dubbed our first two years, “HellonEarth” and “DefCon1,” respectively. Three years from D-Day (D for Drop-off), we’re finally able to relax and “be a family” most of the time.

Hubby and I both readily acknowledge that we, at times, contemplated disruption. What saved our family? He and I never freaked out at the same time. During HellonEarth, we had weekly “step away from the cliff” discussions. These conversations became sporadic during DefCon1, then obsolete after we finalized adoption about a year ago.

Throughout the summer of HellonEarth (I stopped working to be with the kiddos), I called Hubby every day around 4 pm, angry, frustrated, frazzled and tearful. He joked darkly to a friend that one day he’d come home to the three of us drowned in a bathtub. Although drowning was never a true danger, there were definitely times I empathized with families who disrupt.

Thanks to multiple counselors, support from our family and church, Hubby’s tenacity and strength, my hyper-vigilance and an unshakable faith that God put these kids in our lives and will continue to give us grace to deal with their (now occasional) insanity, we survived HellonEarth and DefCon1. I’d like to name this third year “Cautiously Optimistic.”

There are still days (and weeks) of frustration, but we’ve invested our hearts. We tell our kids, “There’s no such thing as ‘un-adoption’ in this family.” 

In heated moments, we remind each of them, “No matter how horrendous your behavior, regardless of what you say and do, and even when you destroy things like a wild hyena, we will never, EVER let you go. We will always love you.”

I think they finally believe it.

Up yours, statistics.

%d bloggers like this: