Just as pregnancies don’t always end with the birth of a living child, adoptions don’t always end in the arrival of one. If families in your church are adopting, fostering, or considering either, you will eventually shepherd some through the loss of a child they hoped would be theirs.
This is grief. This is hard. This is worth knowing about in the church.
In many circumstances, adoption loss for one family is gain for another. For example, when an expectant mother decides to raise her child instead of placing him for adoption, her entire family gains the sweet little one who the prospective adoptive parents hoped to raise. So while this article focuses on the losses faced by prospective adoptive families, please be mindful that this loss is not as simple as death. Sometimes sorrow is felt all around, but sometimes it’s a two-sided coin with joy on one side and grief on the other. Your church community likely includes adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents alongside adult and child adoptees as well as adults who placed a child for adoption in the past. While this post and my previous one focus on adoptive parents, who are often the most privileged member of the adoption triad, please be mindful that they aren’t the only party to these situations.
That said, what are the four most common kinds of adoption failure?
- Lost referral before placement
In this circumstance, a child’s picture and information have been shared with a prospective adoptive parent or parents. No matter how much their agency or brains warn them that anything can happen, they fall for this child. They begin decorating his or her room and filling the closet and doing other new parent things, like buying car seats and thinking through the adjustment for the whole family.
Then the country changes criteria, or the first family decides to parent, or more than one family was being considered and they aren’t the chosen ones, or some other series of events results in the referred child not joining that family. The little one, still longed for, will not be coming home.
- Adoption-ending changes during the process
In this scenario, a referral might not be given yet, but the family is still preparing for a child or children. They’ve been through the homestudy process, being evaluated by a social worker and background checked by federal agencies and examined by medical doctors and scrutinized financially. In that process, they narrow the criteria for what child or children might be a good fit for their family, including factors like age, number of siblings, special needs, and gender.
Then the unexpected happens. Maybe it’s a health crisis or a country closing its doors to international adoption or a lost job or a surprise pregnancy or the death of a loved one… and the adoption can’t happen, perhaps for a time or maybe forever. The plans are set aside, and that loss is worth mourning.
- Lost placements
This kind of loss is usually restricted to two kinds of adoption: foster placements and domestic newborn adoption. In the first, a foster parent, intending to adopt a child, takes a legal custody of a child but then another family – perhaps the child’s biological family – is where the child ends up. Or maybe the foster parents never intended to adopt and knew the placement would be temporary, but they still do what any good parents do – love deeply. So once the time comes for the child to move on, be it back to the original family or on to another foster family or into an adoptive home, the parents’ heartache is real. In both of these situations, the placement can end as planned or as abruptly as a caseworker’s phone call on the way to collect the child.
In domestic newborn adoption, on the other hand, every state has different laws about adoption finalization. The baby can be placed with the adoptive parents at birth, but in many states, the birth parents have a legally mandated waiting period– ranging from 12 hours to 60 days (or longer, if coercion, fraud, or duress can be demonstrated) – in which they can revoke their voluntary termination of parental rights. When this happens, the adoptive parents have to legally surrender the baby back to the original family. That first family moves forward with a child, while the adoptive family is left with shattered dreams.
- Disruptions or dissolutions of adoption after finalization
Adoption is forever, right? Yes, most of the time. But sometimes adoptions end and a new family is needed. Why? The reasons vary as much as the reasons why any other child might need a family. Death of a parent. Unexpected medical conditions. Abuse or neglect (though ideally these factors are made less likely by the pre-screening process that takes place during the homestudy prior to the first adoption).
But a couple of factors unique to adoptive families can lead to disruptions or dissolutions: attachment issues and early childhood trauma. Children may have difficulty attaching to their new parents (and parents may struggle with attachment too). In some cases, the child might blame his or her adoptive parents for all the losses they experienced in the adoption process, in which they may have lost their first family, their first country, their first culture, their first language, and more. Those losses can be traumatizing, and sometimes that trauma is strongly associated with the adoptive parents in the child’s mind, making a healthy family bond difficult, if not impossible. As we’ve shared on this blog previously, early childhood trauma has lasting effects on health, neurology, and emotional wellbeing, some of which can make adjustment into a new family situation incredibly challenging.
Sometimes the first adoptive placement simply isn’t prepared to deal with all of this complexity. Sometimes no amount of preparation is enough. Sometimes the child’s needs are better met in a different kind of family – larger or smaller, more or less structured, single parent or two parent, more authoritarian or more laid back, located nearer to medical facilities, and so on. Often the child is far more successful in the next adoptive home than he or she was in the first, though sometimes the child enters or reenters the US foster care system.
While the adoptive parents usually choose for the adoption to end in this type of adoption loss, they still find themselves emotionally reeling. Every prospective adoptive parent expects for their adoption to be forever. Every family plans to be the forever family for the child they adopt. Hearts get just as deeply broken in disruptions and dissolutions as they do in any other kind of adoption loss.
No matter the reason for the adoption loss, the unexpected change in plans results in grief. Please, be sensitive to that. Give families permission to grieve, join them in their brokenness, set aside judgments, encourage them to be real with God, and don’t share their tale as an adoption horror story. Love them well, just as Christ has loved you.
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.