Adoption is intended to create lifelong parent-child relationships, and irrevocable parental obligations, no matter the challenges the newly-formed family might face in integrating an adopted son or daughter. However, in a tragic number of cases, parents decide not to keep the adopted child. Perhaps the highest-profile failed adoption in recent years was that of Artyem Savaliev/Justin Hansen, a seven year old Russian adoptee who in 2010 was put on a flight to Moscow by his Tennessee adoptive mother with a note explaining why she no longer wanted him. The case sparked concern and outrage in both Russia and the US.
Post-adoption family breakdowns are occurring in other less visible ways, including in Wisconsin. Last fall, Reuters published a five-part expose on “private re-homing,” a euphemistic term for advertising one’s unwanted adopted children on the Internet in order to find them a new home. This allows the parents of international and domestic adoptees to effectively, and beyond the supervision of child safety networks, pass off their parental obligations to strangers.
It is unclear how many children have been re-homed using Internet advertising, as the practice is not regulated. The Reuters report analyzed posts on a Yahoo rehoming group (which has since been shut down) and found an average of one re-homing advertisement per week. Older and international adoptees were especially susceptible to re-homing.
It is not my intention to debate the morality of dissolving an adoption, and seeking a new home for a child one feels unable to care for. Failed adoptions can involve a multitude of intersecting contributing factors, including problems with parental screening; incomplete disclosure of the special needs of (especially older) institutionalized children; and inadequate pre-adoption training and post-adoption support for parents in light of those needs. In some cases, termination of parental responsibility may be necessary for the well-being of the child. In Wisconsin, the Children’s Code permits parents to place their children with a nonrelative for (re)adoption by petitioning the juvenile court. Procedures such as criminal background checks and home studies are in place to ensure the proposed placement is in the best interests of the child.
The difficulty is that for a variety of reasons, many parents don’t want to go through a formal dissolution/re-adoption process. The Reuters investigation found that an alarmingly common alternative is to turn to online forums to find someone willing to take over parental obligations, and to execute a simple power of attorney document. This is the same method a parent might use to ask a trusted friend or family member to take care of his/her children in the event of being hospitalized, homeless or called into active duty. A power of attorney gives the stand-in guardian authority to make necessary educational, medical and other day-to-day decisions for the child in question, and can be very useful for parents who need support while temporarily unable to parent. However in the post-adoption “child exchange”, as Reuters terms it, these notarized statements function as a loophole, allowing dissatisfied/desperate adoptive parents to effect permanent changes of custody “illegally outside the purview of child welfare authorities.” The parents execute a simple notarized statement declaring the child in question to be in the care of a stranger found on the internet: “no lawyers or government authorities are involved. The document is filed nowhere; it functions, in essence, as a receipt.”
There are probably many would-be do-gooders among those who take in adopted children through these back channels. It is also not difficult to imagine the nefarious purposes for which certain individuals might seek to obtain a child without approval by child welfare agencies. Many children claim to have been physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused by their new, un-vetted guardians. No doubt the very process of being passed-off to new caregivers from what was supposed to be one’s “forever family” is incredibly traumatic and damaging of itself.
Wisconsin already has a number of measures in place designed to prevent adoption failures. For example, all adoptive parents (whether adopting domestically or internationally) are required to receive pre-adoption preparation training (DCF § 51.10). Wisconsin also prohibits advertising the availability of children for informal adoptions (Wis. Stat. § 48.825).
Last Thursday, the Assembly unanimously passed a bill designed to further protect children from informal re-homing. The bill (2013 Assembly Bill 581) expands the advertising prohibition to include email and the Internet, and limits advertising related to formal adoption to parents seeking placement for a child under the age of one. The bill also specifies that parents wishing to delegate parental powers to someone else for longer than one year need to petition the juvenile court for approval of the delegation; imposes sanctions (fine up to $10,000/imprisonment up to 9 months) for interstate sending/receiving of children for the purpose of permanently transferring physical custody of a child to a non-relative; and requests the Joint Legislative Council to study adoption disruption and dissolution in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s proposed response to the problem of informal adoption is noteworthy, and it is to be hoped that other states will follow suit. Once the measure is passed, enforcement of the advertisement and interstate transfer provisions will be key to preventing the risky practices documented in “The Child Exchange.” Of course, adoptive parents have the same rights and responsibilities as biological parents, including the right to make custodial decisions for their children. It will still be possible for all parents to effect longer-term custody transfers to nonrelatives using a series of rolling 12-month powers of attorney, and that may be a helpful device in a variety of circumstances. What “The Child Exchange” highlights, more than anything, is the need for federal and state legislative and policy initiatives to ensure that families formed by adoption are given as much pre- and post-adoption training and support as possible, so that they feel equipped to work through family issues together, rather than turning to informal dissolution out of desperation.