I remember pulling into the parking lot. Feelings of abandonment, unworthiness, rejection, and fear surged through my body and mind. Before coming to the residential treatment facility, I was housed in an inpatient hospital. Not because I fit the requirements (because I did not) but because my parents refused to let me back in their home. I never quite fit in the family that was chosen for me on paper. I never quite fell into line the way that I was supposed to or expected to.
My memory is very spotty and unpredictable when it comes to this time in my life. My body does a good job at protecting me from the pain that I endured and at blocking it out. However, the things I do remember are clear.
I remember being escorted to my room. There was no door, no privacy. I remember the sneers of the other girls. I remember the staff members posted at each entrance so no one could ”escape”. I remember the smell of apples and oranges, the afternoon snack we were given everyday. I remember the horror stories that the staff told us about the racist white people who lived all around the residential treatment facility in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. I remember them pointing out houses as we drove on outings to show us just how many of the surrounding families were racist and would shoot us on site without questions if we ever ran away and happened to ”bump” into one of them. The majority of the children in this facility were children of color and I fell into that statistics.
It was abusive, corrupted and full of staff members who were not qualified to work with the population of children it housed. There was rampant physical abuse and sexual abuse. I spent almost an entire year in this residential treatment facility.
Almost immediately I was on the highest level. I did great in school and I had no issues with the staff or my peers. I was quiet and reserved but I was open in the mandatory groups and I engaged in my therapeutic sessions. It mirrored the life I had when I was at home, I didn’t have issues in any other setting but the family setting. The only problems I had were within my family. Yet I still sat in the program for an entire year. I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my 17th birthday behind its walls.
Eventually, my clinician looked me straight in the eyes and apologized. “I am sorry that I can’t send you home. I would if I could. You dont fit the requirements for being here but in order for me to do that, we have to work on the problems that brought you here and that was within your family and at home. You don’t have any behaviors here, you don’t have any presenting problems. However, you parents are hard to get in to contact with and they have refused to come for family sessions. So that means I can’t discharge you”.
That was a blow to my chest. The message I heard was clear; I wasn’t wanted, I was easy to ignore, I wasn’t worth it, life was easier without me, and they treated my forced clinical stay in a residential treatment facility as a vacation. Even when I did everything right, it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.
This should have been a red flag to the professionals around me. My perfectly fine and appropriate behavior for almost a year and the contrasting behavior of complete avoidance by my adoptive parents should have sounded an alarm. Someone at this point should have dug deeper and tried to find out what the disconnect was. I did not meet the requirements for a residential treatment setting, yet I spent almost an entire year locked within its walls. However, no one thought to look further into why that may be, that maybe the issues did not stem from me alone but from the environment I was living in at home and within the family.
Once I obtained my Master’s degree in clinical social work, I reached out and confronted my clinician from that Residential Facility. I asked for an explanation. I asked why no one looked out for my safety, that in reality I was being abused in the home I was in. Some of her response is below:
My response was clear and professional but there was a piece that truly pushes me towards the reform and advocacy work that I do now. A snippet of this response is below.
Prior to this experience at the Residential Treatment Facility, which was eventually shut down after I left due to corruption, ethical issues and abuse I was actually rehomed in another way. I was sent to live with a cousin who lived across the country. I was not close to this cousin, did not have active engagement prior to the move with this cousin and had no choice or say in the matter. A power of attorney was signed and I was sent to live with her. The reasons surrounding this, was to provide my family a break from me and to work on my younger sister.
Rehoming is defined by the Child Welfare Information Gateway as the “unregulated transfer” of children from their adoptive parent to other parties.“Unregulated” transfer refers to moving children outside of the care of their parents without the involvement of child serving systems. For example, private transfer of children between two families is considered “rehoming“ but surrendering a child back into foster care is not.
Some practitioners criticize this definition of rehoming because it focuses on the legitimacy of adoptive parent choices rather than on the perceptions and experiences of the child. A child who is placed outside of the care of their adoptive family because their parents are overwhelmed by parenting duties still experiences rejection and abandonment, whether or not the transfer is considered “regulated.” Trauma does not only occur when an adopted child is placed back into the care of the child welfare or transferred to a new family privately.
“Socially acceptable rehoming” is a term I started to use as a result of my professional experiences. I have had to confront situations in which child serving systems did not question the family’s decision to remove a child from their own care based on the perceived legitimacy of the choice.
I define “socially acceptable rehoming” as a child losing the care of their adoptive family. In addition, the primary reason appears to be that the parents no longer wish to parent and it’s questionable if the child meets the qualifications to actually be in the care of their new setting.
Examples of socially acceptable “regulated” rehoming are sending a child to a residential treatment facility, repeatedly hospitalizing a child in an inpatient setting, and sending a child to live in a group home setting.
Examples of socially acceptable “unregulated” rehoming are sending a child to live with an extended relative or friend or sending a child to reside in a boarding school or other education residential setting (such as Job Corp).
Many adopted children experience multiple forms of this type of rehoming. In my personally experience I experienced four of the above mentioned regulated and unregulated forms of rehoming throughout my childhood. Each time was difficult and each one is something I am still processing as an adult.
In my clinical professional experience I have seen the resistance at thoroughly looking into adoptive parents by the professional mental health community. In many cases there appears to be a sense of benefit of the doubt placed upon the adoptive parents. The idea that adoptive parents have already been “vetted” and approved to adopt, seems to invoke a sense of trust that the perspective of the adoptive parents within these situations are not clouded by their own bias and that they are not apart of the presenting problem.
I have seen adopted and foster children be wholly blamed for a situation that turns out to be a family unit issue and not an individual issue of the Adoptee/Fosterees. In some cases I have even seen both mental health professionals and adoptive parents prematurely blame biology and the genetic history of first families in an effort to explain why the adopted child is struggling and must be removed from the adoptive home and placed somewhere else.
“Clinical program directors from 59 residential treatment facilities responded to an online survey addressing the representation of adopted youth currently being served by their organization…
Results indicated that adopted youth are disproportionately represented in these programs. Although constituting slightly more than 2% of the U.S. child population, 25–30% of youth currently enrolled in these programs were adopted.”Brodzinsky, D., Santa, J., & Smith, S. L. (2016)
Brodzinsky, Santa and Smith (2016) noted that Adoptive Parents are more likely to consider out of home placement fo their child as a solution to problems. This was the case despite the fact that these families demonstrated greater psychosocial resources in comparison to biological families. Research also indicates that adopted children and youth are significantly more likely to be placed in residential treatment centers than their non-adopted peers of the same age. This was found to be true not only in the United States but in other western countries (Brodzinsky, D., Santa, J., & Smith, S. L. (2016)).
Unfortunately, there is no regulated mandated follow up process post adoption to make sure that the adoptive parents and the family as whole remain supported throughout the many complexities that adoption has over the lifespan of each adoption experience. Training is far from adequate to fully prepare adoptive families for what adoption is and how it evolves over the course of an adoptee’s and adoptive family’s lifetime.
When an adopted child is rehomed, especially in the midst of a mental health or family crisis, this can affirm feelings of rejection. An adopted child who is sent away in any form for any reason can internalize and relate their sense of worth to this event.
An adopted child who has been relinquished or removed from their first family may already deal with internal feelings of self worth and struggle with answering internal questions; Why was I not worth it? Why was I not good enough? Is something wrong with me? Is it my fault? Am I broken?
Rehoming a Adopted child can retrigger and validate these feelings. Whether or not the circumstances of rehoming was in their best interest, it will take a lot of processing, healing and work done by all family members individually and collectively to repair the damage that will be done. When a hold is in therapy or doing active work, the entire family should also be doing their own work and especially the adoptive parents themselves. I always advocate for parents to be engaging in their own healing process and therapy individually, as well as their children and the family collectively. The entire family is effected by the shift in family systems, active family crises and the trauma of separation in different ways.
Sometimes there are very real and very necessary circumstances where a child needs to be placed in another setting, whether for their safety or their families. I do not discredit those situations. However, it is also important to note that while removing and placing a child in an institutional or mental health setting may be what is best in that moment, it still adds trauma to an already traumatized adopted child.
It is easy to lose sight of the significance of that trauma when the circumstances around the crisis are prioritized over everything else. That is ok and that is what is needed at that time. However, we can not forget about addressing the trauma of rejection and abandonment after the crisis has stabilized.
It is important to reprioritize that after the child is in a safe place both physically and mentally to do so. In the effort to maintain the child’s mental health it is also imperative to begin working on and processing feelings of rejection, abandonment, grief and loss with the adoptee when it is safe to do so. Adoptees ar very much rooted in adoption and if we forget about that root we are doing a disserservice to the child.
Red Flags for Professionals to Look For
- After a thorough and ongoing assessment, the perspective of the adoptive parent’s view of the situation does not line up with your Clinical assessment of the child.
- The adoptive parents view the child in a very negative light and have problems identifying strengths or positive attributes.
- Once the hold is placed in an alternative setting, the adoptive parents are hard to get a hold of and are limited with their contact.
- The adoptive parents do not want to be an active participant in treatment meetings, team meetings, family therapeutic sessions or the overall treatment of the child.
- The adoptive parent does not want to engage with the child in the forms of communication such as phone calls, letters, virtual or in person visit.
More recently my good friend, colleague and fellow adoptee, Alana Hook, introduced me to a piece of legislation that is in the works around this very topic. I have begun actively following the committee in charge of processing and creating this legislation as an observer and plan to add comments from both my professional and personal experiences as an adoptee. This act is known as the “Unregulated Transfers of Adopted Children Act”. If you click the link it will take you to the Uniform Law Commission website, directly to the Unregulated Transfers of Adopted Children Act Committee and the work they have been and currently are doing to push this Act through. Another great resource to follow in regards to this is Bastard Nation: The Adoptee Rights Organization as they provide a insight, comments and a voice during these committee observations and proceedings.