Twenty-one years ago, my family, like thousands of families in the United States do each year, adopted a newborn boy. I was seven at the time and had no sense of what adoption was other than it is why we walked into a lawyer's office and found a newborn under a Christmas tree in the middle of August. I knew that I was adopted, too, but I didn't meet my family for the first time in a lawyer's office. Under a Christmas tree that hot summer day was the person I would spend endless hours playing catch with, the kid who would torment me to no end when I was entering my teen years, the subject of my worry on many occasions, my co-pilot, my brother and my best friend.
As this day has approached, I have found myself thinking about that August day in a lawyer's office in a small Idaho town. Adoption has been on my mind frequently of late. I have wondered about other adoptees and how their story unfolded. Were they placed under a Christmas tree like my brother? Did it happen two days after birth, like my brother? Or were they welcomed into their family in a hospital room weeks afterward like I was? Of course, in the United States, children are adopted at all ages. I experienced this six years after that day in the lawyer's office with the Christmas tree, my brother and I stood in a courtroom together, side-by-side, as the judge asked us questions and we were adopted once more.
The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that approximately 135,800 children are adopted in a single year. In the state of Idaho, approximately 900 children are adopted annually. This includes children of any age, from newborn until their eighteenth birthday, and it includes a variety of types of adoption such as intercountry adoption, public agency adoption, private agency adoption, Tribal adoption, independent adoption and step-parent adoption. The rate of adoption in this country has dropped since 2005, though the number of intercountry adoptions (foreign adoptions) has risen.
My experience with the adoption system is fairly average, minus the fact that I personally have been through the process twice. Neither my brother or I were adopted through a private adoption agency, though we have friends who were adopted through LDS Family Services. At birth and when we were older, our adoptions were handled by attorneys hired by our family. The attorneys hired to help with our initial adoptions were two men known for their work in family law, particularly adoption. Both men received numerous awards for their work with adoptive families. One of the men has several adopted children of his own. I imagine that other adoptive families encounter the same things we did.
In this country, we talk about the adoption system in positive terms that rarely reflect on the failures of the system. In fact, you rarely hear about the failures of the system unless there is a high profile case of a family returning a child or having a biological parent challenge the legitimacy of the adoption itself. What we don't talk about nearly enough in this country is the cost of adoption and the rate of failure within the system. Not just the financial cost, though that can be very high for families who have often spent a great deal of their hard-earned money already on fertility treatments, but the psychological cost. It is common for adoptees to face self-esteem and identity questions in their lives. Some adoptees deal with these things throughout their lives, some deal with them only at the point in which they search for their biological parents. Biological parents deal with these struggles, too. Guilt, shame and grief may follow them, too. And adoptive parents are faced with the endless questions of their adopted children as well as the battles their children face as they come to terms with what it means to be adopted.
Beyond the financial and psychological costs of adoption, there is the matter of medical histories. As any adopted person knows, they are faced each time they enter a doctor's office with the reality that they are different and don't have information about their genetics. They simply can't fill out a medical history. This can be problematic for people with health issues who are forging ahead without any knowledge of whether their battle is a genetic one or simply the luck of the draw. It is an uncomfortable moment when an adopted person is asked about their family medical history. The family I was raised in has a history of cancer, heart disease, alcoholism and mental illness. Fortunately or unfortunately, none of those things apply to me. My own family medical history could be better or worse. I may never know.
When the failure of the adoption system is mentioned, it isn't only attached to the children who live in adoptive families and deal with self-confidence, identity and medical issues. The failure of the adoption system is much larger and much more unfortunate. Families, adoptive families, fail. They break. Divorce happens. Death happens. And yes, further adoptions are required. Five percent of all planned adoptions fail. That means from the time of birth to the time of an adoptive family actually signing papers and taking the baby home, they might fail. It can also mean a child in foster care who has begun the adoption process with a prospective family suffers the disappointment of a failed adoption. Older children, children that weren't adopted as infants, encounter failed adoptions at a rate of fifteen percent. Take the most recent statistic for Idaho, apply it as if it were 900 infants (it's not, there are older children included in that number), and that is 45 failed adoptions in a single year. The court costs, the family's personal financial/legal cost and the immense psychological loss for the child is enormous. Applying the five percent to the adopted children nationwide and you end up with the potential for 6,790 failed adoptions. Again, this is assuming all of the adoptees were infants, which they were not. The numbers only balloon with the age of the child.
Why failures happen in the adoption system is a complicated question. It's easy to show divorce, death and even incarceration as reasons for an adoption's failure, but there are many complex situations that cause a child to return to the system. It's regrettable and a mark against the greatest nation in the world. Until the country and, on a smaller scale, the states address the problems that exist within the system, there will always be the five and fifteen percent failure rate hanging over the head of every adopted child.
I won't go into the reasons for the failure of my first adoption, but I will say this: There were signs and these signs could have easily been seen had the pre-adoption process, a critical review of the family, their friends and their finances, been more thorough. There are surely adoptees out there, one of the statistics representing failed adoptions, who are bitter about how the system failed them. I am not one of them. And my reason for that? He happens to be twenty-one years old today.
For more information on adoption in the United States:
- Adopt US Kids
- Intercountry Adoption (U.S. State Dept.)
- Child Welfare Information Gateway (U.S. Dept. of HHS)