Failed or Disrupted Adoptions

The vast majority of adoptions are successful as permanent placements of a child into a new family. However, there are circumstances in which a happy ending is not possible. Failed adoptions are the most tragic of events — worse for the child, in many psychologists' opinions than death of a parent or divorce. Unfortunately, this tragedy is sometimes unavoidable for many complicated reasons.

Because of the protective mechanisms that children develop in response to neglect and abuse, their behavior can be very difficult to deal with. The older a child is and the greater the number of caregivers he's had, the more it affects the bonding and attachment process when he is adopted. Many parents are stunned by the violent reactions of children they thought would fit into their families.

Children who have missed out on nurturing may fail to attach and get caught in what therapist Deborah Gray calls The Needing to Win/No Win Spiral. These children use anger and manipulation to try to control parents, behavior that can cause parents to be outraged and make them question whether the effort is worth the pain. The chaos and high level of stimulation can actually be addictive to an abused child. As things calm down, your child may intentionally goad you into angry outbursts so that things can seem familiar.

Prevent Failure

Before you move too far into the adoption process, particularly when adopting an older child, be certain that you know what you're getting into. You should receive information about the physical and emotional challenges your child has or will face. It's tempting to see a picture of a child and read a brief description and think, “This kid's for me!” but don't make up your mind before you know all the facts. Do your homework and meet the child in a neutral setting. Then gradually progress to private visits where you can engage the child in play and note his personality and willingness to be open to connection. Even in international adoption, it is usually possible (and often required) that you meet the child first. However, your few brief visits may not be enough to really be able to get to know the child. Get a professional opinion when possible, about the child's behavior and condition. Even with a thorough examination of your prospective child by a number of interested people and professionals, there are psychological difficulties in some children that will not be evident in an evaluative setting or during initial contacts.

Remember that an older child knows what adoption means, although he may have an idealized perception. He could “court” you and be on his best behavior. Listen to your emotional responses as you watch him with your spouse or other children. Try to visit in several different locations, and don't rush into anything. On the other hand, it's not fair to the child for you to take too long to make up your mind. So, if you can't commit for the long term, be honest.


Disruption is the term used when a planned adoption does not take place. If you find that the child you were planning to adopt has disabilities or conditions you were unaware of or exhibits behavior you are unable to cope with, disruption is an option. It is better to disrupt an adoption, than to go through with it and then have it fail. Once a child is placed in a permanent home, that home really should be permanent whenever possible. Disruption is painful for everyone involved, but it is a better option than failure.


If you decide after a while that you cannot continue to parent because of danger to yourself or your other children, there are options other than adoption failure. Your adopted child may be too mentally or emotionally ill to live in a normal family. He may need to be hospitalized, then placed in a therapeutic home.

If you didn't find out the depth of the problems your child had until after finalization, you may not have to terminate the adoption after all. You can continue as if the child were your biological child, born to you with a serious mental illness. Your child may not be able to live in your home, but you can still take responsibility for him and be the one who interfaces with doctors, therapists, and others. State laws vary, but you can usually be the parent without assuming the financial responsibility if your circumstances preclude funding his care.

Previous Failures or Disruptions

If your child has suffered a failed adoption or multiple placements before coming to you, he may be convinced that he's worthless. In his mind, if he were worth something, he would not have been rejected.


According to Adoption and Disruptions by Richard Barth, less than 1 percent of infant adoptions disrupt; 9.7 percent of adoptions of children ages six to twelve disrupt; 13.5 percent of adoptions of children ages twelve to eighteen disrupt; and 14.3percent of special needs adoptions disrupt.

The emotional problems your child develops from previous rejection, disruption, abuse, and other situations beyond his control are so damaging that they may cause him to fail in his adult relationships without significant effort on your part. You will have to, in the words of Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, “Fill the trust bank.” You must repeatedly, over time (which can often seem endless) use gentle touch and loving words such as, “You are my precious son” or “I enjoy just being with you.”

Demonstrate your commitment to your child and your belief in his worthiness in everything you do: during dinner when you dish his carrots and cut up his meat, at night as you tuck him into bed with a kiss and a smile, and when he wakes up in the morning to your welcoming hug. All of your actions should reinforce connection to you and the rest of the family.

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