Demetrius Napolitano stood outside his adoptive mother’s apartment in New York.
Child welfare officials had removed him from her home years before. Years had passed since he had reentered foster care and cycled through 25 placements and five high schools, hurt and angry.
Napolitano, on the other hand, couldn’t let go. She wasn’t perfect, but she was his first impression of family.
As a result, he kept returning to her door.
“I was always going back for that comfort, that validation, that connection,” Napolitano explained.
His experience was far from the happily ever after of adoption, in which yearning parents build a family and a child receives a forever home. That promise, according to Napolitano, was a lie. According to an investigation, while the majority of adoptions in the United States remain intact, tens of thousands of children, including Napolitano, experience the breakdown of not one, but two families: their birth family and their adoptive family. These failures occur throughout the adoption process, affecting children adopted internationally, from foster care, through private agencies, and by relatives.
According to a first-of-its-kind analysis of federal and state data, more than 66,000 adoptees ended up in the foster care system between 2008 and 2020.
Nonetheless, the federal government has done little to address the issue. Despite spending billions of taxpayer dollars each year on adoption assistance for families and incentives for public agencies to increase adoption rates, the government has made little effort to learn why adoptions fail. It neither comprehensively tracks the outcome of adoptions nor requires states to do so, forcing even the most dedicated officials to make educated guesses about how to best protect children and support parents.
More than 100 interviews were conducted with adoptees, birth and adoptive parents, researchers, and advocates, and discovered breakdowns at every stage of the process. Despite warning signs, state and local government officials or private agencies approved parents for adoption in some cases. Some downplayed children’s medical, mental health, and abuse histories, while others pushed hesitant parents to pursue adoption.
According to Catherine LaBrenz, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington, states are avoiding their responsibility to address structural issues in the child welfare system, such as those related to broken adoptions.
After adopting, both parents and children experienced a lack of support. Approximately half of states only offer post-adoption services to families who adopt from foster care, leaving parents who adopted internationally or privately with fewer options if something goes wrong. And, as the demographics of adoption have changed in recent decades, with fewer babies and more foster care adoptions, resources have not kept up with the changing needs of families.
According to USA TODAY, the reported reasons for more than 60% of adoptees entering the child welfare system included the child’s disability or behavioral problem, the parents’ abandonment or relinquishment of the child, or the family’s general inability to cope.
In some cases, adoptive parents placed their children in foster care because it was the only way for them to receive the necessary mental health treatment.
The children paid the price.
According to an informal survey of over 27,000 current and former foster youth conducted by the research and development lab Think of Us, young people from failed adoptions fared worse than others in the foster care system. They were more likely to be couch-surfing, homeless, or hungry. The vast majority of children who entered foster care following adoption never returned to their adoptive family.
When his adoption failed, Napolitano described it as “trauma on top of trauma.” He struggled with grief and anger and didn’t know how to express himself. He slammed his head against the walls and punched holes in the windows.
He sabotaged some relationships because he assumed people would always leave, but he clung to his broken relationship with Johnson. He returned to her house several times, attempting to re-enter her life. He claimed she had turned him down for years. They are currently repairing their relationship, but the scars of the past remain.