Adoption-Related Complex Trauma

Also called Cumulative Trauma – The research is definitive. Adopted kids are not only traumatized by the original separation from their parents, they may also have been traumatized by the events that led to them being put up for adoption. In addition to that, foster care itself is considered an adverse childhood experience.

I recently wrote a blog titled “It’s Simply NOT the Same.” Though the traumas may originate similarly, the outcomes are not the same because just like any other person, no two adoptees are exactly alike. That should not prevent any of us from trying to understand that adoptees carry wounds, even if the adoptee is unaware that the wounds are deep within them.

It is not uncommon for an adopted person and/or the adoptive family to seek mental health services due to the effect of the adoptee experiencing traumatic events. Unfortunately, for psychology and psychiatry clinicians, adoption related training is rare. In my all things adoption group, the advice is often to seek out an adoption competent therapist for good reason.

“What does an adopted baby know ? She knows her mother, she knows her loss, sadness and hurt, she knows that those who hold her today may be gone tomorrow and that she will be the only one left to pick up the pieces that no one seems to think are broken.”
~ Karl Stenske, 2012

The reasons a child is put up for adoption or relinquished are many – an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, often compounded or driven by a lack of financial resources (poverty) or no familial support to care for a child. Becoming a single parent may simply seem too daunting to an unwed expectant mother. Sadly, for some, a chronic/terminal illness or certain diseases may lead the mother to believe she cannot provide proper care for her baby. Certainly, prolonged substance addiction and/or severe mental health issues (which may be related to addiction) can cause parental rights to be forcefully terminated by child welfare authorities. Adoptees who come out of the child welfare system (legal termination of parental rights by a court of law) cannot legally be returned to their birth families due to safety or other reasons that are considered serious.

Adoption is not always a success. Disruptions and dissolutions do sometimes occur.

Disruptions can happen after the adoption has been finalized when the adoptive parents then experience difficulties with their adopted child. The adoptive parents may have difficulty finding support and the resources they require to deal with the issues that come up.

Risk factors leading to a higher rate of disruptions are: older age when adopted, existing emotional and behavioral issues, having a strong attachment to their birth mother, having been a victim of pre-adoption sexual abuse, suffering from a lack of social support from relatives causing the adoption to occur, unrealistic expectations surrounding the adoption and the child on the part of hopeful adoptive parents, and a lack of adequate preparation and ongoing support for the adoptive family prior to and after the placement.

A devastating occurrence is a dissolution or breakdown. This applies to an adoption in which the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and the adoptive child is severed, either voluntary or involuntarily. Usually this will result in the entry or re-entry of the child into the foster care system, or less commonly a second chance adoption, or even the private transfer of the child from the adoptive parents to a non-vetted receiving parent.

Adoption has been subject to both positive and negative assumptions related to the practice and this is of no surprise to anyone who has studied the practice of adoption for a period of time.

There are 6 main assumptions about the practice of adoption –

[1] Adoption is a joyous event for all involved – known as the Unicorns and Rainbows Fantasy in adoption centric communities; [2] adoption parallels genetic birth experience and a biological family life – which close observation and mixed families (who have both biological and adopted children often belie); [3] once adopted, all of the child’s problems disappear and there will be no additional challenges – rarely true – and often attachment or bonding fail to occur; [4] creating a family through adoption is “false,” only biological families are “real” – this goes too far in making a case because many adults create chosen families – the truth is as regards children, family is those persons we grow up with – believing we are related to them – in my case, both of my parents were adopted and all of my “relations” growing up were non-genetic and non-biological but I have a life history with them and continue to have contact with aunts, an uncle and cousins I obtained through my parents’ adoptions; [5] the adoptive life is better than the biological life the child had or would have had – never a known assumption – more accurately, the adoptee’s life is different than that child would have had, if they had not been adopted; and, [6] closed adoptions are in the best interest of the child – this one was promoted with the intention of shielding adoptive parents from original parents who regretted the surrender, from the child who might yearn for their original family and often in some cases to shield a person operating unscrupulously, such as the baby thief Georgia Tann who sold ill-gotten children. Popular media has reinforced both the positive and the negative messages about adoption and many myths and stereotypes regarding adoptive families and birth parents are believed in society as a whole.

The term “adoption-related complex trauma” is rarely used in discussing symptoms and behaviors. It is more common to see terms such as “developmental trauma” or “complex trauma” to describe the psychological effects found within the adopted population.

The terms complex trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder have been used to describe the experience of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an personal nature such as sexual, physical, verbal abuse or of a societal nature such as war or community violence. These exposures often have occurred within the child’s caregiving environment and may include physical, emotional and/or other forms of neglect and maltreatment that begin early in childhood. In the case of infant adoptions, the trauma is non-verbal but stored in the body of that baby – not conscious but recorded.

Some of this content has been sourced from a long dissertation titled Treatment Considerations For Adoption-related Complex Trauma. Anyone interested is encouraged to read more at the link.

The Forgotten Children

One of the better known adoption failure stories is that of the Harts.  Since I grew up with the surname Hart, I suppose this really caught my attention.  One may remember that a same sex couple drove their SUV off a cliff with the children inside.

Less known is the sadly typical story of their older brother.  The biological older sibling spent eight years in the Texas foster care system.  He had acted out violently when the state removed him and his siblings from their home in 2005.  He became a victim of the foster care-to-prison pipeline: separated from his brothers and sister, heavily medicated, shuffled between foster homes and shelters, institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and placed for years in a restrictive treatment center. By age 19, he was in a Texas prison serving three years for robbery.

Sadly, “Once they get diagnosed with something like this, it’ll stay on their record and show up on their permanency reports, and it’s assumed to be true.”

He never gave up on reuniting with his siblings.  He didn’t learn of his siblings deaths until he was released from prison in October 2018, more than six months after their fate had been widely reported in the news.

“That was the last little hope I had in my life, you know? I had that hope that I was gonna see my little brothers again; one day we gonna kick it,” he said. “I used to cry sometimes thinking what we could be doing, growing up.”

Days after he was separated from his siblings for the last time, the 10-year-old tried to commit suicide by strangling himself with a belt at a therapeutic foster home.

Siblings placed together have fewer “non-progress” placement disruptions for reasons such as incompatibility with the caregiver.  Research has linked changes in caregivers to child delinquency, even for children not in foster care.  Those who experience two or more changes in their primary caregiver before age 10 are significantly more likely to engage in serious violence during adolescence — including homicide, robbery and aggravated assault — than those who do not experience multiple caregiver changes.

There’s no real sustained public awareness about these child welfare systems — how broken they are, and what they do to kids.  Sharing this story is my attempt to raise awareness a little more.