Theravive Home

The Latest in Therapy News

March 20, 2015
by Trey and Rebecca Harrison, MA, LPC

Adoptions in Crisis: Complicated Mental Health Issues Lead to Disruptions and Dissolutions

March 20, 2015 05:55 by Trey and Rebecca Harrison, MA, LPC

Rehoming.  Disruption.  Dissolution.  These terms have been tossed around flippantly, often used interchangeably, in the news lately.  However, they each encompass very different meanings and have different implications in the world of adoption. This month, Arkansas State Representative Justin Harris and his wife Marsha continually made headlines for rehoming their two adopted daughters to a friend they knew for years.  This ‘friend’ eventually raped one of the girls (Arkansas State Representative, 2015).  


So, what are the differences in rehoming, disruption, and dissolution?  What are the ethical and legal issues with these topics, and what would cause adoptive parents to look into these options?  This article will explain these differences in terms and why they are important to understand, explore some of the common reasons for disruptions and dissolutions in adoptions, examine the lack of post-adoptive services for families, and finally, discuss what communities can do to assist adoptive families who are struggling to help their children who are facing mental health issues.

First, many often confuse the term rehoming with disruption and dissolution.  Rehoming is the process of “illegally exchanging and relinquishing [adopted children] to new parents, with no help from attorneys, social workers, or anyone else watching out for the safety and well-being of the child” (Ballback, 2013).  Reuters did a largely referenced investigative study on this alarming practice that many equate to child trafficking.  It raises many red flags that most states do not yet have laws against this practice, but high profile cases such as those of Representative Harris and his wife seem to be leading the way towards reform in that area.  

The remainder and focus of this article will focus on the more common forms of ending adoptive relationships; that of disruption and dissolution.  It is important to first understand that both of these severances of relationships are not rehoming.

Disruption occurs when a matched adoptive family ends the adoptive process with the child before the adoption is finalized, and dissolution ends the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and the child after the adoption is finalized (“Adoption Disruption”, 2012).  This would look differently for each family depending on the type of adoption the family was entering into (whether it be independent/private, international, domestic, or foster care).  However, the main point to take from this is the timeline.  Legally, it is much easier for disruption to occur than for dissolution to occur, because of the finality and weight of the actual adoptive relationship that occurs at finalization.  Feelings of grief and loss, however, could occur for both child and parent at both a disruption or a dissolution.

Adoptive parents, and those who have witnessed parents on the journey to become adoptive parents, know that it is no easy task to adopt a child.  Potential adoptive parents must take trainings, prepare their home, do a home study, invest emotionally, prepare for educational, health, emotional and mental health needs, prepare their friends and families, change work schedules, among other changes that accompany bringing a child into the home (“Being An Adoptive Parent”, 2015).  Potential adoptive parents go into parenting willingly and specifically, often putting years of thought into their decision to become a parent.  They often know that the children entering the home may have emotional or medical needs.  So, the question is raised, how common are disruptions and dissolutions, and why would they happen to intentional adoptive parents?


Depending on the age range, geographic factors, and duration of study, the United States consistently reports that between 10 and 25 percent of adoptions disrupt, with the higher percentages increasing with the age of the child (“Adoption Disruption and Dissolution”, 2012).  Reasons for disruption can vary, but include factors pertaining to the child, the potential parents, the biological family, and the agency.  Some significant reasons can include the child’s age, previous sexual abuse the child may have endured, child’s mental health issues, being a newly matched family, lack of social support, adoptive mother’s high level of education, adoptive family’s unrealistic expectations, agency given inadequate information on child’s background, agency failed to adequately train adoptive family, and discontinuities in caseworkers.  Other factors that increased rates of disruption included placing sibling sets rather than individual children, children with history of sexual abuse, children with combination of physical disability and behavioral problems, children who entered [foster] system due to lack of supervision and environmental neglect, etc.  (“Adoption Disruption and Dissolution”, 2012).

Reasons for disruption and dissolution vary among families, but some commonly listed reasons include serious mental health conditions such as Reactive Attachment Disorder, violent and sexual acting out towards others, false allegations against adoptive parents, and harming siblings in the family unit.  In short, whatever the specific reason may manifest itself as, the ultimate reason usually comes down to some sort of trauma.  The child experienced trauma before entering the adoptive family, and now the adoptive family is living through the difficult reality of the trauma within the new family unit (Mapes, 2012).  

Today Parent’s interviewed an adoptive mother who experienced dissolution.  The mother, who identified herself as ‘Sage,’ discussed her family’s desire to adopt a special needs child who was HIV positive.  Sage and her husband are experienced parents who have four biological children, multiple years experience as foster parents, and one adopted African American daughter.  When they brought home their Ethiopian newly adopted daughter, they were shocked at her behaviors, and the 4 year old was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder.  The child exhibited behaviors including manipulation, defiance, intense aggression towards others, attention-seeking behaviors, all characterized by an inability to attach to her primary caregivers (new adoptive parents).  Also, children who display characteristics of RAD often show a distinct lack of empathy for others and seem to lack a conscience, which contributes to the harm of self or others. Sage reported that the decision to dissolve the adoption only occurred once the child began harming members of the family, including sexually abusing their 18 month old child in the home (Maples, 2012).

Carol (name changed for privacy), an adoptive parent of three children internationally and one biological child, spoke to Brain, Child Magazine about her experience with a failed adoption of one of the children.  Though all three of the adoptive children had an extensive background of abuse, only one of the children began perpetrating that abuse on others.  Carol learned that the 6 year old boy had been molesting the other three siblings for the past year.  Carol called Child Protective Services, but reported that she was told that it was not considered abuse because of the children’s age.  The final recommendation from a treatment team of mental health professionals was for the child not to return home, but rather to be adopted into a new family for the safety of the other siblings in the home (Friedman, 2013).  

It is important to note that these examples are utilized as case studies in this article, but they are not isolated incidents as sexual acting out is a common reason for disruption/dissolution.

What Can Be Done?

So, what can be done regarding such complicated issues?  Is there any room for reform?  

First, education is key.  It is important to understand what factors lead to adoptions in crisis, and to have as non-judgmental an attitude as possible when interacting with adoptive parents.  Adoptive parents who have been through disruption or dissolution have often heard the phrase, “You would not give up a biological child for mental health reasons.”  However, the investigative arm of Congress (U.S. General Accounting Office) reported that in 2001, more than 12,700 children were deliberately placed in the foster care and juvenile justice systems by biological parents (Friedman, 2013).  This could be due to mental health or severe behavioral or emotional issues, but the bottom line is that regardless of if a biological or adoptive child displays such severe behaviors, it may be necessary at times to seek placement outside the home for the safety of all involved.  Further, this may happen at the recommendation of a team of mental health professionals, whether or not the child is biologically related to the parent or legally a child by means of adoption.

Second, reform can occur through an increase in post-adoptive services.  Each individual adoption agency can implement these services, insurance companies can authorize treatment services for adoptive children struggling with mental health issues, states can provide appropriate funding for post-adoptive services, non-profit community agencies and churches can provide support to adoptive families, and the general community can reach out to families who have adopted.  These are just a few examples and ideas of practical ways to increase post-adoptive services; truly, there are many ways the services could be implemented and it is extremely needed.  Post-adoptive services should increase in each state and improve in both quality and quantity available.

Finally, families should be able to seek help without fear of judgment towards their children/families due to mental health issues, as well as fear of retaliation from the state for bringing the mental health issues to light.  Many parents of children with Reactive Attachment Disorder deal constantly with false allegations from the adoptive children, so much so that many agencies offer trainings on how to prepare and appropriately deal with false allegations.  There must be a sort of balance between the state child welfare system and parents who are raising traumatized children so that there is a partnership rather than an authoritative, fearful relationship between the two.

These stories are heavy, difficult, and filled with trauma.  Trauma for the adopted child, who must move homes again.  Trauma for the adoptive family, who is facing the intense grief associated with losing a child they fully expected to be part of their family forever.  Trauma for the extended family, friends and community who were involved in the child’s life.  The topic of failed adoption invokes very strong feelings because it deals with people’s values, hearts, and sense of right and wrong.  It also deals with complicated trauma and mental health concerns that sometimes render families debilitated from being able to care for a child they love due to safety reasons or lack of resources, despite a sincere desire for the adopted child to be an intricate part of their family forever.  So the next time you read one of these stories online, or you meet a family who has gone through a disruption or dissolution, take a moment to consider the trauma and heartache behind the situation.  Let’s reach out to all those in the community who have been affected by trauma, support adoptive families in any tangible way possible, and if the worst case scenario occurs within the adoption, rally behind both the family and the child to promote healing and hope for all involved.



Arkansas State Representative 'abandoned' his adoptive daughter, 6, giving her away to a 'trusted friend,' who raped the young girl. (2015, March 6). Retrieved March 7, 2015.

Adoption Disruption and Dissolution. (2012). Child Welfare Information Gateway, 1-11. Retrieved March 10, 2015, from

Ballback, J. (2013, September 16). Adoption Horror Story: Rehoming Adopted Children.Adoption Voices Magazine.

Being An Adoptive Parent. (2015, January 1). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from

Friedman, D. (2013, November 3). The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart. Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

Mapes, D. (2012, August 1). It Takes More Than Love: What Happens When Adoption Fails. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from

About the Author

Trey and Rebecca Harrison Trey and Rebecca Harrison, LPC, CT

Trey and Rebecca Harrison are professional counselors who are committed to providing a safe place to process your path to healing, change, and revolution in your life and relationships.

blog comments powered by Disqus