Rehoming of Adopted Children (66 Responses)

Update on November 8, 2015 – Takeaways and Legislative Outcome

Thanks to all who have weighed on this issue. I especially appreciate the comments from adopting parents and adopted children.

A first takeaway from these comments should be: We should treat adopting parents in the same way we treat birth parents – they should not be trusted less or exposed to different punishments. We have no reason to believe that adopting parents are more likely to abuse, neglect or abandon their children than birth parents. Certainly, most abuse of children occurs at the hands of birth parents and the friends and relatives of birth parents.

I’m struck by the very divergent reactions that people have on this issue. I don’t think people have such different feelings about right and wrong – rather, they are visualizing the crime differently. How one feels about the issue of extra-judicial transfer of custody (“rehoming” is just too ugly a word to continue repeating) depends on the narrative one is inclined to tell oneself about what is actually happening. There are no known examples of this in Massachusetts, so we are free to make up stories in our own minds. This is typical in the legislative context – we write laws based on guesses about how they will apply.

For example, an extra-judicial transfer of custody could be from one serial child abuser to another. If one thinks of that as what the law is about, then the penalties should be crushing – turning children into objects to be traded on the internet is obscene and unforgivable.

On the other hand, one can imagine a very different story – one overburdened parent cries out for help on a church Facebook page and a virtuous couple with grown children answers the call to take over the raising of a troubled child. This is also an extra-judicial transfer of custody over the internet and both the receiver and the giver are guilty of a crime. It isn’t OK – we do want to people to work through the authorized channels – but it isn’t a crime we want to crush people for.

Under existing law, permanent placement of children outside proper channels is a crime, but it is a misdemeanor — it is punishable by a imprisonment in a county house of corrections for up to 2.5 years, but not in a state prison. People convicted of the crime will not have a felony on their record with all the consequences that flow from that.

During our debate on the issue last week, we came to the conclusion that it should remain a misdemeanor as a first offense provided the child is not abused or neglected. But if an offender repeats the conduct, or a child is abused or neglected as a result of the placement, then the penalties should escalate stiffly. The bill now goes to the House. It is still a work in progress – the compromise language we used needs additional work: It states a reasonable approach, but probably is not sufficiently clear.

While we tend to focus on punishment, the bill does include provisions for additional support and education of adopting parents and that is most important to assure the success of adoptions.

I’m seeking input on legislation pending before the Senate. What should the penalties be for people who bypass the legal adoption process and permanently place or receive children through online forums?

The question comes up in the context of legislation to address the phenomenon of “rehoming” of adopted children. In 2013, Reuters did an exposé of online forums where adoptive parents wanting to move a child out of their home connect with people wanting to parent a child.  After adoptive parents bring a child home, they may learn that, perhaps as a result of abuse or trauma, the child has behavior issues that they are unable to manage.

In at least a few instances, adoptive parents have turned to online forums to “rehome” the children that they have adopted. The Reuters exposé focused on one particular receiver of rehomed children who had a long history of involvement with social service agencies and affiliation with child sexual abusers. It is possible that most of the people seeking children on these online forums are fit parents, but the exposé certainly established that absent the involvement of social agencies in the adoption process, children are at risk of being placed in unsafe homes.

The informal rehoming of children with strangers may be a rare phenomenon. According to one estimate, there have recently been 125 thousand adoptions per year in the United States. Yet a recent report from the General Accounting Office observed eight forums on two websites for 15 months and only identified 23 posts by people offering to give up children. Reuters estimated that one child per week was advertised on one Yahoo group. Yet, even at a relatively low volume, it is clear that children are at risk.

The legislation before us would strengthen the education and support of adoptive parents and strengthen the response in cases where adoptions appear to breaking down. I certainly support the goals and most of the details of the legislation.

The part of the legislation that I am struggling with is the criminal penalties. The act strengthens existing penalties for unlicensed people who advertise children. I have little difficulty with that language, but the proposed bill goes on to impose felony liability on people who give up or receive a child in response to an advertisement. A person with the best of intentions, but with limited knowledge of our legal system, could commit the crime of receiving a child in need and find themselves being punished for attempting to do good. The person who gives away a child in response to an advertisement seems more likely to deserve condemnation, but we do already have penalties on the books that apply to them. Unless they go through the court adoption process, they legally remain the parents of their natural or adopted children and might be criminally liable for abandonment if they put their child in harm’s way. If they knowingly place their child with a child exploiter, they likely would be guilty of human trafficking.

So, here is the question that I’m looking for public reactions to. Is anyone acting on an ad about offering or placing kids doing something so obviously wrong that it is fair to make them liable as felons? Or should we reserve the felony liability for people who actually abuse children or negligently put children at the mercy of abusers? I’d really appreciate hearing reactions to this.

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    Will Brownsberger
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