Rehoming of Adopted Children

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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Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

66 replies on “Rehoming of Adopted Children”

  1. I agree with other commenters that imposing new criminal penalties is unnecessary and I worry about the law of unintended consequences, especially where children may ultimately have to deal with those consequences. If there are already laws protecting children from abandonment, this is unnecessary. If adoption agencies need to provide more education and information to adoptive parents, that’s ok (although the implicit bias here about adoptive parents and adopted children makes me crazy). Where are the exposes about parents giving up their birth children to others, and the requirement for education before birth parents can take their children home? They would not be affected by this law, yet I would guess that the number of “re-homed” children of birth parents is at least equal to that of adopted children – it’s just under the radar.

  2. Hi Will,
    What an incredibly enormous issue!
    As you know, I am an adoptive parent of three siblings and its because of this that I feel especially well suited to add my thoughts for your consideration.

    I think that people who are looking to purchase children through online services are knowingly doing wrong. I think a felon is a good punishment although I never really know whether the threat of punishment deters people from doing what they want to do in the first place.

    Every parent, whether they be birth or adoptive, is faced with challenges. When a birth parent finds themselves no longer able to handle a child’s issues they do not give them up to the world for money. Birth parents work through all of the appropriate channels to find assistance and support and solutions. Why then is it okay to go through these steps when families come together through adoption?

    When we were first entering into the adoption process, we quickly moved away from the thought of engaging with international agencies as they all felt like legal human trafficking entities. Paying a lot of money to people for people is just not within my comfort zone and as we have learned many times over, supports a lot of wrong doing. Good doing, too, but not so good all the same. We decided to work directly with MA agencies and, after following all of their rules and training, became proud parents of three wonderful children.

    And it was hard!! I sometimes say that I suffered through every stage of each child’s developmental stages in those first few years as a family. Did I say it was heard?!! At one point I thought that perhaps it was more than I could take until it was explained to me that I had COMMITTED to being a parent and that lives cannot be traded in just because times get tough.

    There are many resources out there for those who are struggling. I was able to find some but in the end I realized it was all on me. I had to figure it out how to parent my children.

    I firmly believe that there needs to be more training for parents on how to be parents. Many of us have come from dysfunctional families and carry into our own lives lessons we learned from these experiences – you are what you know. It takes a village to raise children. One village participant has to be education on how to be a parent.

    How can we reach those parents before they move to a position of rehoming? How can we reduce these feelings of despair – assuming that is the motivation – and how do we remove the ease with which people and buy and sell people? Felony sounds like a good punishment but what about having it carry hundreds of hours of community service work?

    Thanks for the opportunity to think this through.
    Deb

  3. I agree with other posters that judicial discretion should be a feature of this. Where there are mandatory minimums we see examples of over applied justice.

    That said, and this is purely based on the wording in your question, you say they *might* be criminally liable, and IF they knowingly put their child in the hands of an exploiter, they would *likely*… That seems too vague for the people who would circumvent the process to give up their child. I can see those responding as having some valid claim of ignorance, but there can be little for those who give up a child. I think those actions, when done in this manner, are worthy of concrete penalties.

    -Peter

  4. 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.

    If there are no known examples of this in Massachusetts, then I do not understand why the Legislature feels the need to pass a law about it.

    Is it an epidemic elsewhere in the country, such that it is reasonable to believe that it is only a matter of time before it becomes an epidemic here as well? Or is it so rare even nationwide that legislative action is merely a symbolic action to make it appear that the Legislature is “doing something about a problem”?

    Government intervention in anything should require, at a bare minimum, objectively demonstrated need, and an objective reason to believe that the intervention will have a positive ROI. I don’t see that here.

      1. Because the only thing that is going to prevent parents from “rehoming” children is to make it a felony to do it more than once?

        I don’t think so.

        Sorry for the snark, but this is truly nanny-state legislating. I heartily disapprove.

          1. Truer words were never spoken. DCF cannot monitor everyone and realistically can intervene effectively only in a fraction of known cases of deprivation and abuse. We cannot expect that outside resources will address child-rearing burdens of family dysregulation and financial instability. We must remember that the decision to conceive or adopt is the choice and responsibility of the parents. The costs are emotionally and monetarily enormous. That should be the point of focus rather than pretending that government oversight can ever regulate and guarantee nurturing.

  5. Greetings:
    As an adopted child who now speak as an adult, I say Thank you Senator Brownsberger for this conversation at this time.

    Sincerely,
    Suffolk County Resident

  6. I find it difficult to believe that someone would respond to an advertisement from a private party and have no idea that this might not be legal. One such offense could be treated as a misdemeanor,but repetitive acts/violations should be treated as felonious. I don’t believe children should be traded in like a used car if they do not work out well for the adoptive parents.

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