What causes adoption disruptions?

A number of years ago every parent’s nightmare played out on a soccer field outside of Dallas, not far from where I lived. An eight year old girl playing at an adjacent playground, with her parents sitting nearby watching her brother’s soccer game, simply disappeared. Of course, there was nothing simple about it, and she didn’t disappear.  She was kidnapped, raped, and killed by a pedophile. It was beyond awful for the child’s family, and all of us who had young children in the area were shaken deeply. Our children played soccer on that field.  Our children had slid down that very same slide.

We talked about it endlessly—how could it have happened–or more to the point, how could we prevent it from happening. These conversations most often left me extremely uncomfortable. In order to make sense of the unthinkable, many people needed someone to blame. They needed to somehow find a way in their minds that this horror couldn’t and wouldn’t happen to them. Their logic went something like this:

  1. Something awful happened.
  2. Someone must have done something wrong.
  3. I won’t make that same mistake.
  4. Ergo, my children will be safe.

Them: I can’t believe her parents weren’t watching her more closely. I mean they weren’t even at the playground.

Me: The playground was a stone’s throw away from here they were sitting. They could see it easily and hear any scream. 

Them: They were sitting with their backs to the playground, watching their son’s game, not watching her.

Me:  We all take our eyes off our children sometimes.

Them: Not me, I always have mine within an arm’s reach, and I always watch them–always!. This is what happens if you don’t.

Me {thought, but not said}: You better start saving now for their future therapy bills if you think it’s healthy to never let your 8 to 12 years olds out of your reach or sight. That can NOT be healthy.

I too am guilty of blaming the victim. How many times have I asked when I hear of someone being killed in a car accident if they were wearing their seat belt?  The answer is almost every single time.  Apparently, I must believe that if they weren’t wearing their seat belt, I am safe because I always wear my seat belt and make others do the same.?!?

The parents of this child were not blame for the actions of a deranged evil man. When something awful happens, it is human nature, it seems, to look for ways that it can’t happen to us. If we can pin the blame on something the victim did that we don’t do, then it means the unspeakable won’t happen to us.

Except that bad things can and do happen to even the best of us, and no amount of blaming the victim will change that.

One Family’s Adoption Disruption Story

I was reminded of that recently when reading the story of the Gertz family.  In 2003, Lori and Craig were matched with a 34 year old pregnant woman who was due in 8 weeks and was looking for a family to adopt her baby.  Her medical records “were pristine”.  They were present in the delivery room when 8 pound E was born.  No one was happier than they were at that moment.

Even in infancy, E was hard to handle.  She cried nonstop at times, and all attempts to sooth were ineffective. Thus began the rounds of medical specialists, starting with a “fussy baby” clinic and working its way through 39 specialist, including neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, occupational therapists, and allergists.  When E was three she was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).  Along the way, she also picked up the diagnosis of attachment disorder and bi-polar. Although the birthmother later committed suicide, the Gertzes learned that she was likely an addict who drank and took drugs during the first 3 months of her pregnancy. She was jailed for the majority of the remaining pregnancy.

E’s behavior became harder to handle as she grew, and her rages were often aimed at her younger sister. By age seven, E had been hospitalized four times for psychiatric reasons (for a total of 11 weeks), and threatened to run into traffic more than once. Her neuropsychologist warned that “she is at great risk of causing a tragic, irrevocable event (such as harming someone else or killing herself).”

By now, the Gertz family was cracking under the strain.  Reading Lori’s blog from around that time is painful. Also, they were spending about $40,000 a year for her care, and looking at $100,000 annually for a residential treatment facility, if they could find one that would admit a 7 year old. Ultimately, they dissolved their adoption and I believe E has been adopted by another family.

In an attempt to educate the public of the paucity of services available for young emotionally disturbed children and their families and about FASD, the Gertzes went public with an article in the Chicago Tribune and this interview on Good Morning America. Lori has subsequently written a book When Mama Can’t Kiss it Better.

All heck broke loose with over 300 people leaving comments —many of them vilifying the parents. Here’s an example:

Dude, get real, when you become a parent you dont throw away your kid – NO MATTER WHAT! Thats what savages do. I cant even classify them as animals, animals take care of their young! You’d think they would trying to still get her help if they loved her so much, all they’ve done is throw her away and tell their story looking for sympathy to rid their guilt, not try to ensure THEIR DAUGHTER GOT THE HELP SHE NEEDS WITH THE NEW FAMILY! They just threw away their problem and let it become someone elses problem, which tells me that they really dont care and are self absorbed. How many times have they called her, asked to visit, if they truly loved her and cared about her wouldnt they make trips to see her, talk to her – no they just dissappeared out of her life as if good riddance we got rid of that major inconvienence! Kids are not dispossable!

What Worries Me About This Story

There are a number of things that disturb me about the original story.  Sending a seven year old that you’ve raised from birth to permanently live with another family 1,700 miles away flies in the face of all I hold dear. It fills me with questions.  How much did the family try to change to accommodate E, rather than seeking help to change her? Who guided this family through the initial adoption and how much preparation and education did they receive?  (As the Exec. Director of an education based nonprofit, I continually sing the praises of advanced preparation and education, but according to the articles, this family had no reason to suspect FASD or mental illness, so realistically would have had no reason to receive much advanced preparation.)  How much did the unexpected birth of another daughter two years after this adoption stress the family’s coping mechanisms? How much did it affect their willingness to fight like hell for this child? Wasn’t there a closer affordable residential care or therapeutic foster home so they could have maintained more contact? How much contact do they have with her now? And perhaps most of all, how will all this publicity (numerous articles; national TV and radio interviews; and a book) affect E as she grows and starts to read this publicity, and why did they use her real name?

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

But even though I have questions, I believe it’s only fair to give the Gertz’s the benefit of the doubt.  I bet giving up their daughter flies in the face of all they hold dear too, and I bet they are also filled with questions. I believe many of my questions likely have logical and loving answers. I believe they loved their daughter and did the best they could to care for her. It feels like a cheap shot to sit on the sidelines and second guess someone who in the thick of it.

I haven’t raised a mentally ill child or a child with FASD, so I am not in a position to judge or blame.  Like it or not, blaming them will not make the problem of how to support families raising FASD kids or how to provide cost effective care go away. The parents, the siblings, and E are all victims here.

But still I have questions. I bet the Gertz’s do too.

Did They Fail as Parents?

In a blog entry from several years ago, shortly after the publication of her memoir, Lori Gertz wrote:

Maybe the world still wants to believe I failed at parenting my brain damaged, mentally ill daughter or maybe it’s just me giving airtime to my inner critic. There isn’t a day that passes that I go un-reminded and so no matter what mountains I move to continue to be the best parent I know how for my other children, I will forever be responsible for what happened with Emily. It’s ok, now – so many years later but it wasn’t then because I really wasn’t ready to be accountable for it all. I was too busy fighting for our lives and defending my actions. For a long time, the obstacles of pain, regret and self-recrimination were only as distant as my burning the taco shells or losing a month’s rent to our landlord’s greed. The perpetual loop of blame for not being able to fix my daughter’s prenatal wounds played over and over in my head. You. It’s your fault! It happened because of something you did and because of who you are!

I was but a seat filler in the cheap seats during most of my daydreams as in my mind’s eye I observed myself scribbling my name on the lines of adoption papers, psychiatric hospital admits, guardianship papers, and finally forms giving up all parental rights to a child I love but couldn’t help nor keep safe from harm or from harming others. Tears dripped onto papers of all repercussions as I heard my own voice repeating that common phrase we tell ourselves when life sucks and that we are given only what we can handle. With time and space I have come to see that we are not victims of the poor decisions of an alcoholic drug addict, my daughter’s since deceased birth-mother. No, we are not victims and I am not a failure of a parent. We must be accountable for our responses to the cards that we were dealt and folding those cards was the most difficult thing I have or will ever do in my life.

First published in 2012; Updated 2017
Image credit: sbh107