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  • Blaming the Victim: Legacy of a Disrupted Adoption

    Dawn Davenport

    14

    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

    20/03/2017 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 14 Comments


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    14 Responses to Blaming the Victim: Legacy of a Disrupted Adoption

    1. anonymous says:

      This is a concerning issue all around. Wanted to point out a semi-horrific realization my husband and I came to – when looking into fertility treatment and a sperm bank, we requested and paid for review of a sperm donor’s file. In the fine print I found a statement by the donor that he regularly used LSD (WHAT?) We took that issue up with the sperm bank – their response, well there are many people who are looking for someone who used LSD. ?????? I cannot imagine. The donor looked great, unless you read the fine print. Adoption ended up to be our option.

    2. Suzy says:

      For me, the most sickening part of this story is that Lori Gretz is trying to cash in on her disrupted child’s hardship. Her twitter account states she is looking for a “NYT Bestseller” in her disruption. While the child’s new family refuses to comment in the media giving the reason of protecting the child, Ms. gertz plasters the kid’s photo on her blog and in the media. Even her latest blog post demonizes the child she sent away. She claims her family is still in turmoil because of a child she hasn’t seen in over a year. I think it is time for Ms. Gertz to stop blaming her dysfunction on a child she abandoned to people she had never met, take a break from her career of exploitation and focus on the children who are living in her home. It seems like they need her.

    3. Anonymous says:

      Someone asked the question would the family have disruptive the adoption of a biological child with similar issues. My take on the answer to this question is yes and no. I know a family with serious issues with a older child and they will have to have him live with another family probably not denounced their rights but place him in a safe place. With adoption parental rights are often extinguished with the process.

    4. Anonymous says:

      I am so sorry that you and your family have endured so much with your younger adopted child. How are things now? I have a 6 yr old adopted child that has alcohol exposure that we found out after adoption. She has done well has some quirks sensory stuff and talks alot no tantrums or rages thank God.I would love to talk sometime.

    5. Tracey says:

      As a mom of both biological and adopted children, I have to say to those who can judge others so easily: I raise a child who is severly bi-polar and I thank God she is the youngest by many years. She tried to kill herself the first time at age 3, she raged for hours and hours from infancy on. She stabbed her older brother in the neck before she turned 5(thank God it was a butter knife but if it had been a sharp knife left on the table she would have used it). She has ruined every family function, gathering, vacation, holidat etc since day one. IF I had had any other children after her…I would have given her up for their sakes…no other child should have to grow up under the condition that my daughter would have put them through. My husband and I have devoted our life to her but I have to admit that our life has been hell 90% of the time. She has ruined our home by destroying walls, lights, windows etc…our cars buy kicking the dash, windows, and raming bikes into the sides. Meds help but we all walk on egg shells.Let me be honest….I would not wish this on my worst ememy…and quess what…THEY don’t outgrow it, it is 24/7, and it never ends. Both my husband and I are college educated(I’m a RN with psych background) and so are all of our adult children(adopted and biological). I had to quit working because no one would watch our daughter. ALL of us have adapted and done all that we can for our child….it is never enough. We love her more than you will ever know but it has been a hell of a life for all of us exp her. One of our children had cancer twice as a child…he never suffered the way our daughter does every day of her life. So please don’t judge others unless you have walked in our shoes. Our better yet…volunteer to help a family with a mentally ill/damaged child…believe me…you could make a huge difference.

      • Dawn Dawn says:

        Tracey, I know you don’t seek this label, but you, and others like you, are my heroes. I stand in awe at your love and your dedication.

      • Leah says:

        This is such a powerful statement and I am truly sorrowful for what your daughter and family is experiencing. I have adopted three children with special needs. My middle one has no behaviors, but my oldest has autism (along with CP, epilepsy, intellectual disability). He can be very aggressive and has very unpredictable behaviors due to sensory processing issues. I am a single mom so I have to work and finding care for him is always hard. I am lucky that I found a place that specializes in autism and they are willing to work with him. My youngest also has behavioral issues, party due to drug exposure in utero and partly due to maybe emerging mental health issues. Nothing like what you have described, but she has tantrums that last for several hours and mostly plays by throwing toys around the house. She is also partially deaf so that complicates things as well. You’re right when you say it never gets better. I worry so much about my children’s future.

    6. Peggy says:

      Dawn,
      Thanks for posting this, in so many ways I could relate to it. My husband and I just traveled to another state to adopt a newborn and we were not told some important details of the baby’s health, the birth parent’s health, and the birthparent’s family’s health until we got there. For example, we told the agency that we would not adopt a child with bipolar in her immediate family and we found out that the birthmother did have an immediate family member with a bipolar diagnosis when we got there. We asked the social worker about this and she said that their agency never pays any attention to this because bipolar is so overdiagnosed. I just don’t think that is the right way to answer someone’s question when she has never examined the birthmother’s family member and we are spending a huge amount of money to add a person to our family for life.

      We know that we are not equipped to handle a child with bipolar. The child was also very underweight and we didn’t understand what would be involved with that. The agency gave us no information. After 24 hours, we realized that this baby was not meant to be ours. So we ended up being the ones to disrupt the adoption but we knew that if we did this it needed to be done as early as possible so that the child would not be hurt. There is a lot more to this story, but it would take pages!

      One thing I wondered after reading your post is whether people would have gotten so angry if the child in this story had been a biological child born to these parents.

    7. Anon says:

      Interesting title you gave to this blog post. Who would be the “victim” in this scenario? I suppose it’s the entire family. Personally, it is hard to be supportive of someone who disrupts an adoption because I think it sends the signal that breaking this huge committment is OK, but in the end, perhaps this more recent living arrangement really is more advantageous to the child. Children have needs and parents have limits. It is just impossible to judge from here. Biological families find themselves in similar situations too. Um, how about some comment moderation on these articles that run in the paper? “Throw away” the child? “Someone else’s problem?” Talk about adding insult to injury!

    8. Amy says:

      Oh Dawn-Thank you so much for this!! You’re right, I totally identify with this family. My younger sister (8 years younger, half-biological (same mom, different dad)) was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 10. But even at 9 months old, we knew there was something not quite right with her. She would have temper tantrums that would last for 6-8 hours. Never did she wear herself out (later found out this was during her mania). Around 5 & 6 years, she would wake in the middle of the night & cook herself a 2-3 course meal. Yes cook. On the stove. She’s smart as all get-out. As the years went on, she still had mania phases, but began showing more depressive times. I think she was 7’ish when she first told our mom that she wanted to kill herself. As I said, she was 10 when she was finally diagnosed, and at the time, that was the youngest the psychiatrist she saw had ever diagnosed someone. But that was after years of various other attempts at treatments. She was put on medication, which sometimes worked & sometimes didn’t. Every time she went through a growth spurt, the meds/dosages had to be changed through trial & error.

      When she was a teenager, she began skipping her pills. Once she became “stable” she decided she was “cured.” She also became very violent. She is the 3rd born in our family of 5 kids. All of us (+ my mom) have scars on our bodies from her. She threw knives at my mom & threw bricks at my youngest brother’s head; but mostly she used her hands & feet. My parents put her several times into in-patient programs, costing hundreds of dollars a day. No one else got any attention from our parents, because the second they didn’t pay 150% attention to her, she acted out, usually violently.

      My parents finally ran out of money when she was around 16 or 17, and signed her over to foster care. Yes, her biological parents were forced to send her to foster care, because the state we lived in would not assist her any more without us being able to pay for her care. And, frankly, after that many years of dealing with her, they couldn’t handle it any more. My parents divorced shortly after that, with the majority of their problems easily traceable to my sister (they separated after my sister lied to my mom & said her dad had touched her inappropriately- it wasn’t until many years later that the truth finally came out). My mom had long-since run out of friends, so she talked to me a lot (I’m the oldest & the closest to her)- that’s how I know a lot of the “behind-the-scenes” details.

      My sister is now 26 years old. She’s married to a man she met at narcotics anonymous. They have 2 kids together, which are his 6th & 7th children. His previous 5 kids had already been taken away from him by the state before they married. Now, their 2 have also been taken away. She has no ability to support herself (the longest she’s ever held a job is 6 months). She & her husband (when he’s not in jail) are on government assistance + whatever money they are able to con from their [dwindling] friends & family.

      Having lived through this, I can honestly say without hesitation, YES- EVEN WITH A BIOLOGICAL CHILD, THE OUTCOME IN THIS TYPE OF SITUATION CAN VERY EASILY BE GIVING THE CHILD UP. It’s sometimes the only answer after years & years of torment, painful as it may be.

      • Dawn Dawn says:

        Amy, there is nothing I can say to add to the sheer poignancy and pain of your comment. I will add that is seems to me that the siblings of emotionally disturbed kids are often the most overlooked in these situations. I’m so sorry that your sister had never been able to be helped.

    9. Jennifer says:

      I do have compassion for this family – however I wonder if they would have followed this path if this had been their biological child. Obviously their biological child would not have had FAS – but what if a bio child had other mental illness, etc?

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