National Pulse

States start to crack down on parents 're-homing' their adopted kids

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Ann Haralambie

“Re-homing is not regulated,” says Ann Haralambie. “There’s no legal framework to address it. It’s mostly an underground affair.” Photo by Chris Hinkle.

Among pet owners, "re-homing" an unwanted dog or cat is a relatively straightforward process. The owner who seeks an alternative home often places an ad on the Internet, and a private transaction occurs that moves the pet to a new family.
But with the rise of foreign adoptions of children and the inability of some parents to handle troubled youths, more and more desperate families are taking that approach with adopted youngsters and re-homing the children with strangers. Often those re-homed children report gruesome tales of physical, sexual or emotional abuse by their new guardians.

The process of re-homing has been largely unregulated—no federal laws prohibit the exchange of unwanted adopted kids. Most states allow private adoptions, but the processes vary widely and oversight is limited. In most cases, re-homing may be executed by a simple power-of-attorney letter or a notarized statement without government authorities or even any lawyers vetting the new parents.

Family lawyers are taking note. Re-homing "has only fairly recently come to public attention," says Tucson, Arizona, child welfare and custody lawyer Ann Haralambie. "Re-homing is not regulated; there's no legal framework to address it. It's mostly an underground affair."

By contrast, if adoption through a legal agency fails before it's legally final, the child can be returned to the agency in what's referred to as "disrupted adoption," according to McGeorge School of Law professor John Myers, author of Experiencing Family Law. The national rate of disruption is 10 to 20 percent. Since re-homing is done privately, there are no statistics monitoring the number of failed adoptions.

"Kids shouldn't be in want ads like: 'Our dog just had puppies. Want one for free?' " adds Haralambie, a former chair of the ABA Family Law Section's Juvenile Law and Needs of Children Committee. "That's precisely where people like the mentally ill and pedophiles go to get children. At best, it's abandonment, and at worst, it's human trafficking."

Many parents of adopted children are desperate. Serious problems erupt when agencies don't screen potential adoptive parents or the child's special needs aren't disclosed. Often, those needs result from neglect or mistreatment by birth parents or at overloaded orphanages.

Both domestically and internationally there's woefully slim pre-adoption training and post-adoption support. As a result, some kids may end up destroying property, becoming violent and resisting nurturing by their new parents.

"Parents and children are not properly matched, and parents aren't vetted as carefully," says University of Baltimore law professor Barbara Babb, director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts. "People may be adopting older children who can have attachment issues."


Children adopted internationally face other problems: Those from institutional homes may have attachment disorders from prior neglect or have language differences that limit their understanding of expectations.

Myers says the remedy for re-homing is twofold. "First, it has to be a crime, and I'm not a big fan of criminalizing. But the analogy is baby selling, which is a crime. Plus, it's always been a crime to abandon a child." Criminalizing the practice sends a "very clear message to the very unfortunate parents who find themselves in a situation where they think: 'I simply can't do this.' "

And agencies must do a better job of screening kids and conducting home studies of parents, he adds. "Most of the time, terrific kids are available for adoption. And most of the time, they'll end up with a better life than they would have had. But prospective parents should at least know the risks." Parents also need better post-adoption support.

State legislatures are taking note. In April, Wisconsin became the first state to make it illegal for anyone not licensed by the state to advertise a child older than age 1 for adoption or any other custody transfer, both in print and online. Parents who want to transfer custody of a child to someone other than a relative must seek permission from a judge. Violators face up to nine months in jail or as much as $10,000 in fines.

Last summer, Louisiana also banned nonlegal adoption, with offenders facing a penalty of $5,000 and up to five years in prison. Colorado, Florida and Ohio are considering similar laws.

The Hague Convention's international treaty on intercountry adoptions requires that prospective parents receive counseling and home studies by agencies approved by the U.S. State Department before they're eligible to adopt.

But the Hague treaty applies only to signatory countries, and many of those countries fail to enforce the requirements.

Unfortunately, Babb says, most states aren't making prohibiting online advertising of children or re-homing a priority. "This requires urgent attention, but children and families are at the bottom of the totem pole in policymaking." It's an effort, she insists, that must be led by the federal government.


For its part, the Adoption Committee of the ABA Family Law Section has informally discussed re-homing, but it has no plans to take active steps such as drafting a model statute, says family lawyer Carl Gilmore, the committee's chair.

"I'm always hard-pressed to say under all circumstances that a practice should always be illegal," says Gilmore of Woodstock, Illinois. "I can see circumstances where replacement of children might be advantageous, such as when there's been no attachment between the child and the family. But there needs to be oversight." Re-homing must be viewed "with a great deal of caution" and include, at the very least, investigations and criminal background checks, he says.

But Leah Hill, a family law professor at Fordham University, says policymakers should "tread lightly in the call for new legislation" because existing abandonment and child endangerment laws already cover the extreme cases of re-homing. Hill adds that sensationalist stories may have created hysteria about an issue whose numbers may actually be relatively small.

"When you look at the number of successful international adoptions, re-homing cases are actually on the extreme end of the spectrum," she says. While the example of people dumping kids with strangers is "unimaginable," the focus should be on prevention, including supports and safeguards, especially in international adoptions and especially for special needs kids. "That's where a lot of disruptions appear to take place," she says. As for Internet re-homing groups, Hill believes they're just an unavoidable function of the online world. Any ban, she says, should be "very narrowly drawn."

For Babb, re-homing raises broader issues. "We should question why so many parents are relying on international adoptions given that many of America's children are available for adoption," she says. "Parents should reconsider working with local departments of social services. There would be much more willingness and, in some cases, legal authority to help adoptive families facing challenges."

Haralambie, too, believes that re-homing signals "a much more basic, systemic problem"—the lack of resources to properly screen prospective parents and to inform both the child and the family of what to expect from adoption. "Adoptive parents need to have a real-life reality check and then real good support once those children arrive."

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Far From Home: States begin to crack down on parents 're-homing' their adopted kids."
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