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Adoptions don't always pan out

Failures aren't common but remain taxing for an overloaded child-welfare system

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The radio ad asked parents if they had enough room in their homes and love in their hearts to take in a child who needed to be adopted.

Karen Cofield, the mother of two sons, responded. "My girlfriends said I was crazy," she recounted a decade later, "but I always wanted a little girl."

Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families found her a little girl, a 2-year-old Cofield would nickname DB.

Karen Cofield of Beltzhoover raised her own two boys and adopted a 2-year-old girl from CYF 10 years ago. Despite her efforts at helping the troubled child, Cofield had to return the girl. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

But eight years later, after futile efforts to deal with DB's fighting, lying and stealing, Cofield returned the child to CYF. "It had to be me or her," Cofield said later. She came to that conclusion after $2,000 of her savings disappeared and school officials reported DB handing out bills in large denominations.

Failed adoptions aren't common. But they're a problem in a child welfare system already overwhelmed with more than 130,000 children waiting for adoption nationwide, including 100 in Allegheny County for whom CYF has no adoptive parents.

In a system searching for homes for these children, the failures are kept quiet. The federal government doesn't keep statistics on them, and neither does Pennsylvania.

But researchers say between 15 percent and 20 percent of abused and neglected children who are placed for adoption by child welfare agencies are returned before the legal adoption ceremonies are done.

In another 2 percent to 3 percent of cases, completed adoptions are later nullified. And in an additional 8 percent of cases, the adoptions remain intact, but the children are moved to mental institutions, group homes or relatives.

It's not clear how this compares with the failure rate for private adoptions, including the adoptions , of newborns and children from foreign countries, because no one keeps statistics on those cases.

When adoptions fail, it is devastating to parents and children. Parents feel guilty; children feel rejected.

Some experts even believe that nullifications should be forbidden. Victor Groza, a professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and an expert on failure statistics, said parents who try to reverse adoptions should be prosecuted.

Others are less critical, pointing out that these adoptive parents are no different from birth parents who ask child welfare officials to intervene with unmanageable teenagers, for example.

And, sometimes, the consequences of keeping a disturbed child are more dreadful than giving the child up. Last year, a troubled 15-year-old boy adopted by a Washington County couple from the child welfare system confessed to killing and raping his adoptive mother, Alison Gebauer.

Groza suggests a middle ground.

Adoptive parents could ask the child welfare system to place children in institutions who can't continue to live with the families, but the adoption wouldn't be canceled. So the child would always have a family.

But Cofield wanted her legal ties to DB broken. "I have two sons who are excellent. We want to be free."

CYF gave Cofield little information about DB before handing the girl over. Caseworkers said the baby had been placed with a foster family because her mother, a crack addict, abandoned her at the hospital.

After Cofield got DB, the toddler quickly overcame some developmental delays -- but then other problems surfaced. The boys' toys would disappear, and they'd blame DB. The little girl denied taking things. Cofield said that at first she believed her, but then the toys would turn up in DB's bedroom.

After DB started school, teachers complained that she fought every day, stole and used bad language. By the spring of 2000, she had been suspended from school repeatedly and had run away. At one point, she was admitted to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and diagnosed with a conduct disorder.

It was then, when DB was 10, that Cofield reached her limit.

Cofield's mother had suffered heart failure and wanted her to move to Alabama to care for her. Cofield began saving to do that.

Then the money was gone and DB was handing out cash in the cafeteria.

It is hard to know how much of DB's difficulties stemmed from her removal from her foster parents, the only family she had ever known.

Psychologists say children don't work like electrical appliances. They can't be plugged into one home and then simply moved to another and function as well. Youngsters moved more than once, as most foster children are, frequently suffer from what's called attachment disorder.

Attachment disorder and other psychological and behavioral problems exhibited by foster children are key ingredients in the mix that makes for broken adoptions.

In Allegheny County, at any given time, about 2.5 percent of all the children adopted from child welfare return to CYF care. Right now, that is 84 of the 3,300 youngsters adopted over the past 10 years.

CYF hopes to return 33 of those children to their adoptive parents. It is looking for new adoptive parents for 10, will keep 23 in care until they are adults, and hasn't decided what to do with the remaining 18.

Some of these children will be virtually impossible to place in new adoptive homes.

One, for instance, is a 16-year-old adopted by his grandmother, along with several sisters and cousins. He was charged with molesting one of the girls, and the grandmother decided she'd be endangering the girls if she took him back.

CYF resistance
Cofield said when she first called CYF for help with DB, she got threats instead.

She said the caseworker told her that if she couldn't control DB, maybe she couldn't handle her sons, either, so the agency might have to take all her children.

That frightened her. But after her savings disappeared, Cofield gave up DB anyway.

Cofield said she made it clear from the outset that she wanted the adoption legally canceled because she needed to move south to care for her mother. Still, the caseworker wrote a plan to return DB and, Cofield said, told her that she'd be criminally charged with child abandonment if she left the state.

Caseworkers are forbidden to comment on individual cases, but CYF said the way Cofield says she was treated didn't conform with the agency's policy for handling these situations.

Officials there say they offer adoptive parents the same services they would extend to any parent with unruly children. "We encourage people with problems to call me or the caseworker who handled their adoption, and we try to hook them up with services," said Bonnie Bloch, director of the agency's adoption department. "We tell people when they adopt that they can call us back."

But not everyone believes CYF offers the same services to children and families after adoption as they do when they are still in foster care. Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen, who has served on the juvenile court bench for a decade, is among them.

"Too often, services terminate with adoption -- case closed," she said. That's why, in a hearing last year for a child who needed mental health services, Allen told CYF to stop pressuring the foster mother to adopt. "Just because we need a lower caseload," Allen said, "we do not need to close a case [through adoption] and leave a child without help."

The state Department of Public Welfare's Statewide Adoption Network has recognized that inadequate help after the papers are signed contributes to adoption failures.

"It's a national problem, and we share that issue in Pennsylvania," SWAN Director Sandy Gallagher said. As a result, this year, SWAN offered three new services, including respite care for adopted children, so parents can get relief from family duties. The Welfare Department did not, however, give SWAN any extra money to pay for the services.

Forced child support
Cofield got no such services. Not only that, after she gave up DB, CYF immediately demanded she pay child support of $480 a month. Because of Cofield's low income, she was assessed $50 a month.

But the worst for Cofield was still to come.

In the fall of 2001, a little over a year after DB was placed in care and moved repeatedly from foster home to mental hospital to new home, she accused Cofield's older son of raping her for years, beginning when she was 4 and he was 9.

Cofield insisted her son was innocent, but he was criminally charged and CYF immediately listed him as an abuser on a statewide registry.

That kind of accusation is far from rare for adoptive and foster families.

Last winter, for instance, a 13-year-old adopted girl falsely accused her brother of having sex with her, putting her family through agony until the matter was resolved. Last year, a woman who works with children feared she'd lose her job when her 13-year-old adopted son falsely accused her of beating him.

And while foster parents can insist CYF move such children out of the house, it's more difficult for adoptive parents to do that.

Cofield's son was acquitted of all the charges in February. Despite that, he is still listed as an abuser on the state registry, which would prevent him from holding any job involving contact with children. He is appealing.

After the acquittal, Cofield began demanding to know why CYF still had a plan to reunify her with DB and, in two years, had made no move to terminate her parental rights.

Part of the reason may have been that Allegheny County is reluctant to end parental rights until CYF has identified adoptive parents. The policy is designed to prevent children from becoming state-created orphans, but it works against adoptive parents who want to give up their rights.

That is because finding new adoptive parents for out-of-control teenagers is virtually impossible, and in Allegheny County, most of the children whom adoptive parents want to relinquish are adolescents.

Finally, at a hearing in April, nearly three years after Cofield had given DB up, hearing officer Carla Hobson ordered CYF to begin the process that would allow her to surrender her parental rights.

Cofield signed those papers last month. CYF has told her it will take another two months for the legal procedure to be completed.

Cofield is relieved, but it's too late for her to go to Alabama. While she waited for permission to leave the state, her mother died.

Cofield learned at the April hearing that the person most likely to take DB long-term, and maybe even adopt her, is DB's birth mother, who is drug-free now and has succeeded in regaining custody of several of her other children.

Cofield wishes DB well. "She broke my heart," Cofield said, but added, "I still love her. No matter what she did to me, at that moment, I didn't like it, but the sun comes around the next day and I love her."

Barbara White Stack can be reached at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

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