Far from the fairy tale: Broken adoptions shatter promises to 66,000 kids in the US

Demetrius Napolitano in his Harlem, N.Y. apartment. Demetrius Napolitano was 5 when he moved into what would become his adoptive home. He told USA TODAY he was removed from that home at 13 amid allegations of abuse. Hurting, angry, the New York teen cycled through 25 foster care placements and five high schools until he aged out of the system.  Now 27 years-old, Napolitano is launching 'Fostering Meditation,' a nonprofit organization to help youth in foster care heal from past trauma and adverse life experiences.

Demetrius Napolitano stood outside his adoptive mother’s New York apartment.

It had been years since child welfare officials removed him from her home. Years since he had reentered foster care and cycled, hurt and angry, through 25 placements and five high schools.

And yet Napolitano couldn’t let go. She hadn’t been perfect, but she was his first image of family.

So he kept returning to her door.

“I was always going back,” Napolitano said, “for that comfort, that validation, that connection.”

His experience was far from the fairy tale of adoption — the happily ever after in which yearning parents build a family and a child receives a forever home. For Napolitano, that promise was a lie.

A USA TODAY investigation found that while the majority of adoptions in the U.S. remain intact, tens of thousands of children like Napolitano suffer the collapse of not one but two families: their birth family and their adoptive family. Those failures occur across the spectrum of adoption, affecting children adopted internationally, from foster care, through private agencies and by relatives.

More than 66,000 adoptees ended up in the foster care system between 2008 and 2020, according to a first-of-its-kind USA TODAY analysis of federal and state data.

On average, 12 adoptions failed every day. And that is an undercount.

Researchers have had some success measuring failed adoptions in individual states. But USA TODAY’s investigation – bolstered by data collected from all 50 states and the federal government – provides the most complete picture of adoption failure in the U.S. to date. It found a disproportionate share of the children affected were older or Black – like Napolitano – or had been labeled “emotionally disturbed.”

Broken adoptions have been on the government’s radar for more than 20 years.

“Any level of instability in adoption has been and continues to be a major concern to state child welfare systems and to the federal government,” Aysha Schomburg, associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Yet the federal government has done little to get its arms around the problem. Despite funneling billions of taxpayer dollars each year into adoption assistance for families and incentives for public agencies that boost their adoption numbers, the government has put minimal effort into finding out why adoptions fail. It doesn't comprehensively track the outcome of adoptions, nor does it require states to do so, which forces even the most dedicated officials to guess at how best to protect children and support parents.

Through more than 100 interviews with adoptees, birth and adoptive parents, researchers and advocates, USA TODAY found breakdowns at every point in the process. In some cases, state and local government officials or private agencies approved parents for adoption despite warning signs. Some downplayed children’s medical, mental health and abuse histories or pushed hesitant parents to move forward with an adoption.

Catherine LaBrenz, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington, said states are shirking their responsibility to address structural problems in the child welfare system, including those connected to broken adoptions.

“If the state were a parent,” she said, “they’d be charged with child neglect.”

Parents and children also struggled with a lack of support after adopting. Roughly half of states provide post-adoption services only to families who adopt from foster care, leaving parents who adopted internationally or privately with fewer options if things go wrong. And as the demographics of adoption changed in recent decades, with fewer babies and more foster care adoptions, the resources did not adequately adapt to families’ changing needs.

For more than 60% of adoptees who entered the child welfare system, USA TODAY found the reported reasons included the child’s disability or behavioral problem, the parents’ abandonment or relinquishment of the child, or the family’s general inability to cope.

In some cases, adoptive parents placed their children in foster care because it was the only way to get them the mental health treatment they needed.

The kids paid the price.

An informal survey of more than 27,000 current and former foster youth by the research and development lab Think of Us found that young people from failed adoptions fared worse than others from the foster care system. They were more likely to find themselves couch surfing, homeless or hungry.

After their adoptions failed, about 40% of the children whose cases were analyzed by USA TODAY spent time in group homes or institutional placements, such as residential treatment facilities. Institutional stays can cost $15,000 a month or more, to say nothing of the emotional toll.

A majority of children who came into foster care after adoption never returned to their adoptive home.

Napolitano was a toddler the first time he entered the foster care system. He told USA TODAY his biological mother had grappled with drug addiction and couldn’t provide for him and his siblings. At 5, Napolitano moved into what would become his adoptive home. He was adopted at 10 – only to be removed three years later after he said he endured physical and emotional abuse.

His adoptive mother, Gladys Johnson, told USA TODAY that Napolitano experienced “quite a bit of turmoil” before coming to her home and acted out from a young age, with his behavior becoming more intense after he met members of his biological family. She said she did not abuse her son and thought his removal would be temporary.

“I love him very much,” she said.

Napolitano said it was “trauma on top of trauma” when his adoption failed. He didn’t know how to let out his emotions and struggled with grief and anger. He banged his head against walls and punched windows.

He sabotaged some relationships, assuming people would always leave, yet clung to his fractured relationship with Johnson. He returned to her home again and again, trying to weave his way back into her life. For years, he said, she turned him away. They are rebuilding their relationship now, but scars of the past remain.

“Even to this day,” he said, “I still feel like I’ve been searching for a place that I can actually call home.”

Help USA TODAY investigate adoption

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‘Adoption as a market’

The government’s role as a major player in adoption is relatively new.

Through the latter half of the 20th century, private adoptions facilitated by agencies, attorneys and doctors dominated the landscape. But societal shifts in the stigmas surrounding pregnancy outside marriage and single parenting along with easier access to birth control and the legalization of abortion all reduced the number of babies available, said Ellen Herman, a history professor at the University of Oregon and author of the adoption history book “Kinship by Design.”

International adoptions have also plummeted over the past two decades because of policy changes, such as stricter regulations in the U.S. and the reduction or suspension of adoptions from countries like Russia, China and Guatemala. Adoptions from abroad dropped from nearly 23,000 in 2004 to fewer than 3,000 in 2019 – and even further during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal statistics show.

“People don’t like to think about adoption as a market, because we’re talking about human beings,” Herman said. “But there are forces of supply and demand, and there are major historical developments that shape both of those things and that shaped, for example, the rise of foster care as a source of adoptable children.”

A major bump in adoptions from foster care came in 1997, when Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act. The sweeping legislation was designed to reduce the number of children languishing in foster care. It set deadlines for when states should seek to terminate parental rights, pushed states to find permanent placements for kids and offered incentives to increase foster care adoptions.

Within five years, foster care adoptions rose nearly 70%, according to a 2004 report to Congress. And they continued to climb.

Since 1998, the federal government has paid states more than $840 million in incentives for moving kids from foster care to adoption or long-term guardianship, federal records show.

Today, more than half of the roughly 120,000 adoptions each year come out of foster care, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data collected from states and the federal government. In three states – Arizona, California and New Mexico – foster care adoptions account for more than 75% of all adoptions.

As that landscape has shifted, experts said the government has a greater responsibility to provide support to ensure those adoptions are safe and successful. Foster children are more likely to have experienced trauma from neglect, abuse or forced separation from their biological families.

“A child who knows that they are not truly orphaned, it’s going to be a harder adjustment,” said Amanda Baden, a licensed psychologist in New York and professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “And a child who’s been through a lot of trauma, of course, is going to have some real adjustment.”

The federal Children’s Bureau declined an interview request. In response to questions from USA TODAY, Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Schomburg issued a statement saying the federal government has funded projects to implement and evaluate post-adoption services and develop national training for child welfare officials, mental health professionals and adoptive parents.

But she said adoption is “largely a state issue.”

Many families receive adoption subsidies that help cover the cost of services, such as medical care, therapy, tutoring programs and more. But access to those services can vary widely depending on where they live.

For six years in a row, parents surveyed in Florida said access to and assistance with post-adoption services were top areas needing improvement. In a smaller state survey, adoptive parents identified tutoring, mental health treatment and support groups as services they had difficulty accessing.

In Tennessee, pre- and post-adoptive parent support groups operate in every region. Adoption Support and Preservation staff provide families with a meal and facilitate a discussion group with parents while the children meet separately, said Nicole Coning, CEO of Harmony Family Center, which contracts with the state to provide those services.

Adoptee April Dinwoodie said the idea of a fresh start through adoption is lovely but unrealistic. Dinwoodie, who hosts a podcast called “Born in June, Raised in April” that explores family, identity and connection in adoption, said even the most successful adoptions begin with the loss of family. Children’s histories come with them, and the impact of trauma may reveal itself over time.

“The hardest part of our human existence is encapsulated in adoption – mental health, issues of scarcity, abuse, neglect, racism, bias,” Dinwoodie said. “And yet the narrative of adoption is often: ‘Isn’t it great. Everybody’s better off now, and nothing more to see here.’”

Why a Colorado couple returned their adopted daughter to foster care

Amy VanTine flinched when she heard her 11-year-old adopted daughter’s rage-filled screams echo through the family’s home in Colorado.

She listened for her daughter’s bedroom door alarm. If it didn’t go off, there should be little to worry about. VanTine and her husband, Mike Bouchard, had already stripped the girl’s bedroom of heater vents, dresser drawers, hangers – anything she’d used as a weapon.

Then VanTine heard a second voice.

“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

She raced up the stairs to find one of her other children curled in a ball outside her daughter’s bedroom. Her teenage son was shaking, his fists clenched. For years, the family’s home had felt like a war zone. And the teen had had enough. “Stop it!” he continued shouting.

VanTine saw herself in his despair.

“It was such a visual of how I felt,” she told USA TODAY.

VanTine and Bouchard adopted their daughter out of foster care in 2015, Colorado records show, although she had lived with them as a foster child for several years before that. USA TODAY agreed not to name the girl because she is still a minor and suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of her biological family.

Amy VanTine and her husband Michael Bouchard tried therapy and other efforts for more than five years before ending their daughter's adoption and turning the 13-year-old over to county officials in Colorado.
Amy VanTine and her husband Michael Bouchard tried therapy and other efforts for more than five years before ending their daughter's adoption and turning the 13-year-old over to county officials in Colorado.

VanTine said their daughter’s challenges became more acute over time.

What started as difficulty sleeping and hoarding food became lying and threats to run away. After her biological mother’s suicide in 2014, the girl became angrier and more defiant.

The girl had been in numerous forms of therapy – group, individual, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, grief counseling and horse therapy – but nothing seemed to help.

When VanTine raised concerns before the adoption was finalized, she said officials seemed unconcerned.

This is typical behavior, VanTine said a caseworker told her. She just needs a permanent home. 

But the girl’s adoption from foster care wasn’t the magic pill her parents had hoped for.

USA TODAY’s analysis of federal data found mental health diagnoses or disabilities were more than twice as prevalent in children in foster care who had previously been adopted than among foster children generally.

Parents with enough money can afford intensive mental health services. Everyone else must rely on services funded by private insurance or the government, which may not meet the child’s needs, be offered in the area or be available quickly.

By fall 2016, VanTine’s daughter raged from the time she woke up until she fell asleep. She lashed out at family members. She threatened to take her own life.

VanTine reached out to the county’s post-adoption services worker, saying the family was “in desperate need of some respite and help,” according to an email dated Sept. 28, 2016. The email didn’t go through. Frustrated, VanTine contacted the couple’s previous adoption worker, who told her the post-adoption position was vacant. Adams County records show the job had been vacant for nearly three months at the time VanTine reached out, and it would be almost two more months before the position was filled.

The family’s previous adoption worker helped them secure intensive in-home services.

It still wasn’t enough.

VanTine said she herself suffered a mental breakdown in December 2016. VanTine started calling the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, saying their family was in crisis and needed help. She asked therapists, a pediatrician and a school official to call the hotline and report concerns for the family’s safety.

Therapists recommended the girl receive treatment in an institution, records show. But Medicaid would not cover it, saying it wasn’t medically necessary and her diagnoses were “best treated within the home and family environment.”

The 11-year-old reentered the child welfare system in January 2017, about four years after moving in with the family, Colorado records show. In 2018, the couple relinquished their parental rights and permanently returned the girl to foster care.

VanTine said it was one of the most difficult decisions she has ever had to make.

“We sacrificed our own want and need of wanting her as our child ... so she could be safe, and our other children could be safe,” VanTine said, crying. “It was heart-wrenching."

VanTine, who has spoken publicly about the challenges her family faced, said the government was too slow and too late to help when it could have made a difference. Instead, she said, the child welfare system operates like an assembly line: “Get the kids in, find the placement, close it out, not our problem.”

Adams County spokeswoman Christa Bruning declined USA TODAY’s request for an interview with the girl, who is now 16. Bruning also denied a request to interview agency officials, noting it was “not in the best interest of the child to discuss specifics of any case.”

“While Adams County disagrees with much of the information provided by the adoptive parents, confidentiality is critical, and legally required, in child welfare matters,” she said. “We certainly believe children in Adams County deserve safe, healthy, and loving homes and our Human Services Department works hard to achieve this for each child in our care.”

Key risk factors: Age, race, mental health

USA TODAY’s analysis of failed adoptions shows that three factors have contributed to broken adoptions: the age, race and mental health of the child.

One part of the analysis examined more than 60,000 children adopted from foster care between 2008 and 2010 in 16 states where a study found a child’s ID number can be tracked before and after adoption.

Age was the most significant predictor of adoptions failing among this group. USA TODAY’s analysis found a child adopted at 10 faces a nearly seven times greater risk of reentry into foster care than one who was adopted at 1.

Sixto Cancel, founder and CEO of Think of Us, wasn’t surprised by the influence of age and race on adoption stability.

Cancel, 30, who is Black, grew up in the foster care system. From 11 months old to age 9, he said, his identity was that he was a foster kid. It wasn’t easy for him to see himself as an adopted son. Adoption also meant wrapping his mind around the idea of replacing his biological parents and siblings with a new family.

“I was 9 years old when the judge looked at me and was like, ‘Do you want to be adopted?’” Cancel recalled. “And I had wanted to say no so bad.”

Even then, Cancel knew his adoptive family wouldn’t be forever. He said his adoptive mother, whom USA TODAY could not reach for comment, was racist and abusive. When Cancel was 13, he said, she started locking him out of the house and eventually offered to pay him to stay gone. At 15, Cancel reentered foster care, where he remained until aging out as an adult.

USA TODAY’s analysis of data from the 16 states found Black children face a more than 50% greater risk than white children of having their adoptions fail and returning to foster care.

Child welfare experts often question whether one risk factor could be adoption of children by parents of a different race or ethnicity, but research finding higher rates of disruption or failure in transracial families is scant. USA TODAY’s examination did not find a clear-cut impact on outcomes.

Black children are more likely to enter foster care in the first place, making up 23% of the foster population when they are just 12% of the population at large. Researchers estimate more than half of Black children will go through a child maltreatment investigation at some point in their childhood. However, academics have found that economically and racially marginalized communities disproportionately face such allegations.

Researchers who examined state-level data suggested children of color may spend more time in foster care, be moved around more and have more difficult experiences that affect their adjustment in an adoptive home, and that a child’s race may affect how adoptive parents evaluate behavioral problems.

Licensed clinical social worker Melanie “JaeHee” Chung-Sherman owns a private practice in north Dallas that sees adoptees of color who identify as part of the LGBTQ community and are transracially adopted. She said she works with adoptees who have been harmed by adoptive families who view themselves as saviors or who ascribe to the idea of “color blindness,” failing to recognize the impact of racism, violence and oppression.

“It’s heartbreaking and disappointing and rage-inducing,” Chung-Sherman said.

Mental health also played a role in adoption stability, USA TODAY found. Children labeled in federal records as “emotionally disturbed” are nearly 40% more likely to reenter foster care, according to USA TODAY’s analysis.

The data does not specify what diagnosis the child was given; the emotionally disturbed category combines conditions such as anxiety and bulimia with schizophrenia, which makes it difficult to pinpoint specific problems caseworkers should watch for to head off adoption failures.

Susan Branco, a licensed professional counselor and assistant professor at St. Bonaventure University in New York, said officials need to move beyond the myth of the happy ending and ensure families are prepared and children are supported. Too often, she said, children in the system – particularly children of color – are treated as expendable.

“These children are then left to fend for themselves in a world where they haven’t been cared for,” said Branco, who is an adoptee. “Lots of systems let them down. And none of it was their fault.”

Brutal choice: How foster care placements can go wrong

While prospective families vastly outnumber children available for adoption through the private industry, there is a shortage of families willing to adopt from foster care. That’s particularly true when it comes to taking in older kids, multiple children at once – often siblings – or children with disabilities or mental health diagnoses.

Each year, roughly 20,000 children age out of the foster care system as young adults, USA TODAY’s analysis shows.

Ebony Mack, an adoption social worker and clinician at C2Adopt in Virginia, said the scarcity of prospective families can push officials into decisions they wouldn’t typically make.

“I recall gritting my teeth through a couple of choices,” she said.

Mack said it’s brutal to choose between placing a child with a less-than-ideal family and the child remaining in an institution.

“When you have less families, you’re just like: ‘I just really want to see if this works out for this kid. I just really want this kid to have an opportunity to have a normal life, to be in a family, to not be in an institution, to not go from group home to group home,’” Mack said. “And then those kids are more likely to return to foster care.”

Mack said that while it’s important to have timelines to find a foster child a permanent home, the federal goal to complete an adoption within two years can put more pressure on public agencies. A child must live in a home for six months before the legal process to finalize an adoption can begin, she said, leaving workers less than a year and a half to find and vet prospective parents, set up visits, then start overnight stays before a child moves in.

“You’re looking at the time just shrinking and shrinking and shrinking,” she said, “of how long you have to find the permanent family and have everything completed and finalized for that child before the state then enters the picture and says, ‘Well, what’s going on here?’”

Concerns about the push to complete adoptions were echoed in a 2012 report from Washington state officials who examined state adoption laws and policies in the wake of a series of severe abuse and neglect cases involving adopted children.

In one, a 13-year-old girl died of hypothermia in her adoptive parents’ front yard after she had been forced to stay out there as punishment for “being rebellious,” according to the report. In another, sisters were sexually abused by their adoptive father. And in a third, a 13-year-old boy was starved, weighing just 49 pounds when he was taken to the emergency room.

The report called it “particularly disturbing” that the abuse and neglect had occurred in homes that were scrutinized and approved by public or private agencies and finalized by the courts.

“When the driving force behind permanency initiatives is numbers, rushed and inadequate placements, adoption disruptions, multiple moves and longer stays in care result,” officials wrote.

Experts told USA TODAY adoptions may fail if parents haven’t dealt with their own histories and traumas, or if they are too rigid, unable to adapt.

Daniel Nehrbass, president of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which operates the second-largest re-adoption program in the country, said he has seen families treat adoption like falling in love rather than recognizing attachment takes work and time.

“A lot of people put the blame on the child for why a placement didn’t work out,” he said. “But in our experience ... the predictor is whether or not the family has realistic expectations. The same child is going to thrive or fail in a family based on the family’s expectations.”

Destiny Reid told USA TODAY she felt child welfare officials in North Carolina rushed through the adoption process for her and her brothers. She said no one ever asked if she liked the family that planned to adopt her. Instead, after a few home visits and weekend stays, the adoption was finalized, only to fail less than three years later.

Reid said she and her siblings suffered abuse until another child in the home reported it to a teacher. Reid and her brothers returned to the foster care system; her brothers in one foster home, she in another.

In 2015, as an intern through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, Reid urged members of Congress to amend federal law to require states to track failed adoptions. She told USA TODAY that adoption officials should also do more to ensure the safety of homes, including requiring psychological testing for prospective parents and listening to the child.

“The bare minimum can’t be ‘This person has a home and food in the refrigerator,’” Reid said.

State overlooked red flags in a foster parent’s application

Michele Rothgeb’s application to become a foster – and later adoptive – parent was riddled with red flags.

The Rhode Island woman, who was in her 40s, had “an extensive trauma history with no record of treatment, financial instability and a history of mental health diagnoses” when she filed the paperwork in 2007, according to a report from the state’s Office of the Child Advocate. She also had been convicted of drug- and theft-related charges more than a decade earlier in Indiana and Florida.

Rhode Island officials initially rejected Rothgeb’s foster application, but she appealed – and won. The hearing officer found Rothgeb had “demonstrated a long-standing record of excellence in child care” with letters from her daughter, mother and grandsons’ day care provider, state records show. Rothgeb hadn’t seen or lived with those family members in many years.

Zha-Nae Wilkerson as a baby in 2009.
Zha-Nae Wilkerson as a baby in 2009.

The hearing officer’s ruling allowed Rothgeb to receive a license to care for her two grandsons only, but state officials used that decision to grant her custody of other children in the foster care system.

In 2011, Rothgeb was given custody of Zha-Nae Wilkerson, a 2-year-old with extensive medical needs because of  hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and epilepsy, state records show. By the summer of 2014, eight children were living in Rothgeb’s home.

“I have ‘extra’ to share – extra love, extra space, extra time,” she told child welfare officials during the foster application process.

From 2014 to 2018, Rothgeb adopted six children, including Zha-Nae. All eight children in the home – including Rothgeb’s grandsons – had been diagnosed with special needs. A caseworker later said they advocated for Rothgeb to be given custody of an eighth child because “no other placements were available in Rhode Island,” according to state records.

Six months after the last adoption, on Jan. 3, 2019, one of Rothgeb’s grandsons found Zha-Nae unconscious in a bathtub, police records show. The then-9-year-old girl had been left alone in the tub for hours.

Zha-Nae Wilkerson as a young child.
Zha-Nae Wilkerson as a young child.
Zha-Nae Wilkerson had extensive medical needs because of hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Zha-Nae Wilkerson had extensive medical needs because of hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Rothgeb told a child welfare investigator that her teenage grandson said Zha-Nae wasn’t responding to him, state records show.

“Something isn’t right!” he said.

“Bring her to me,” Rothgeb responded.

The teen and his brother placed Zha-Nae’s lifeless body in Rothgeb’s arms, according to state records. Rothgeb began CPR, but it was too late. Zha-Nae was gone.

When police arrived, they found the house littered with trash, soiled diapers and rotting food, unfit for any child.

Later, the Rhode Island Department of Health would determine that Zha-Nae had died of child neglect alongside complications of cerebral palsy, including seizures.

The other seven children returned to the Rhode Island foster care system.

Rothgeb is serving 18 years in prison after pleading no contest last year to 10 felony charges: one count of manslaughter, eight counts of cruelty to or neglect of a child, and one count of unnecessary cruelty to animals, court records show. Through a prison spokesman, Rothgeb declined USA TODAY’s request for an interview.

A Child Fatality Review Panel found that Rhode Island child welfare officials had failed to follow their own rules and procedures in evaluating Rothgeb’s petitions to be a foster and adoptive parent and that they failed to ensure the safety of the children in her home.

“Through complaints from the community, observations from their own employees and by concerns relayed by service providers,” the report said, “there were numerous opportunities to intervene and to prevent the death of this child.”

Rothgeb’s fitness as a parent was evaluated many times through home studies and visits before Zha-Nae’s death, but key information was missing, according to the Office of the Child Advocate report.

Rather than initiating new home studies, officials recycled information Rothgeb had provided in 2007 and 2011, records show. Some studies ignored Rothgeb’s trauma and criminal histories and her mental health diagnoses. Most important, they lacked details of the significant disabilities and needs of other children living in the home – context that experts say would have been key to evaluating Rothgeb’s ability to properly care for more children.

The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families declined USA TODAY’s request for an interview. In a statement, spokeswoman Kerri White said the child welfare agency has instituted numerous changes since Zha-Nae’s death, such as adding layers of review for adoption placement decisions and home studies.

A home study is intended to be the first line of defense in ensuring the safety of children in foster care and adoptions. It asks prospective parents for details of their daily lives, family backgrounds, physical and financial health, support systems and more.

A federal review found the laws and policies regarding home study requirements vary considerably state by state. For example, while all 50 states require an adoptive home study to include information on prospective parents, only 21 states require it to contain information about everyone living in the home – including other adults and children.

Federal legislation to create a national standard for the home study process has been introduced numerous times without success. One such version of the National Adoption and Foster Care Home Study Act is now pending in the House and Senate.

Meg Garey, executive director of the Delaware-based adoption agency A Better Chance for Our Children, said having strict regulations is one aspect of ensuring safety in adoption.

“It’s a lifelong commitment,” she said. “We need to understand a family’s stability, whether it’s financial, health, mental health or familial.”

‘Dealing with a broken system’

Other adoptions fell apart after parents said officials did not disclose crucial information.

Photo listings and “heart galleries” – exhibits created by child advocates that feature images and short biographies of children available for adoption – can gloss over the severity of a child’s need. Some parents never receive their child’s full history.

Virginia’s child welfare agency recommends local workers follow guidance from “Lasting Impressions: A Guide for Photolisting Children” to craft narratives about the children available for adoption.

The guide from AdoptUSKids compares two biographies. In one, “Susan” writes poetry, loves physical affection and needs consistency and limit setting. In the other, “Joanne” has a history of lying, running away and inappropriate sexual overtures and has difficulty when siblings receive attention.

They are descriptions of the same child, framed differently – and one is more likely to be adopted.

“As Susan, the child’s problems seem surmountable,” the guide said, “but as Joanne, her needs appear overwhelming.”

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The guide also advises workers to avoid mentioning mental health diagnoses or anything else that might be hurtful if children read about themselves. That information should be disclosed to prospective parents later in the process, the guide said.

Disclosure is a controversial topic. Social worker Chung-Sherman, who also is an adoptee, said full disclosure is rare in any interpersonal relationship. So why, she asked, should adoption be any different? And too often the information shared is from the perspective of everyone but the adoptee.

She also said parents who focus solely on a child’s trauma history, rather than paying attention to what is happening in the present, set a child up for failure.

“Ultimately that adopted person, if they are abandoned, pays another price for being vulnerable,” Chung-Sherman said. “And that again, I’m reminded that I’m not enough and I’m too much for everybody else and that my trauma isn’t something bad that happened to me, it’s something bad in me.”

Though most states require disclosure of a child’s medical history, their rules around the release of other information vary, according to a 2020 federal review of state statutes. Twenty-one states require that a child’s mental health history be disclosed, and just 11 states require that parents be informed whether a child suffered abuse or neglect.

“It’s this fear of ‘If I tell you what they have, you won’t want to adopt them,’” said attorney Nancie Williams, who represented a Virginia family who sued county child welfare officials, alleging they failed to disclose their adoptive son’s sexual abuse history. That boy was later criminally charged after admitting he sexually abused other children in the home, according to the lawsuit.

Indiana residents Barry and Tammy Martin told USA TODAY they were not fully informed about the backgrounds of two of the three children they adopted from China.

Chinese Children Adoption International, a Colorado-based agency, told the Martins that one boy had hydrocephalus – fluid in the brain – and cerebral palsy. But in a lawsuit against the agency, the Martins claimed they were not told he’d had a brain tumor and surgery. After the adoption, the Martins said they faced unexpected additional medical costs.

That same agency also told the Martins a second boy was 12 when he was at least three years older, the family said. The boy said officials in China instructed him to lie about his age, mental health records show.

In those records, that son also said he had been a victim of sex trafficking while living in China. The Martins said they learned of his history only after he raped his younger brothers, according to their lawsuit. The teen later admitted in court to battery. He was sent to a residential treatment facility for juvenile sex offenders, and he remains in state custody.

In their lawsuit, the Martins accused Chinese Children Adoption International of negligence and fraud. Courtney Kramer, an attorney representing the adoption agency, declined USA TODAY’s request for comment.

Earlier this month, attorneys for the agency and family filed a notice of settlement in court indicating “all claims in this matter have been resolved.”

The Martins and their sons are still dealing with the aftermath. The two younger boys have trouble sleeping or going to the bathroom alone, Tammy Martin said.

“It’s exhausting,” she said. “There’s so many paths that we are on with healing the boys, healing ourselves, helping other families, dealing with a broken system. We wouldn’t be dealing with this broken system if our adoption agency would have been doing things the way they should have.”

Adoptee survived broken adoption by suppressing emotions

There was no safety net for Anthony Thornton when he walked out of his adoptive home six weeks before high school graduation.

The Texas teen was on his own, left with nothing but two trash bags full of clothes.

Thornton told USA TODAY he had always been uneasy about being adopted. His siblings had been adopted out of foster care years earlier, but he resisted. Agreeing to it felt like a betrayal of his biological mother.

“There’s still relationships,” he said. “There’s still love and caring and kindness. And, you know, amid that toxicity and tumultuous living, it’s still your family.”

Anthony Thornton says agreeing to be adopted felt like a betrayal of his biological family.
Anthony Thornton says agreeing to be adopted felt like a betrayal of his biological family.

But at 14, Thornton said, he felt he had a decision to make: agree to be adopted by his foster parents or run the risk of having to move elsewhere.

The home didn’t seem a perfect fit. With a dozen other children in the family, Thornton sometimes felt lost. He thought the biological children were treated better. And Thornton chafed at restrictions imposed in the home – having to ask permission to eat, go to the bathroom, watch TV or use a phone.

Thornton knew it might be difficult for officials to find another foster home for him because of his history of fights and rebellion. He feared he would end up in a group home or institution. And, most important, Thornton didn’t want to be separated from two of his biological siblings who also lived there.

So he said yes to adoption.

Thornton told USA TODAY his adoptive parents kicked him out about four years later, in 2007, when he left home without permission after an argument. Gary and Trisha Thornton have a different perspective, saying their son left home voluntarily and was never told not to come back.

The couple said they ran a strict household by necessity. They operated a group home, caring for foster youth who had interacted with the juvenile justice system or spent time in residential treatment facilities. At one point, there were 14 kids in the house.

“I’m not saying that we did it right all the time,” Gary Thornton said. “But I felt like our hearts were in the right place.”

While adoptees who enter foster care have access to housing and other financial assistance, adoptees like Thornton – whose failures occur outside the purview of the system – have no such support. Often, they are left to fend for themselves.

Thornton struggled. The 18-year-old bounced among friends’ homes, never in one place for long.

Thornton says his adoptive parents kicked him out when he left home without permission after an argument. They say their son left home voluntarily. All agree he ended up on his own at 18.
Thornton says his adoptive parents kicked him out when he left home without permission after an argument. They say their son left home voluntarily. All agree he ended up on his own at 18.

About a year later, in desperation, he called the attorney who had helped facilitate his adoption, asking if the adoption could be annulled so he could reenter foster care and get help with housing, food and health insurance.

You don’t want to do this, he said the attorney told him. It’s just a hard time in your relationship right now. 

Thornton said he survived by suppressing his emotions, focusing on work and school. For years, he awoke screaming from nightmares about seeking his adoptive parents’ acceptance and affection.

Even in his closest relationships, Thornton hasn’t entirely felt comfortable.

“I don’t feel worthy,” he said. “I don’t feel trusting. I don’t feel connected. I don’t feel like I belong.”

He was driven to succeed when, at 19, he learned he would become a father. With the support of friends and his now-wife, he found work and earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in social work. Today, a father of three with a fourth on the way, he is nearly finished with his doctorate in social work from Arizona State University.

Thornton conducts research at the university’s Center for Child Well-Being and is clinical director of outpatient services for an Arizona behavioral health services agency.

After years of separation, Thornton and his adoptive parents have reconnected. Gary and Trisha Thornton plan to head to Arizona later this month to be with their son and his family when his child is born.

Anthony Thornton wants to help children in situations like the one he lived through. The government, he said, needs to invest more in families upfront and it needs to ensure adoptive parents remain engaged when their children face challenges.

“There will always be a child welfare system,” he said. “And I think there will always be a need for a child welfare system. But can we do better? Yeah, absolutely.”

Contributing: Suzanne Hirt, Mark Nichols and Matt Wynn 

Photo at top of story: Zha-Nae Wilkerson as a young child, provided by family. Photos of Demetrius Napolitano by Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY.

Marisa Kwiatkowski and Aleszu Bajak are reporters on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. Marisa can be reached at mkwiatko@usatoday.com, @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855. Aleszu can be reached at abajak@usatoday.com, @aleszubajak or by phone or Signal at (646) 543-3017. 

More in this series

‘A broken system’ leaves tens of thousands of adoptees without families, homes

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Adoption failures: 66,000 adoptees end up in the foster care system