Photograph by Brian Chillson, Arkansas Times
by Julie Beem
Attachment & Trauma Network
What do the stories of Arkansas Rep. Harris and his wife, Torry Hansen (who returned her son to Russia in 2010), and the families in last year’s Reuters report on rehoming have in common? All were adoptive parents who found they could no longer safely parent their children in their homes. While tightening up custody transfer (rehoming) laws in this country seems like the answer, it is just a surface “fix” to a much deeper problem.
Why would adoptive parents, vetted through home studies, need to find new homes for their children? The answer is early childhood trauma and attachment disorders and the behaviors exhibited by children who have endured significant abuse and neglect. Neuroscience tells us that trauma changes developing brains, so children available for adoption are definitely at risk for these trauma-based disorders. Adoptive parents are often ill-prepared for the intensive therapeutic parenting required and few trauma-focused resources are available to them. Paradoxically, children with early attachment trauma have their greatest chance for healing in forever homes with loving therapeutic parents. Each move of a child to a new placement, whether legal or not, is retraumatizing. Regardless of custody transfer laws, unless we provide post-adoptive supports and interventions thousands of children and their families will continue to suffer.
ATN released the following press release regarding the Harris story:
Attachment and Trauma Network Statement on Rep. Justin Harris (AR) “Rehoming” Controversy
The solution to rehoming is in resources and support for those parenting traumatized children to preserve permanency.
The Attachment and Trauma Network (ATN), a national organization providing education, support, and advocacy for families of traumatized children and those with attachment disorders, receives hundreds of calls annually from parents who have reached the limits of their abilities to provide permanency while maintaining safety in their homes, schools, and communities. Children who have early childhood trauma, exposed to abuse, neglect and maltreatment can develop severe emotional and behavioral disorders such as Reactive Attachment Disorder. The largest majority of these children are adopted; however, any child can be traumatized, and ATN also serves parents of biological children and kinship caregivers as well.
The lack of mental health services, especially for children, has existed for decades, yet most efforts to reform state systems have failed, leaving families like the Harrises,who need intensive services, unserved despite repeated requests.
Often families are told that they will face abandonment charges or risk having other children in their family removed if they attempt to transfer custody back to the state. Still other times families are told they must relinquish custody to state’s child welfare system to receive the intensive treatment.
Recent stories on rehoming have focused on creating legislation to stop parents, primarily adoptive, from this dangerous practice. But relinquishment to the state or having all the children in a family removed from parents because one traumatized child’s behaviors create an unsafe situation is still rehoming, just sanctioned by the system. And children, especially those with traumatic backgrounds, view either rehoming as just one more abandonment by people who were supposed to be their forever family.
Nearly all children who are domestically adopted, like the Harris children, receive Medicaid as part of a subsidized adoption, which is given to them to provide medically necessary treatment. However, most states continue to deny funded services, especially for mental health, which children are entitled to under the EPSDT provision of Medicaid.
State budgets cannot support the cost of intensive treatment that many of these children need, so costs that should be contained in state Medicaid budgets are simply shifted to the child welfare agencies that are ill-equipped to deal with their mental health needs, at the cost of the child’s permanency and the parents’ reputation, since involuntary relinquishment is frequently accompanied by abuse or neglect charges.
ATN encourages the federal government to reform Medicaid laws so that the money follows the children, regardless of the state system they are in. This solution to relinquishment/rehoming will ensure that children are able to get the treatment they need while preserving their permanency. It will also better support state governments by serving children in clinical systems rather than child welfare systems, which are not designed or equipped for supporting children with mental health issues living within a healthy family.