When YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer announced their decision to “re-home” their four-year-old son Huxley, who has autism and a brain cyst, I felt gutted. My heart broke for this child who arrived in the U.S. from China, two and a half years ago.
From the language they used — we “rehome” pets, not kids — to the assumptions they made to the saviour myths they subscribed to, the Stauffers demonstrated a troubling lack of understanding around special-needs adoption.
Like the Stauffers, I am a parent of both biological and adoptive children, who between them have various diagnoses. I also belong to — and worked for — a not-for-profit organization that provides support for adoptive families.
Rather than run at the Stauffers with a virtual pitchfork, I want to unpack some of the issues their story — and the conversation around it — raise. What are some of the misconceptions around adoption, attachment and complex needs that harm adoptees? How can adoptive families set themselves up for success? And what do overwhelmed parents need, if they are reaching breaking point?
I’ve invited Canadians with firsthand experience of adoption crises (an adoptee, an adoptive parent and an adoption professional who’s also an adoptive mom) to weigh in.
The kids you adopt are your ‘real’ kids
The question many commenters are asking is if the Stauffers would have relinquished one of their four biological children, had that child turned out to have a disability or other special needs.
“The part of it that made my stomach flip a bit is that this couple is still parenting their birth children,” said Cathy Murphy, who is the mother of two adult children, through adoption, and the Executive Director of the Adoption Council of Canada.
In fact, many people just don’t get that adoptive kids are an adoptive parent’s real kids, and that’s damaging. I’ve heard too many troubling stories from families in crisis, who reached out to loved ones for emotional support, only to hear comments like: “Why are you cleaning up someone else’s mess?” Or, “Why don’t you send them back?”
I’ve also heard of parents with post-adoption depression being asked by medical professionals if they didn’t just want to ‘return the child.’ Would a woman with postpartum depression be asked that question?
If the people in your support system see adoptive kids as “less than” or “disposable,” it harms those kids and undermines their families, making them more vulnerable, when they’re struggling.
“Adoption, customary care and kinship care, those are all commitments to a child or youth. We cannot take those lightly, even if it takes time to bond. We have to dig deep and go places emotionally we haven’t gone before,” said Murphy.
Adopted children need a lot of their parents’ time and attention in the first years
Huxley’s adoption broke down less than a year after the birth of his little brother. I wonder if that timing was significant.
I remember being told, by my social worker, to wait at least two years after the court finalization of my first adoption (almost four years after my first daughter’s move-in date) before even applying to adopt another child. Our Children’s Aid Society had those rules in place to give adoptive children time to strengthen their attachment to their family and develop a sense of belonging.
When a young child — biological or adopted — loses their spot as the baby of the family, they’ll most likely ramp up any regressive or challenging behaviours temporarily. This is especially true of a child showing signs of dysregulated attachment. In the months before Huxley’s adoption broke down, Myka Stauffer spoke about being “super rejected to the point that I didn’t expect it.”
Bev Hill*, an Ontario parent, is familiar with this dynamic. She has three kids: Jane*, 14, Faith*, 11, and James,* almost 2. Jane joined Hill’s family as a foster child at the age of 13 months, and the Hills subsequently adopted her. Jane was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) at the age of four. “She would go into a fit over the smallest thing; she would pull out handfuls of her own hair; she’d be kicking and screaming for hours to the point of breaking blood vessels in her face and throwing up,” Hill recalled.
“What was happening, when he ran to strangers over his parents, was textbook ‘insecure attachment.’”
Jane’s distress levels peaked when she was going through any kind of transition. The birth of her youngest sibling was a particularly challenging time for Jane, Hill said. “Her self-harm ramped up, and she would go on hunger strikes,” explained Hill. “I think it was hard for her to see me and him attached the way we were.”
If a child is struggling to adapt to a new family member, or generally struggling to feel at ease within a family, working with an attachment therapist may help. It takes repeated demonstrations of love, commitment and showing up for the child who has experienced loss and trauma, to help them work through overwhelming fear of rejection and simply learn how to have a parent-child or sibling relationship, when it’s all new to them.
Adoptive parents should learn all they can about developmental trauma and attachment
“No, no, no … that’s not what’s happening,” I wanted to protest, as I read Myka Stauffer describe how Huxley (a non-verbal child with autism) had communicated his desire to leave the family for new parents. “Huxley wanted this decision 100 per cent,” she said. “We saw that in family time with other people, he constantly chose them and signed with and showed tons of emotion to show us and let us know he wanted this.”
What was happening, when he ran to strangers over his parents, was textbook ‘insecure attachment.’
Seventeen-year-old Claire Wolfe, had six homes and a dozen caregivers, in the first seven years of her life. Like Huxley, she and her siblings had one disrupted adoption before being adopted by a new set of parents. She recalls her own confusion, as a child with attachment issues, in the company of her adoptive parents’ friends. When visitors came to the house for the first time, she’d immediately be overly familiar. “We had this one woman and her husband over. I ran into his arms and got all cuddly and happy with him,” said Wolfe.
“It’s hard, and sometimes you just break and feel like you can’t do it anymore.”
According to Hill, whose daughter Jane still needs reminders about ‘stranger danger’ to this day, “Kids who’ve lost their parents and caregivers young don’t have that healthy experience early on of learning who to trust,” she explained. “They might overshare with people they’ve just met and keep things private from their family. Attachment is warped for them.”
New adoptive parents need to keep their friends-and-family circle small, for their children to understand their parents’ unique role. Murphy explained how that works:
“You’re the one meeting your child or youth’s primary needs. You’re the ones providing sustenance and shelter. You’re the one that goes to them if they cry or fall down. When you meet your children’s needs over and over again, they come to trust you.”
‘All you need is love’ is a totally useless and misleading adoption cliché
According to an article in Heavy.com, Myka Stauffer was told by an American physician that, based on a CT scan of her future adoptive son, his diagnosis was severe. But Stauffer, who had initially balked at special needs adoption, said she already felt like Huxley was hers and that turning back was not an option. “She would love him no matter what medical state he was in,” the story reports.
Unfortunately, the ‘all-you-need-is-love’ mantra gets bandied about too much in adoption circles. That can set unrealistic expectations and lead to feelings of failure. On top of love, to parent a child with complex needs and attachment issues, you’ll likely need medical specialists, huge chunks of time for appointments; specialized equipment, meds, therapists, tutors, knowledge of trauma-informed parenting, and the dogged advocacy skills of Erin Brokovich.
Nobody who hasn’t experienced it can truly appreciate the energy, commitment and strength that the families of kids with high needs must draw on, every single day. Wolfe knows what that looks like. Two of her siblings were diagnosed with complex needs, including learning disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), and it took them a long time to trust their new parents after losing their last ‘forever family.’ As young children, they would run away, swear, kick, scream, fight and constantly test their new parents, to see if they were strong enough to handle them.
While both siblings have made huge strides with attachment, they continue to struggle with emotional regulation, social skills and understanding cause and effect and will need their parents’ lifelong support. Wolfe cares deeply about her siblings, but she says, “It’s hard, and sometimes you just break and feel like you can’t do it anymore.”
Murphy said that anybody considering special needs adoption should undergo rigorous pre-training sessions. They should meet at least three other families raising children with special needs, so they have a more accurate picture of what this type of rewarding but intensive parenting looks like. And they should research resources in their community, to see if they can access the educational, therapeutic and medical services their child would need.
“Adoption and parenting are truly leaps of faith and, in my opinion, they have to be educated leaps of faith,” said Murphy.
What you know about an adoptee before they come home is just the tip of the iceberg
In explaining their decision to relinquish Huxley, the Stauffers said, “He has a lot more special needs that we weren’t aware of.”
The truth is: There will always be both medical and emotional unknowns, when your child comes home. Murphy stresses that it’s especially to be expected for children residing in orphanages, where physicians must make reports based on seeing each child, briefly, on monthly rounds. “Autism, which Huxley had, isn’t diagnosed until the age of three, four or five,” she added, “so if you receive a child at two, it’s very possible that a full diagnosis wouldn’t yet be made.”
On an emotional level, there will be surprises too. Adoptive parents expecting sunbeams and gratitude should check themselves. My youngest kid hates when smiling strangers tell her she’s “so lucky” to have been adopted. Why would any kid feel lucky, she says, to have experienced trauma, loss and upheaval throughout their childhood?
Kids will cycle through fear, anger, grief and confusion for at least the first year (and sometimes much longer) after coming home, however nice their new house and family may be and whatever sweet personality traits were highlighted in their case adoption profile. Furthermore, if they had experienced unreported (or unrecorded) abuse or neglect, prior to their adoption, the details often only come to light months or years later, either expressed through trauma behaviours or words, once the child becomes comfortable enough with their new parents to share.
The only thing you can know for sure before a child moves in is that there will be unknowns.
“Dad wrote little love letters to us when he went away to work, and when I was scared at night, he’d put stuffies on me.”
Parents of kids with complex needs need a village of support
It’s crucial to connect with other adoptive families for peer support — people who just get what you’re going through.
In Canada there are many organizations across the country that provide this type of network, either with virtual connection or in-person meet-ups (which are on hold right now during the pandemic). Murphy points to Adoption Council of Canada, The New Brunswick Adoption Foundation, Adoption Support Centre of Saskatchewan, Adoptive Families Association of B.C., Adoption Council of Ontario and Adopt4Life as examples.
Before even being matched with your child, ask your local adoption worker where you can find your people.
Adoption disruption and dissolution are not the only options
“Children with very risky or violent behaviours may need to leave their home for serious issues, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still being parented and part of the family,” said Murphy.
That might mean the child will reside outside of the family home, in an institutional setting, such as a pediatric hospital or a therapeutic foster or group home. Sometimes those children will return to the family unit, if it becomes safe and feasible for them to do so.
Hill’s daughter, Jane, is currently residing with another caregiver, who has also become a legal guardian, without the Hills needing to relinquish their parental rights — a creative solution Hill fought for. The two families live close, pool resources such as health benefits, and make decisions together. The Hills talk with Jane multiple times a day on video chat and visits every week. They are still Mom and Dad. “We work as this sort of tripod in parenting her,” said Hill.
Things came to a head after Jane’s outbursts and self-harm intensified, and she held a knife to her throat, in front of her younger sister, and threatened to kill herself and to stab her sister with the knife if she warned their parents of her intention.
For some children who’ve experienced significant early childhood trauma, developed severe attachment disorders and are living with mental illness, close relationships can feel too scary and intense, for them to function within a conventional family. Hill believes that living separately for now, with the roles of Jane’s therapeutic caregiver and of her mother and father clearly defined, has allowed her daughter to let her mom in and given Jane’s siblings a chance to heal from secondary trauma.
“Now she talks to me about how she feels, and she says I’m the first person she wants to speak with if something happens. It has allowed us to really build a new connection, based on the love we have for each other. She has even said sorry for things that happened, and I never imagined us getting there.”
While adoption breakdown is always traumatic, sometimes another family is a better fit for a child
Wolfe’s first adoptive parents had become physically abusive, in the months leading up to their decision to relinquish Wolfe and her three siblings. The children have lived now for over a decade with their second set of adoptive parents, who benefitted from specialized outside supports and had the capacity, stamina and commitment to use therapeutic parenting strategies that helped Wolfe and her siblings learn to better manage their emotions and behaviours, and above all, learn to trust.
“Dad wrote little love letters to us when he went away to work, and when I was scared at night, he’d put stuffies on me,” recalled Wolfe.
“We all had food issues, when we moved in, and we’d sneak down into the kitchen at night and eat everything and leave a big mess, because we had sometimes gone hungry in past homes. Instead of getting mad, our mom and dad would bring goldfish crackers and snacks upstairs, so we didn’t have to go downstairs. Knowing there was food available meant we didn’t have to worry. They just did a lot of small things that mattered to us as kids.”
And as for her hopes for Huxley:
“I hope his new family will be committed to him. The Stauffers made money from videos about Huxley’s adoption, while he lived with them, and I didn’t like that — that was his private story,” Wolfe said.
“But in the end, as long as you find that family that helps you heal and makes you feel safe, it’s better than being with parents who just couldn’t do that for you.”
*Names changed for privacy