“Canceling” an Adoption

Canceling an adoption is an unpopular topic, but we are talking about it. Like everything here at Girl’s Best Lawyer Friend, we will be blunt, honest, and factual about the subject. Of course, as an adoptive parent myself, it will be laced with my personal and professional opinions and experiences.

I have heard many people tiptoe around this question. They use words like “reverse” and “undo.” The one I have heard the most often is, “can you cancel an adoption after it’s done?”

As a lawyer, I know the real question: Can I abandon my child?

Because we are talking about voluntarily surrendering an adopted child, there is an extra undertone. The parents chose the child, so it is natural to be curious if that choice can be turned around. As an adopted child, we already know they were abandoned or surrendered at least once before in their life. So, an adoptive parent abandoning their child creates a second layer of repeat trauma.

At this point, many people will tear up or shake their heads in disgust. That reaction is precisely the reason why this topic is talked about so rarely. It is also why it is so important that we discuss it openly and honestly.

When I was living in India, fostering my daughter in anticipation of her adoption, I met a couple from the United States who had just adopted a school-age girl from over there. A few weeks after picking her up, they decided to leave the child in India and return home without her. My daughter enjoyed playing with this girl in the hotel lobby, so that is how I became privy to the situation. To say that it broke my heart would be a gross understatement.

Here’s the truth: An adoption cannot be “canceled.” Once you adopt a child, you are the legal parent of that child. It is no different than having given birth to that child yourself. You must abandon the child if you choose not to be their parents anymore. Once a child is legally declared to be abandoned, someone in the state’s child welfare system may ask the court to terminate the parental rights of legal parents (notice I said legal parents–there is no distinction between biological and adoptive parents at this point). Once parental rights are terminated, the child is legally free for adoption.

We commonly hear about this process of abandonment to adoption concerning newborns, especially those left at the hospital after birth. The process, generally speaking, is the same for older children. Parents can abandon children of any age, potentially making them available for adoption.

After seeing this happen before my eyes, I realized why we had to jump through so many hoops to adopt our daughter. For adoption to end in abandonment is traumatic for everyone involved. There are no words to fully explain the depth of that tragedy. This is why the system has evolved to have many built-in safeguards against it. Having been through the intense international adoption process, here are my two cents on what you can do to keep from being in a situation where you have to ask if your adoption can be “canceled.”

1) Choose adoption for the right reasons.

The decision to adopt is highly personal. I wish I could give you a list of all the “right” reasons to adopt, but I can’t. Adoption (heck, and life itself) is not a black-and-white area with rights and wrongs.

What I can tell you, however, is that you should not adopt a child to save them. If you are doing it because you want to be a hero or savior for a poor innocent child, chances are you are in it for the wrong reasons. Children belong in families, not in petting zoos. Adopting a child is not about erasing their past or crafting them into a specific person. Instead, adoption is about loving a child for who they are and honoring every part of them, including their history.

2) Talk openly with others who have walked the path and those who have not.

Most adoption parents I know are more than willing to share their experiences with others considering adoption. Talk to them. Talk to as many people as possible who have been through what you are considering. At the same time, talk to people who have only biological children. Talk to people who choose not to have children at all. Talk to everyone you trust about their life, experiences, and wisdom. Make sure you know what you are getting into, not just with the adoption process but with parenting kids at all ages and stages. You will never truly understand what you are getting into before doing it, but the more you talk to people who have done it, the more you will be prepared for what is coming. You can get this insight in other ways if you’re not a talker. I learned a lot from my work in the foster care system when I saw and worked with different parts of the triad and the professionals involved. I saw cases where families came together through adoption and others where adopted children were abandoned. If you’re not in a profession that gives you this exposure, you could volunteer with a local non-profit that serves single moms or adoption communities. The point is to get out there and educate yourself not just about your thoughts and options but about the bigger picture of adoption and why it is necessary for our world.

3) Pay attention to your required education.

To adopt a child, you have to do a lot of education. It can be tedious and seem unnecessary. The truth is, this education is a natural gift. This education, however monotone and redundant it may be, is valuable. Listen to it, research the parts you do not understand, and put what you learn into practice.

As adoption parents, we had classes and instructions on aspects of parenting that most people do not get. We learned about bonding with a child, healthcare concerns specific to children adopted from India, and hot-button social issues that would impact our family before, during, and after adoption. After picking up our daughter and realizing we were complete strangers, the things we learned in those pre-adoption podcasts were our backbone to get through our initial weeks together.

4) Get help when you need it.

Adoption is stressful. A significant life change happening outside your control leaves you feeling powerful and helpless. The uncertainty of the process alone is enough to throw anyone for a loop. Addin the complexities of dealing with foreign countries, bureaucracy, and/or kids with special needs, and you have a lot going on. My family’s journey through adoption taught me that no one could do it alone. The process itself requires input and recommendations from more people than you may even think you know. If you can be humble enough to accept the lesson, then asking for help down the line will be no problem. If you feel your mental health is impacted, talk to a therapist. If you have questions about special needs, speak to a doctor. If you notice conflicts in your marriage, work them out. If you realize your child needs something you cannot give them, find out how to get it for them, even if it means admitting that someone or something else is more equipped to meet their needs than you are. If you need help, put any excuses aside and get it.

I do not know what happened to that girl in India after she was returned to the orphanage. I will probably wonder about her for the rest of my life. I know that all the authorities involved are asking themselves what they could have done differently to keep it from happening. Now, you know what you can do, too.

If you need to have a difficult conversation about canceling an adoption, start with a lawyer who can give you true and honest facts about your situation. If you think that’s me, click here to schedule a no-cost coaching call.