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YouTube and Instagram mom Myka Stauffer was famous for her sunny, positive online presence. Her perpetually coiffed and photogenic family could have easily been mistaken for models in a Williams Sonoma catalog, and it earned her lucrative partnership deals with major companies. But on May 26, Stauffer uploaded an unusual YouTube video: a tearful explanation of why she had “rehomed” her special needs child, which she has adopted from China two-and-a-half years earlier. Within 36 hours, the announcement triggered negative articles in People, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, and dozens of other publications.
The general reaction was rage at a seemingly selfish, well-off family adopting a special needs child in an effort to build Internet clout for cash, but then jettison him when things got inconvenient.
I understood the rage, but for me, the story was like the re-opening of a painful cut. I have been on the other end of a “rehoming” adoption, and the resulting trauma to the child can be catastrophic. I had worked for years to forgive the family that “rehomed” my son—in other words, they gave him up for me.
Like Stauffer, I am the parent of a large family with a mix of biological children and adopted children with special needs from foreign countries. When she cries about her (now former) special needs child, I understand her pain.
But no matter my sympathy for her plight, I cannot ignore a simple ethical fact:
Rehoming is monstrous.
The vast majority of adoptions feature no villains. For people who are in impossible situations, such as extreme poverty, illness, addiction, imprisonment, or the death of one or both of the parents, adoption may very well be the least harmful of the available solutions. But “rehoming”—a somewhat euphemistic term for adopting a child, and then putting that same child up for adoption again—is not one of these least-bad choices. Rather, it’s an avoidable, typically unnecessary, and extraordinarily evil thing.
The Stauffers are being slammed by the media because they are minor celebrities, but their story is not uncommon. While reliable statistics on rehoming are not available, it is likely that thousands of children are rehomed in the United States every year. Some are rehomed multiple times. Special needs children are especially likely to be rehomed.
The stories of rehoming—in my experience—go something like this.
A well-meaning, relatively wealthy American family decides that they want to save the world. And of course, look great while doing so. What better way to do so than to adopt a child?
But not just any adoption. International adoption. And perhaps not just any international adoption, but a special needs international adoption. Even people with pure motives will understand—at least subconsciously—that there is not much you can do to earn praise than to adopt a special needs child from another country.
The process of adoption is difficult, expensive, and takes years to complete. However, for those years, you have never felt more important and energized. Your friends and family are behind you 100 percent. Everyone tells you what a great person you are for doing it.
When the child comes home, there is a honeymoon period that lasts several months. There are struggles and hard times, sure, but you have been fattened up with confidence from a few years of everyone telling you that you are the best. Moreover, once at home, people stop you on the street and congratulate you for adopting a special needs child (they can usually guess that the child is adopted when the whole family is white but the kid in the wheelchair is brown). You get used to the fact that when you dine out at restaurants, there is a good chance that—at the end of the meal—the waiter will announce that an anonymous patron has paid for your meal.
My wife has even had people approach her on the street and empty out their wallets for her, in tears. More than once.
So at this point, you are feeling pretty good about yourself.
But then the reality sets in, the honeymoon ends, and things start to get hard.
The special needs child you adopted has—wait for it—special needs. A lot of special needs. 24/7 line-of-sight care special needs. The child might even be a danger to themselves or others.
While special needs are challenging enough, this child has also experienced tremendous loss and trauma in his life. Reactive Attachment Disorder—or RAD—is terrifying. RAD happens when young children, due to the trauma they have encountered in their most vulnerable years, become incapable of forming emotional attachments to their caregiver. This is a somewhat clinical way of describing children who may have violent mood-swings, a joyless demeanor, and no interest in typical child play.
You might start telling yourself stories. Maybe the child will be better off somewhere else? Maybe another parent can actually connect with this child? So you might call up a rehoming agency and fill out some paperwork. Within months—far shorter than the years spent in international adoption—the child is gone. You wish him well, and you tell yourself that you made a hard choice, but ultimately the right one.
The problem is solved from your end. But for the child, it is a different story. That child—the child that arguably is the most vulnerable and oppressed child in the world, as a disabled orphan in a poverty-stricken country—has been re-victimized. Let us review the trauma that has been imposed on the child in his first few years of life:
Loss of birth parents. Loss of birth siblings.
Being placed in an orphanage. Perhaps a second orphanage, or a third. At some orphanages, he might be beaten, ignored, or otherwise abused. At some orphanages, he might try to make emotional connections with his caregiver, only to be ripped away and sent somewhere else. Each instance of abuse—and each emotional connection severed—is another loss to mourn.
He finally makes it to his forever home! But it is with people who have strange, white skin; they do not look like him. They do not even speak his language. These strangers take him on a plane to a new country, with a new language, new food, new sights, and new smells.
He starts to learn the language and connect with his new caregivers, who he calls “mom and dad.” It is difficult, but he tries his hardest to connect.
But his long history of loss resurfaces. He suffers from nightmares, anxiety, outbursts. When offered food, he might lash out, because in his deep subconscious, he remembers being beaten by the person who gave him food long ago.
Now, after years of learning to adjust to this new family, he is “rehomed.” He is taken from “mom and dad” and flown on another plane to a new state, where he calls new people “mom and dad.” All of the emotional connections he tried to make with his adopted parents and siblings are now severed.
Hopefully, he will not be “rehomed” again. But he might be. Each lost connection another trauma.
This story is personal for me because I have adopted, including a “rehoming” adoption in America. My adopted children have experienced trauma, but the wounds on the rehomed one are of a different magnitude.
The worst part is that the crime of rehoming is avoidable with the proper education. On Instagram, Stauffer wrote that she wished “autism and adoption trauma had a manual to direct you through it all.”
In fact, there is such a manual. The late Dr. Karyn Purvis pioneered treatment for RAD and other adoption pathologies at Texas Christian University over the several decades of her career. Now, the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development is the gold standard for coaching adoptive parents.
Adoption is not a fun, happy, Instagram-worthy journey. Adoptive parents need to understand the possibilities for RAD and the strategies for helping their children heal before they choose to adopt. And once an adoption is finalized, parents need to read the books, attend the conferences, and partner with experts. Yes, it is a lot of work, but this is now your child, and the rehoming cop-out is not an acceptable path. Causing more harm to a child already aching with pain is not OK.
But I forgive the Stauffers and every other parent that has unnecessarily given up their child for adoption. Not because they deserve it, but because unforgiveness is a prison.
I had to learn to forgive the adoptive parents of my son, which was such a monumental task that I started praying about it several months before the adoption occurred. I had to meet the woman who was abandoning my boy, and spend a weekend with her to complete the “transition.” This woman had found the most vulnerable person she could find—an adorable, disabled African boy—and brought him to America. He loved her and called her “mama.” He loved his siblings. But his physical and mental delays were too much for them, and so more trauma was imposed on him. His first night with us—strangers to him—he cried for hours. But I must forgive his first adoptive parents and refuse to judge them in any manner; if I did not, I would be perpetually overcome with anger.
Now, years later, my boy is trying hard and doing very well, but he might not ever fully recover from his childhood trauma. The thing about childhood trauma is that it keeps coming back again and again as you get older. The remembrance of loss for a 10-year-old is different than that of an 18-year-old, and the child needs to mourn in different ways depending on their age.
But there is no other choice for these rehomed children. As parents, we must love and support them for their entire lives, no matter the struggles or developmental delays. Any measure of breakthrough, no matter how small or temporary—is worth it.
Jarvis Best is the pseudonym of an attorney and writer.Published in