How is it that even the best adoption story can still have an imperfect ending?

One possible explanation could be that all adoptions begin amidst imperfect circumstances.

Sometimes, adoptions result from hyperfertility, unplanned pregnancy, an unexpected birth, inadequate resources or poverty. Other times, the circumstances may include an extramarital affair, nonconsensual sex, addiction, incarceration, or child safety concerns. Whatever the reason, anyone who surrenders a baby for adoption faces an imperfect ending– the loss of parenting rights– in hopes of giving their child a bright new beginning.

Understandably, no adoptive parent who is part of that bright new beginning wants to think of their child’s adoption story possibly having an imperfect ending. Social workers can warn them about all the unknowns and worst case scenarios, of course? Yet each infant who is placed is assumed to hold great potential in life. And all parents who place or adopt rightfully hope for nothing but the best for this little person they all adore so.  (Which is as it should be.)

What Begins Well

People who adopt at Abrazo have typically waited to become parents for months (or years). During that time, they complete a mountain of preparation, adoption courses and other “homework” that the average biological parent never has to do. They know adoption never comes with guarantees, yet like every other parent, they build their families with loads of love and the best of intentions.

Each adopting parent in Texas receives a copy of the placing parent’s self-reported family medical history, and a copy of the baby’s hospital record after placement. They go home with their new son or daughter, and are typically surrounded with support and encouragement. The child they adopt has the best of care, a safe home, devoted parents, and every advantage that any kid might need.

Even so: adoption cannot ensure that each adoptee’s every need will be met, because sometimes the greatest needs can be the least evident. This is where the primal wound theory comes in. Some adoptees struggle with a deep-seated sense of abandonment, rejection or loss (even if their adoption is open, not closed.) Others may bear the wounds of fetal alcohol syndrome, reactive attachment disorder, &/or the effects of neonatal abstinence (prenatal drug exposure.) Some may be genetically-predisposed to challenges like ADHD, bipolar depression, schizophrenia or other mental health issues that become apparent over time.

Dedicated adoptive families invest in every possible resource to help get them the treatment they need (which is why statistics show adoptees are more likely to get needed psychiatric care than any other kids. Yet experts warn that Americans nationwide are facing an epic mental health crisis, adopted or not. Sadly, the patients’  families usually bear the brunt of it.

Adoptees & Mental Health

The families of kids with mental health issues are typically faced with complex psych issues and ineffective and expensive courses of treatment. School options become limited when behavior becomes unmanageable, and even the best of therapy doesn’t always help. The impact of a son’s or daughter’s psychiatric problems can put other family members at risk, testing even the best of marriages. Friends and relatives may grow weary of the family drama and distance themselves, further isolating the adoptive parents. Should law enforcement get involved, the stakes become even higher.

Some parents suffer in silence, fearing the judgement of others and worrying that they are somehow failing their child and their child’s birthparents. Others exhaust all options in their effort to find solutions, only to find the entire system is broken, depleting both their energies and means.

The adoptee at the center of such a crisis often feels like a tree uprooted in a storm. Most want to feel better, yet struggle with compounded issues, which may or may not be adoption-related, but are real and complex. They may resent feeling obligated to please their parents, or be woefully unable to do so. Some self-medicate, in hopes of dulling the pain, while others are noncompliant with prescribed medications, disliking the side-effects. They get frustrated by appointments that seem pointless, and they long for some relief that too often seems unattainable.

Great Potential, but an Imperfect Ending?

Why is it that even great potential cannot prevent an imperfect ending, sometimes? That’s a question many are pondering this week, as we lovingly remember a handsome young man with a brilliant smile. His name was Spencer Alan, and he surely had potential in abundance.

Spencer started life as a beautiful baby boy, lovingly placed for adoption with a wonderful family who fully embraced open adoption. He was intelligent, kind, introspective and happy (except when he wasn’t.) Spencer loved history, veterans, the arts and nature. The outdoors was his happy place,  especially the ocean (fittingly, seafood was his favorite meal.) Music was his solace, and his fav artists were Nirvana, Elvis, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Lead Belly & Charlie Patton. He loved people, and always wondered why people did not actually talk to each other more? Spencer was an intense and deep thinker, who truly listened to his friends and cared deeply about how they felt.  His birthmom and birthsister enjoyed hearing from him, even when he would occasionally text more emoticons than words. Like all kids, Spencer had his ups and downs, but when the downs seemed to overpower the ups, his devoted parents got him help, again and again. His entire family loved him unconditionally, even when his challenges tested their very limits. He was proud of his heritage, yet hated his illness and how it caused him to struggle. He was raised in the faith, and knew that God loves him, even when he didn’t always love himself. 

Yet there came a day, tragically, when the darkness overtook him. And in a moment of sheer hopelessness and 20-year-old desperation, Spencer did the unthinkable, leaving his whole family utterly devastated. It breaks their hearts to know his laughter, his music and his creativity have been stifled forever. Even in their grief, though, the Miles family long to somehow see some good come out of this tragedy for others. This is why they have established the Spencer Alan Miles Memorial Fund, to help implement new ways of better supporting adoptees who face mental health issues and the families that love them.

Preventing Adoptee Suicide

Anyone considering suicide can call or text 988 for help anytime. Also, for anyone who may be (or love) an adopted person, please take time to watch the United Suicide Survivors’ adoptee panel. (And click here to locate an adoption-competent therapist in any state in the USA. You can find additional resources for adoptees and adoptive parents here.)

Famed author Melissa Fay Greene became a charter member of the club no parent ever wants to join in 2014. Her handsome, gifted son Fisseha (“Sol”) Greene, whom they’d adopted from Ethiopa at age 10, took his own life at age 19. He was a college sophomore who’d been discouraged about spending the soccer season benched too often, but other than that, there’d been few, if any signs of trouble. In this piece published by The Cut almost four years later, she wrote of the unique risks of impulsive suicide  (“the kind of death that defies prediction”) and mused about her son’s final thoughts. Obviously, for those left behind, the quest for answers never ends.

Statistically, research indicates that adoptees are at increased risk of suicide. It is vital for the the entire adoption community to be aware of this, although there are widely varying and unproven theories as to the cause. One article written by a Seattle adoptive mother of four examines possible reasons that adoptees are believed to be 4 times more likely to end their own lives than nonadopted persons: read it here. (Grieving parents who have endured such an imperfect ending should also read A Letter to Parents Surviving a Child’s Suicide by Sam Fiorello. His beloved son Lucas died the year before he would’ve turned twenty.)

Ending with a Challenge

Clearly, all life is mortal, yet nobody’s destiny is ever hopeless. And nobody’s life’s beginning need ever determine their end.

While there are no easy answers, let us all work together to address this problem.

By doing so, we could help ensure that the isolation and despair that fuels an imperfect ending like adoptee suicide just might end with us.

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