The problem with rehoming a child is that any loss of a family results in trauma, and any subsequent change of homes is a source of stress with lasting effects.

The term “rehoming” originally applied to those who take in a dog or cat then decide they can’t or won’t keep it, so they find someone else to take it in. The needs of children, however, are far more complex than those of pets. For this reason, children should never be passed off between homes as easily as Fido or Kitty. This should be obvious, yet sadly, in America, it seems it is not. Kids here still get rehomed on the regular, despite laws proposed or enacted to curtail such dangerous transactions.

The Rehoming of Natalia Grace

The tragic story of Natalia Grace, currently airing on HBO Max, is only a surface look at the problem with rehoming a child. Natalia was born in the Ukraine with dwarfism, and her birth certificate verified her date of birth. Her single mother abandoned her to an orphanage at the advice of doctors. At the age of five, an American family from New Hampshire with two adopted sons chose to adopt Natalia. Within two years, though, they were seeking to “rehome” her, complaining that she didn’t fit in with their boys. Like many kids adopted from foreign orphanages, she was diagnosed with a host of challenges that included RAD (reactive attachment disorder).

A Florida agency brokered a “tri-state adoption,” enabling the New Hampshire family to surrender her to the Barnetts, an Indiana family with three sons. Interstate Compact reportedly raised questions, delaying the Barnett’s trip home. Eventually the placement got cleared by officials, but Natalia encountered trouble in this new home, too. They claimed she was a danger to herself and to others, a liar and a sociopath. Within two years, the Barnetts had removed her from school and gone to court to change her birth certificate, claiming she was not a 9-year-old girl, but rather, a twenty-two year old woman. This made it possible for them to rent an apartment for her and leave her behind when the Barnett family moved to Canada, but state officials then charged the adoptive family with abandoning a disabled person.

DNA and dental records proved that Natalia had not been an adult, but a child, left to live alone.  A third family took her in and adopted her as an adult when she actually turned 22, and they seemed to have enjoyed a starring role in the documentary on her life, but at the end of filming, they announced that they too were turning her out. (The actual reasons are apparently being withheld from the public as a cliffhanger until the next season of the documentary comes out.) Natalia Grace’s birthmom in the Ukraine has said she can come home, but the  clearly-wounded woman child has announced she is currently seeking financial support on GoFundMe to set up a new home and business on her own in the US. Adopted three times, she is still without any family to call her own, but with plenty of scars that highlight the problem with rehoming a child.

Can Rehoming a Child be Avoided?

The vast majority of children rehomed by American families were adopted internationally, or through the child welfare system, according to most experts. This is particularly tragic, because those are typically some of the most vulnerable of adoptees, given their traumatic origins.

Child placement will never be an exact science, unfortunately. Children who cannot stay with their families of origin have typically faced some sort of hardships, trauma or needs. The homes in which they get placed may or may not be adequately-suited to care for them long-term or permanently, however loving or well-intentioned the parents may be.  There may always be a possibility of placement breakdown.

Here are some guidelines that can help protect children from the greatest risks of rehoming, though.

  • Alternative placement arrangements should always be handled by trained and licensed child welfare professionals, and only after extensive counseling has occurred with the child and both families.
  • Any subsequent foster or adoptive families must be homestudy-ready and trauma-informed.
  • Preplacement visits must occur, to ensure that the child being moved and the new parents/caretakers all feel fully-informed, and have time to express any concerns in advance of placement.
  • Post-placement family counseling, as well as supervision by trained and licensed child welfare professionals, should continue for at least a year following any subsequent placement.
  • Expenses and fees incurred in the re-placement of children who were previously adopted should be carefully monitored by the courts.

It’s common to try to find answers or explanations for failed adoptions; along with that comes a very human inclination to assign blame. It is pointless, however, to fault anyone for the breakdown of a placement that was necessitated by imperfect circumstances to begin with. Furthermore, it is simply wrong to ever blame any child for the failure of an adoption they likely had no voice in choosing from the start.  

Make the Child’s Last Home Best

As an agency that does seek to help all children in need of a home, whatever their age, Abrazo has (on occasion) helped to find safe and loving families for children who were previously placed elsewhere. It’s never easy to do, and it’s always heart-wrenching to bear witness to the trauma kids suffer when they must be moved from one household to another.

The situations we’ve encountered have always involved children who were born in the US to parents who tried to raise them themselves but found they could not, due to illness or addiction or poverty or abuse. Some kids were with their bioparent/s for months or years; others were bounced around between relatives or friends who were also unqualified to keep them.

Because Abrazo believes so firmly in open adoption, the kids we help have the advantage of not having to forever lose all contact with their original family in order to securely bond and attach to the adoptive family who is prepared to permanently commit to their needs. This makes a huge difference– as does the full-disclosure of information before placement, the preplacement preparation and visits, and the post-placement supervision and support.

Rehoming a Child Must Restore their Future

Any subsequent placement of a child already placed should be done only for their welfare, not for the comfort or convenience of a family wanting merely to be released from an obligation or freed of a burden. 

As the professionals who take on such immense challenges, we can’t erase the trauma that every child has experienced before coming into our care, of course. But we can (and do) take every possible precaution to get to know each child in advance, to make every placement decision child-centered, and to strive to make each child’s last home the right one to care for them through adulthood.

The tragedy of rehoming a child is that every child deserves to never have to lose their home or family to begin with. When this is unavoidable, we must all do everything in our power to repair what is broken and shield that child from subsequent losses, for their best interests and that of the entire society around them, too.





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