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Failed adoptions stir outrage; reforms are elusive

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"A lot of people say they have a heart for adoption. But you also have to have a head for it," Jacobs said. "You think love will solve everything. It doesn’t."

Under State Department policies, U.S. agencies that arrange international adoptions are subject to accreditation by the independent Council on Accreditation. Its president, Richard Klarberg, wants to tighten the standards for how the agencies screen and educate parents, notably in cases involving children with special needs.

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"Our goal is to force or cajole the providers to demonstrate they are providing very intense training and preparation," Klarberg said.

He acknowledged that screening is challenging.

"It’s sometimes very difficult for agencies to pick up on the signals that would lead them to believe, ‘Uh oh, this family is going to be abusive,’" he said.

While the State Department helps process international adoptions, domestic adoptions are under the states’ jurisdiction. There are financial incentives for states to increase the number of adoptions out of their foster care systems, but often there’s little or no funding to support families who encounter difficulties afterward.

A leading think-tank, the Donaldson Adoption Institute, has issued reports in recent years making the case for expanding post-adoption support and tightening oversight of now-unregulated adoption transactions conducted via the Internet.

Yet the institute’s executive director, Adam Pertman, and some of his counterparts with other organizations are frustrated as many states, rather than increasing post-adoption support funding, are cutting it.

"Policymakers and politicians are great at paying lip service — always saying children are our most important resource," Pertman said. "Where are the actions to support the words?"

In Washington state, there was an effort to respond substantively to Hana Williams’ death — namely the task force comprised of top child-welfare experts and advocates.

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In May 2012, the task force issued recommendations, including a proposal for more rigorous screening and training of parents before they could complete any adoption, domestic or international.

The bill that emerged contained little of the recommendations’ substance. It proposed new procedures for tracking failed adoptions and said prospective adoptive parents should be questioned about their approach to child discipline — but not disqualified unless their planned practices were illegal. Despite its modest scope, the bill died.

Among those expressing dismay was novelist David Guterson, a resident of Puget Sound’s Bainbridge island, the author of "Snow Falling on Cedars" and the adoptive father of an Ethiopian child.

"Current laws are patently insufficient and in dire need of overhaul," Guterson wrote last month in a Seattle Times op-ed.

Guterson and Roberts, the sponsor of the failed bill, said future efforts should focus on better pre-adoption screening. Both cited the legal hurdles in the way of any mandatory post-adoption scrutiny.

"Once the adoption is declared final, we have no rights to go fishing around and asking how are things going," Roberts said. "If it were possible legally, we should give it a try. But there’s a point of finality, when the court says this child is now yours, and the state — unless there’s a complaint or evidence of abuse or neglect — has no role."

Joe Kroll, executive director of the Minnesota-based North American Council on Adoptable Children, worries that horror stories of failed adoptions might trigger overreactions that would intrude on the autonomy and rights of the many successful adoptive families. An adoptive father himself, Kroll said he wouldn’t want his Korea-born daughter raised under any system that differentiated her from biological children.

Melanie Chung-Sherman, an adoption therapist in Dallas who also was adopted from South Korea, said post-adoption monitoring would be unfeasible unless parents volunteered for it.

"The families are ready to move on and become independent of all these third parties that have been involved in their lives," she said.

However, Chung-Sherman said families considering adoption should be made aware of the potential challenges.

"It’s hard to tell somebody, ‘I want you to expect the worst,’" she said. "The reality is, not everyone should adopt."

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