THE REVOLVING DOORS OF FAMILY COURT:
CONFRONTING BROKEN ADOPTIONS*
DAWN J. POST** AND BRIAN ZIMMERMAN***
In the last few years, headlines have gripped the public, highlighting
dramatic failures in international adoption cases.1 Who can forget the
Copyright © 2012, Dawn J. Post and Brian Zimmerman.
* The authors are practitioners in the child welfare field. Accordingly, much of what is
written in this article is their view of the situation as it currently stands. Also, the case
examples mentioned contain confidential information for which citation cannot be
provided. However, these cases were handled by the authors or explained to the authors by
other attorneys, social workers, or participants in th e respective cases.
** Dawn Post is Co-Borough Director of the Brooklyn, New York office of the
Children’s Law Center New York (CLCNY), a non-profit law firm that represents over
10,000 children per year in one of the busiest family court systems in the United States in
guardianship, custody, visitation, orders of protection, and related child protective cases.
She is indebted to Executive Director Karen P. Simmons for her mentorship and support;
the CLCNY’s staff attorneys BB Liu and Diana Yu, and legal and college interns Yoonmee
Cho, Robin Axelman, Jasmine Omeke, and Kathryn Hensley for their research and work on
the broken adoptions case study; and Kris Peterson for her insightful comments and editing.
She would also like to thank Judge Edwina Richar dson-Mendelson, Administrative Jud ge
of the New York City Family Courts, and New York City Family Court judges and referees,
Lawyers for Children, and Second Department Assigned Counsel Panel, for collaborating
on this important topic and participating in anonymous surveys designed to inform a
meaningful policy discussion in NYC.
*** Brian Zimmerman is an attorney on the Assigned Counsel/Attorney for Children
Panel in Kings County Family Court. For the last twelve years, he has represented children,
adults, and foster parents in child protective, custody/visitation, order of protection, juvenile
delinquency, PINS, and termination of parental rights/adoption proceedings. The previous
thirteen years, he represented only children in t he aforementioned family court proceedings.
He is president of the Kings County panel attorney association, and sits on numerous
citywide or local committees for child pro tection, termination, custody, and juvenile
delinquency practice issues. The author gratefully thanks Harriet Wein berger, the Director
of the Attorney for Children Program of the Second Department of the State of New York
for her support in disseminating the anonymous surveys for this article; Judge Edwina
Richardson-Mendelson, Administrative Judge of the New York City Family Courts and
New York City Family Court judges and referees; and Lawyers for Children, for their
collaboration and participation in the anonymous survey process.
438 CAPITAL UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW [40:437
Tennessee woman who abruptly placed her adopted son from Russia alone
on a plane back to his native country with a note that he was “violent and
ha[d] severe psychopathic issues”?2 Similarly, there is a recent focus on
domestic cases in which parents have sought to dissolve their relationship
with their adopted children, alleging extreme behavioral, psychological, or
medical needs, only to return them to the state foster care system to receive
treatment and care.3 Acknowledging that while “the last thing adoptive
1 Brooke Adams, The Challenge of Adopting Foreign Children, SALT LAKE TRIB. (Apr.
20, 2010), http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=10536571&itype=storyID&keyw
adoptive families were shocked to read a post advertising for a new adoptive family for a
five year old girl whose family could not keep h er, because “[t]hey c[ould ]not continue to
have her in their home as they [were] not equipped to deal with her needs and they ha[d]
other small children they need[ed] to protect.” The girl was born to a single mother who
died of AIDS, and was diagnosed as HIV positive and as having Reactive Attachment
Disorder. She was engaging in inappropriate sexualized behavior. Id. See also Sarah
Viren, Houstonians Step Forward to Fix Failed Adoptions, HOUS. CHRON. (Sept. 26, 2007),
adoptions-1583216.php (“Organizing through phone calls among friends or Internet mailing
lists, parents and adoption agencies work to find new homes for children” whose
international adoptions have failed).
2 Damien Cave, At a Family’s Home in Tennessee, Reminders of a Boy Returned to
Russia, N.Y. TIMES, Apr. 11, 2010, at A16.
3 Beata Mostafavi, Grand Blanc Mother Who Made Headlines for Transracial Adoption
10 Years Ago Now Struggles Caring for Adopted Daughter with Special Needs, FLINT J.
(Aug. 22, 2010), http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2010/08/grand_blanc_mother_
who_made_he.html (discussing an adoptive mother who stated that she could “no longer
parent one of her five adopted children and she want[ed] the young woman—who had a
long history of aggression and mental health issues—out of her home”); Ryan Owens &
Suzan Clarke, Oklahoma Couple Want to Return Troubled Adopted Son to State,
ABCNEWS.COM (Dec. 21, 2009), http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Parenting/tony-melissa-
wescott-oklahoma-return-adopted-son/story?id=9387389 (describing adoptive parents who
stated that their adopted son was too much for them to handle after he became violent
toward other children, hurt and killed animals, and ran away regularly); Barbara White
Stack, When Adoption Isn’t the Right Answer, PITT. POST-GAZETTE (Jan. 18, 2004),
http://www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20040118fosterlocal2p2.asp (describing an
adoptive parent who was charged by the Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and
Families with failing to assist after adopting a child who became out of control in teenage
years, fought with students and teachers in class, hit his sisters, d efied rules, and ran away);
Barbara White Stack, Adoptions Don’t Always Pan Out, PITT. POST-GAZETTE (July 6,
2012] REVOLVING DOORS OF FAMILY COURT 439
children need is to be rejected by another family,”4 these middle-to-upper
class families argue that their children’s mental health needs are so great
that they cannot financially, emotionally, or physically afford to continue
to care for them,5 and that “loving [them] means letting [them] go.”6 This
problem was highlighted in 2008 when Nebraska became notorious for
being the one state in the country with a unique safe haven law.7 The safe
haven law was intended to allow parents to leave unwanted infants at the
hospital; however, the law did not identify an age limit, allowing parents to
abandon children up the age of eighteen without legal consequences.8 In
the first four months of the law’s existence, before this loophole was
corrected, twenty-seven parents or guardians left thirty-six children at
hospitals (none of them infants).9 About half of these cases involved
adoptive parents or guardians, and six children were transported into
Nebraska from other states and abandoned in hospitals.10 Americans have
vilified these adoptive families, comparing their decisions to return
children to the system to that of returning a defective product to a store.11
Revictimizing an already vulnerable and innocent child is certainly
(describing an adoptive parent who returned to the state a ten year old, whom she had
adopted as a two year old, because of bad behavior, school suspensions, lying, and
4 Owens & Clarke, supra note 3.
5 See Bonnie Miller Rubin, Parents Face Heartbreaking Choice: Do They Give up
Their Adopted 7-Year-Old Daughter?, CHI. TRIB. (Sept. 21, 2010), http://articles.chicagotrib
constellation-new-jersey-woman; Patrick Yeagle, When Adoption Goes Wrong, ILL. TIMES
(Aug. 11, 2011), http://www.illinoistimes.com/Springfield/article-8964-when-adoptiongoes
6 Owens & Clarke, supra note 3.
7 See Erik Eckholm, Nebraska Limits Child Safe-Haven Law to Infants, N.Y. TIMES,
Nov. 22, 2008, at A10.
9 LB157 - Safe Haven Cases, NEB. DEP’T HEALTH & HUMAN SERVS., http://dhhs.ne.gov/
children_family_services/Documents/cases.pdf (last updated Nov. 22, 2008).
10 LB157 - Safe Haven Cases, supra note 9; Matrix of Commonalities of Safe Haven
Cases, NEB. DEP’T HEALTH & HUMAN SERVS., http://dhhs.ne.gov/children_family_se
rvices/Documents/SHChrt112608.pdf (last updated Nov. 26, 2008).
11 Shannon Lisa, Should Adoptive Parents Be Allowed to Return Children with
Behavior Problems to the State?, HELIUM (June 21, 2010), http://www.helium.com/debates/
310335/side_by_side; Bonnie Miller Rubin, A Firestorm from Tribune Readers, TRIB.
NATION BLOG (Sept. 30, 2010, 3:56 PM), http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/tribnation/2