Claire adopted a little boy. Two years later, she gave him back.

When single woman Claire Patterson adopted a little boy in 2011, she never imagined she’d be handing him back to state care just two years later.

“It said in his child performance report that he was a healthy, babbling baby boy,” the 40-year-old photographer recounts on her website.

“I was thrilled when I was told I could collect him.”

But the British woman soon found the little boy was “seriously neurologically impaired”; he had breathing difficulties, couldn’t roll over at 18 months old, required numerous hospital stays and only spoke a single word: “Mummy”.

When the toddler began having dozens of seizures a day, Ms Patterson found she couldn’t facilitate his disability – and that despite her love for him, she ultimately “had to hand him back”.

“As a single adopter I was in no position to care for his extensive medical needs, maintain a roof over our heads and preserve any degree of normal life,” she says of the decision, which she describes as “heartbreaking.”

Ms Patterson’s distressing experience prompted her to set up Adoption Disruption UK, a support group for parents in similar circumstances. But it’s also swung the media spotlight back onto”re-homing” adopted children – a topic that provokes controversy every time it hits the headlines.

When her son began having dozens of seizures a day, Ms Patterson ultimately conceded that she "had to hand him back".(Image: iStock)

In 2012, 33-year-old Tennessee nurse Torry Ann Hansen put her seven-year-old adopted son Justin back on a plane to his native Russia alone, except for a note saying he was seriously disturbed, the New York Times reports.


The Hansen family later told Associated Press they believed Justin was healthy prior to the adoption, and that they'd been 'misled' about his condition.

In 2012, writer Joyce Maynard drew criticism over her open letter about passing her two adopted Ethiopian daughters to a new family, in which she admitted: "I was not able to give them what they needed".

And in 2013, an investigation by Reuters journalist Megan Twohey found that an American couple turned over custody of their troubled adopted Liberian daughter, Quita, to unfit parents they'd met online. That disturbing investigation also uncovered a series of internet message boards dedicated to "private re-homing", on which adopted kids were re-shuffled to new families like pets.

Listen: Mia Freedman interviews Sue Brierley, who's two adopted sons went on to inspire the movie Lion. Post continues after audio. 

As the report found, children were sometimes abused in their second, or even third, re-homing -- with little regulatory oversight. In one shocking instance, a girl adopted from China and later sent to a second home told Reuters she was made to dig her own grave by her second adoptive family.

Fortunately, Australia's adoption laws are tighter than those of countries like the US, where as many as 10 percent of adoptions are “dissolved", federal Children’s Bureau statistics indicate.

As Senior Lecturer Dr Patricia Fronek of Griffith University tells Mamamia, while official Australian figures were lacking, "anecdotally, we appear to have a lot less disruption than in other systems."

But where broken adoptions do happen, Dr Fronek says they're often down to a lack of preparation by adoptive families.

"There's just enormous adjustments to make and in lots of ways it's impossible to prepare totally for that," Dr Fronek says. (Image: iStock)

"The contributing factors would probably (include) parents being under prepared and not really understanding the reality of parenting particular children," she says.

She adds that families tend to face bigger adjustment challenges the older a child is.

"There's language, there's fitting into new families and homes and systems," she says. "And often with adoption, people can forget that a child's life doesn't start with adoption - there's existing relationships even within orphanages. There's just enormous adjustments to make and in lots of ways it's impossible to prepare totally for that."

The Adoption Disruption website suggests that the phenomenon is particularly widespread "among those parents who have adopted from Eastern European countries, particularly Russia and Romania, where some children have suffered far more from their institutionalisation than their parents were led to believe."

romanian orphanage feature
Biteni's orphanage, southwestern Romania. (Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

"The child may have developmental, psychological or medical issues that the parents cannot handle, or had not been informed of prior to the adoption, or both," the site suggests.

That certainly seemed the case for Beth and Tom Remboldt, who told the New York Post they gave up their nine-year-old Russian daughter Galina after she displayed severe behavioural problems including chronic toileting difficulties and screaming at her adopted mother, “I want you to eat my poop and die."


The family later discovered Galina had been removed from a faeces-infested house, that her body was covered in burns from childhood abuse, and that she'd been deprived of food and heat.

The Guardian similarly reports that some Romanian orphanages keep children in cage-like cribs for 23 hours a day and wash them forcibly with cold taps.

Once adopted, many such institutionalised Romanian children rocked back and forth, showed a limited capacity to move and speak, and struggled to give and receive affection.

romanian orphans feature
Orphaned Romanian children with disabilities lie in the Targu Jiu orphanage, southwestern Romania. (Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Ms Patterson's support group is intended as "a shoulder to cry on" for parents who've had to give up their adopted children -- a circumstance that's undeniably, desperately sad for everyone involved.

Dr Fronek tells Mamamia that we simply "don't really know" much about how children deal with adoption disruption in the Australian context, but that one thing is clear: they suffer terribly.

"We know from overseas experiences that it has a shocking effect on adopted children," she said, "because it's rejection all over again."

Have you had any experiences with adoption disruption?