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Kya, 10, is one of the six children Michelle Schuldt has adopted from Colorado’s child welfare system.

D’Borah Israel went to live with her foster mother at age 2, rescued from neglect so severe she had to scrounge for food. After the woman adopted her, Colorado’s child welfare system closed her case and marked it a success: another child who found a “forever family.”

Her caseworker no longer had to check on her. 

By age 13, though, after dealing with her adoptive mother’s drug problems, being abused by her mother’s boyfriends, and repeatedly running away, Israel was back in the system, once again a foster kid. She lived in dozens of foster homes, group homes and residential treatment centers before she turned 18, when she left foster care to live in homeless shelters. 

“When I look back at it, I think wow, nobody really cared or listened to me,” Israel said. “It changed me. I don’t trust people. I’m always asking people, ‘Are you listening?’ It made me an angry child. I’m not angry anymore but I’m still making sure people are listening.” 

Israel is part of what has been an invisible population of Colorado children who lost their families twice — removed from their biological parents because of abuse and neglect, then put back into foster care by the adoptive parents who committed to care for them.

A woman runs on a track while listening to music.
D’borah Israel goes for a jog at Lakewood High School. Israel lived in foster homes from age 13 to 18, going through 63 total placements. She moved into her own apartment in Lakewood this summer.
A woman flips through her sketch book.
Israel, 23, likes to sketch and draw, and is beginning to learn graphic design.

In the past 10 years, 1,094 kids who were adopted from foster care in Colorado ended up back in the system, The Colorado Sun has learned. For the first time, the state Department of Human Services released data on what it terms “disrupted” and “dissolved” adoptions, following requests from The Sun under the Colorado Open Records Act. The Sun also found:

What are “disrupted” and “dissolved” adoptions?

An adoption is considered disrupted when the child reenters foster care after the adoption has been finalized, or when a child is placed in an adoptive home and the adoption proceedings are called off before the adoption is finalized. 

An adoption is dissolved when the adoptive parents legally sever ties with their adopted child in court. The child goes into foster care and can be adopted by someone else.

  • Nearly 13% of adoptions of foster children in this state in the past decade have failed. On average, children of broken adoptions went back into foster care 8.5 years later. The primary reason, according to state child welfare officials: “child’s behavior problem.”
  • A $46 million program to provide financial assistance to adoptive parents to pay for therapy, day care and other help varies widely by county, creating an inequitable system that can contribute to families failing to stay together. 
  • Colorado has little training for parents who are adopting children with trauma severe enough to warrant removal from their biological families. The single agency that contracts with the state to provide such training isn’t available in all counties and has had to dip into emergency funds because of budget cuts.

For years, data on broken adoptions has been elusive, with state child welfare officials saying that they did not track what happened to children after they were adopted. The judicial system did not keep track, either — juvenile court proceedings are not public, and the judicial code used for dissolving adoptions is the same as one used for termination of parental rights, making it impossible to tell whether children were losing their biological parents or their adoptive parents. A change in state law required the Colorado Department of Human Services to update its system in 2020 so it could start tracking the number of adoptions dissolved in court, which federal authorities mandated eight years ago but then never followed up with guidance on how to do so.

A woman reaches up to hold a flower.
Israel’s goal after becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant is to get her driver’s license and save to buy a truck.

Without knowing how often adoptions were failing, Colorado is behind a few other states that not only track how often adoptions fall apart but are creating review teams to find out why and new policies to support families post-adoption. Child advocates, meanwhile, have been frustrated for years by what they view as a lack of pre-adoption training for families and not enough follow-through after caseworkers move children into adoptive homes.

“There is just no question that it’s compounding trauma on trauma,” said Mary Boo, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, based in Minnesota. “We have a child that has already been taken from their birth family and then we’ve allowed that to happen to them again. There is real damage done.”

Instead of helping children recover, the system treats them as damaged, or unadoptable, she said. “It’s absolutely not the child’s fault. Even the way you say it can make you feel that it’s the child’s fault. It’s all been done to them. The entry into child welfare. The abuse. They are powerless in all of this.” 

Israel dips into a creek near her apartment building in Lakewood.

Chapter Two: A girl with three names

The list of what D’borah Israel has lost begins with her biological mother, a woman who struggled with drug addiction and was deemed unable to take care of her children. 

Then Israel lost her adoptive mother, the woman who took her in as a toddler but put her back in foster care after years of unstable living arrangements, problems with drugs, a string of boyfriends and husbands, and the inability to control a rebellious girl who kept running away. She hasn’t seen her adoptive mother in 10 years.

Colorado’s Failed Adoptions

Hundreds of children in Colorado’s foster care system were failed twice — first when they suffered abuse and neglect and had to enter the system, and again when those adoptions failed and they reentered care. Through dozens of interviews with adoptive families, young adults who were sent back into the system, child advocates and child welfare officials, The Colorado Sun found a lack of support for both children and parents. 

Failed twice: An average of 100 children a year over the past 10 years were returned to foster care in Colorado after being adopted by their “forever family.” Read more

Reforming subsidies: How are families supposed to handle adopting foster children with intense issues without enough financial support? Read more

Raise the Future: The state is looking for ways to help and train adoptive parents, and there has been success with the nonprofit Raise the Future, but budget cuts could doom the programs. Read more

Treating trauma: The top reason adoptions fail in Colorado is “child’s behavior problem.” What are reactive attachment disorder and adoption-related loss, and why is the mental health system failing to treat them? Read more

Israel, now 23, also lost any connection to most of her siblings. She found out at age 17 that she has four biological sisters and eight brothers, but she has managed to find only two of them. She does not know the name of her biological father. A sister who went to the same adoptive home as Israel also went back into foster care. Israel remembers she needed heart surgery, and she has no idea where she is or whether she’s even alive. 

Israel, too, lost her story — child welfare and adoption records that would help her piece together her childhood. She left foster care with only a few belongings and no case file to explain why she went into foster care in the first place, whether any biological relatives fought to keep her or whether her adoptive mother ever had the adoption officially dissolved in court. 

Memories of her childhood are filled with holes, but most of what she recalls is ugly. 

At about age 7, when her parents told her that she was adopted, Israel refused to believe it, thinking they were the only family she had ever had. Years later, she was told her birth mother and grandmother were addicted to drugs, and that she was taken into foster care at age 2 because she was left alone and eating out of the trash. 

Israel has vague memories of going to a foster home in the mountains at age 9, where the family kept the bedroom doors locked from the outside and where the foster children ate pasta for dinner while the family ate steak and vegetables. But then she went back to her adoptive mom.

At age 11, she was in a “trap house” on the east side of Denver where people were shooting drugs and lying passed out on mattresses and her adoptive mother was buying drugs, Israel remembers. The woman later divorced her husband and moved from house to house, from man to man. One stepdad liked pinning her down and kissing her. He once slammed her so hard in the head outside of her school that an employee reported him to social services. 

At about 12, Israel accidentally burned a pizza she was cooking for her younger siblings when her mother wasn’t home. She was hardly ever home.

At 13, she began to run away, and stay gone for days if she could. She drank alcohol and smoked weed, and sometimes, her adoptive mom would call the police. Israel remembers one officer telling her that she needed discipline and he would allow her adoptive mom to “whoop” her in front of him. 

Soon after, child protective services placed her back in foster care. Her first placement was Excelsior Youth Center, a now-closed residential facility where the teenage girls were so out of control that Israel remembers them trying to burn down the cottages where they lived, she said.

She kept running away from foster placements. Israel knows she wasn’t easy to deal with; she remembers having toddler-like temper tantrums as a teenager. “I would hold it all in and I would just let it out and scream at the top of my lungs,” she said. “I would go outside and scream and just be mad.” At 14, she was arrested and had to pay $1,000 in restitution for vandalizing the walls at a treatment center, full of rage because the staff wouldn’t let her do her laundry. 

She didn’t graduate from high school, because she hardly ever went. “I went to school a little bit, but I would ditch school. Like, at that point, I was ditching school and going and smoking weed,” Israel said. She counts 63 placements, and she hated almost all of them. “I would just either run or they would be like, ‘She’s so bad. She has to be placed out of our care. She’s not going to school,’” Israel said.

A woman lifts weights at a track.
Israel lifts 10-pound hand weights during her regular workout routine at Lakewood High School.

At 18, Israel sat in a courtroom as a judge, her caseworker, a guardian ad litem and a worker from the Chafee program, which helps foster kids transition to living on their own, discussed what to do with her. Under Colorado law, foster kids can stay in the system until age 21, receiving help with housing and health insurance. Israel’s Chafee worker, who still keeps in touch today, advocated for her to stay in care.

Israel was silent. 

“When conflict arises or things get tough, I just shut down,” she said. “That is something that I am growing out of because now it’s become a toxic trait. I get quiet. I don’t say nothing. You ask my opinion, I’m just silent.”

They closed her child welfare case, for the second time in her life. 

Israel tried living with her biological mother, but that quickly imploded, in part because of the woman’s drug use. She spent a few nights at a Coalition for the Homeless shelter, then she started catching a bus back and forth to Colorado Springs to sleep in a Salvation Army shelter there. Sometimes she slept on friends’ couches. After a fight with a friend in Commerce City, Israel walked all the way to the Denver home of her last foster family. By the time she arrived, her heels were bleeding. 

The former foster mom drove her to Urban Peak, a youth homeless shelter. Israel stayed until age 21, progressing through the agency’s program from the shelter to a subsidized apartment. 

Israel now has an apartment in Lakewood, paid for in part through a housing voucher specifically for former foster children. She passed her GED, and with help from the Chafee Program, is attending nursing school. She works in an after-school program and for Project Foster Power, a nonprofit that works to change laws to improve the child welfare system and life for kids who age out without getting adopted. 

“I’m strong because I gotta do it for myself. Nobody is going to do it for me,” Israel said. “Nobody is going to make me go to school. Nobody is going to make me go to work. No matter how much struggle you have, you can still come out on top.” 

She is on her third name. 

Israel’s adoptive family changed the name, first and last, she was given by her biological family. And Israel this year changed her name again, this time to one she got to choose. 

She named herself after Deborah in the Bible, a warrior and a leader, strong and empowered. “That’s somebody I aspire to be,” Israel said. “I needed a new start. I didn’t like carrying a name that somebody else had for me because it carried a lot of negativity and trauma.”

D’borah Israel waits for a light rail train to take to class at the Ann Rose School of Nursing Arts in Westminster. Israel changed her name this year from the one her adoptive family gave her, naming herself after Deborah in the Old Testament. “She’s a leader, and I inspire to be like her because a leader esteems others greater than themselves. Being able to love and uplift somebody else when you feel down and you feel like you can’t keep going.”

Chapter Three: “She cannot come back to my house”

Adoptive parents whose children end up back in the custody of the state of Colorado are often considered the monsters. But in interviews with several Colorado parents who have put their adoptive children back into the foster care system, they all described a lack of post-adoption support so severe that they were left with little choice. 

“I felt like a dirtbag,” said Michelle Schuldt, who has adopted six children from the child welfare system. “Horrible. I spent hours crying.” 

Schuldt gave up one of her adopted children in order to protect the others. And the gut-wrenching choice came after years of begging for help from Jefferson County child welfare caseworkers and private therapists but getting no relief, she said. 

After her biological children graduated from high school, she became a foster mother, then decided to adopt. Six kids, now ages 5-12, were adopted from Arapahoe, Adams, Denver and Jefferson counties. 

Even before the adoption, Schuldt wasn’t sure she could handle the then 2-year-old girl, the older half-sister of a boy who came to her as a baby. After a few months, she told the adoption agency that the girl would do better as an only child because she needed so much attention and supervision. County child welfare officials, Schuldt said, told her that if she didn’t adopt the girl, she could not keep her brother, either. 

A girl sits on top of the monkey bars while her mother holds up her younger brother as he tries to go across the bars.
Schuldt lifts Niko, 5, as he reaches for monkey bars at Sunburst Park in Aurora.

I am screaming to anyone that will listen. Teachers. Therapists. Somebody help me. Somebody help my kid, my family. We need help.

— Michelle Schuldt, who has adopted six children from the child welfare system.

So Schuldt, who lives in Aurora, took them both. But for the next several years, her home became a place of chaos, where everyone lived on high alert waiting for the next outburst from the girl. She hurt the other children, punched Schuldt and pulled her hair, and damaged the house, tearing a door off its hinges and breaking furniture, Schuldt said. 

Finding and keeping her in therapy was a constant effort that failed. The adoption subsidy she received equaled $11 per day, not nearly enough for Schuldt to afford child care, not to mention additional therapies not funded by Medicaid, the government insurance program given to all Colorado foster children and offered to adoptive families. 

The behavioral issues intensified about two years ago, when the girl was 10. “Every second in my home, I had to be vigilant about ‘Who is she bullying? Who is she touching?’” Schuldt said.

Three times, the child told school officials that her adoptive mother was beating her. The allegations were investigated and dismissed. 

In 2020, Schuldt caught the girl inappropriately touching two of her other children. In an effort to prevent the adoption from failing, child welfare officials in her home county of Arapahoe assigned the girl a new therapist who specialized in sexual abuse. That therapist quit after seeing the girl once. 

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Schuldt said. “This kid needs some consistency.” 

The next therapist saw the girl for about seven months in sessions that were virtual, because of the pandemic. That one quit, too, saying the sessions were unproductive and only making the child angry. Meanwhile, the Arapahoe County caseworker who had stepped in to try to salvage the adoption had closed the case and told Schuldt she had used all the resources available.

Kids write on a wall with chalk.
From left: Josh, 9, and Niko, 5, and Maryn, 12, play at Sunburst Park in Aurora.

Schuldt called about 25 mental health specialists. Every single one said no — either they didn’t take Medicaid, weren’t accepting new patients or didn’t take patients with such high levels of trauma. 

At home, Schuldt installed cameras and put alarms on doors. “She can’t be unsupervised for even a second,” she said. “She was verbally and physically aggressive with everyone in the home, but especially me. She would kick me, slap me, pull my hair, pull glasses off my face. The other kids would be screaming and crying.” 

“Every time I heard her moving around the house, my ears were tuned to it.” 

Eventually, based on advice from her own therapist, Schuldt started calling the police. Officers came to their home four times, and once the girl was sent to Children’s Hospital Colorado for a mental health crisis, but no help followed, she said. 

☀️ SUN INVESTIGATIONS

Schuldt began looking into sending the girl to a residential treatment center, but Medicaid officials said she did not meet the criteria, which included a 14-day stay in a mental hospital or criminal charges. “We couldn’t continue like this. I was going to have a heart attack or she is going to hurt me or one of the kids.

“I am screaming to anyone that will listen. Teachers. Therapists. Somebody help me. Somebody help my kid, my family. We need help.”

Without a lifeline, Schuldt allowed the girl to go live with her biological mother, signing over guardianship last summer and informing the county that her adopted child no longer lived with her. The girl, who just turned 12, now lives in another state, and has been hospitalized twice for mental health issues and arrested. The biological mother, Schuldt said, is now looking for a residential treatment facility. 

“If she comes back here, I will be calling the county,” Schuldt said. “She cannot come back to my house.”

Schuldt, who said she is working to create a harmonious household for her other five children after years of terror, said she felt abandoned by Colorado’s child welfare and Medicaid systems after taking in a child who needed a home. “It’s lonely,” she said. “It’s frightening. I remember feeling like a ship without a sail out in the middle of the ocean. I don’t have somebody I can call.”

One kid comes down a slide while another runs by.
A kid hangs upside down from monkey bars

Kya, 10, Niko, 5, and Maryn, 12, play at Sunburst Park in Aurora. Each of Schuldt’s adopted children have special needs like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and attend therapy regularly. “I think there needs to be a branch in every agency for post-adoption — to help adoptive parents find support groups, therapy, or marriage counseling,” she said.

Early on in the adoption, she found comfort through a parent support group at Aurora Mental Health, where adoptive parents shared stories and potluck food while their children played in another room. Schuldt’s children, though, were kicked out for disruptive behavior. 

“They asked me never to bring my children back,” she said. “They were out of control. I was welcome back, but not them.”

Susan Barnhill, who adopted seven children from foster care in El Paso, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, felt the same hopelessness. The support she felt from caseworkers when she was a foster mother vanished when she signed the adoption papers. 

“The day you write your name on that line, it’s like they’ve pushed you off the face of the Earth,” said the Grand Junction mom. “You are stranded on a deserted island. It’s you and a kid and a knife. And good luck.”

But Barnhill learned how to work a system that refused to help her as she tried to raise a rebellious and aggressive girl who had already been through one broken adoption. When the girl was 13, Barnhill reached such a point of desperation that she refused to pick her up from a seven-day stay at a Cedar Springs mental health facility. “I said, ‘Nope, don’t call me. You deal with her.’”

In response, county child welfare officials threatened to charge Barnhill with child abandonment.

The action, though, triggered help for the girl, who was 11 when Barnhill adopted her. The child and her siblings were taken from their biological mother, who was addicted to methamphetamine, and then neglected and starved by their first adoptive parents, Barnhill said. She had taken in the girl and two siblings who needed an emergency foster placement while the adoptive parents’ rights were terminated. 

A kid watches a spider walk across the back of her hand as her sister watches on.
Maryn, 12, catches a daddy longlegs spider at Sunburst Park in Aurora.

Over the next two years, as the child became more than Barnhill could handle, no one at the county child welfare department would listen to her pleas for help, she said. “They said, ‘You’re making it more than it needs to be,’” Barnhill recalled. Meanwhile, “she’s running around the house chasing people with knives and she’s throwing rocks at the window.”

When Barnhill refused to pick her up from the mental health center, the center called child welfare authorities and Barnhill had to face a judge. The girl, though, went to a foster home and then spent nine months in a residential treatment center in Denver, then returned to Barnhill in better mental health than she had ever been. 

Until two years later, when Barnhill again refused to pick her up from Cedar Springs Behavioral Health. This time, she knew what would happen next. 

At 15, the girl went back into foster care, where she remained until she turned 18. Now the girl, who didn’t finish high school and had two children, lives part time with Barnhill and part time with a friend. 

Barnhill used the same tactic on another of her adopted children, a 21-year-old who now lives in a regional center for people with developmental disabilities. 

The day you write your name on that line, it’s like they’ve pushed you off the face of the Earth. You are stranded on a deserted island. It’s you and a kid and a knife. And good luck.

— Susan Barnhill, a Grand Junction mom who has adopted seven children

The girl, who moved in with Barnhill at age 9, had violent outbursts, once cutting her arm with a soup can and another time throwing a barbecue lid through a window. She put Barnhill in the hospital twice, once toppling her to the floor by tackling her legs. It was after Barnhill’s second trip to the hospital that she refused to pick up the girl from authorities, who reported her to child protective services. 

After Barnhill forced child welfare officials to get involved, the girl was placed in group homes, residential treatment centers and jail. She spent 30 days in Children’s Hospital’s emergency department. She was kicked out of multiple places because of her aggression, and waited seven months in jail for destruction of property while Barnhill and county officials found a treatment center that would accept her — in Detroit. 

Barnhill has since talked to several other adoptive parents about how to get help from the foster care system. Like Barnhill, some parents are so desperate they will risk having county officials open a “dependency and neglect” case against them, a first step toward terminating parental rights. 

“You are screaming for help and everybody has earmuffs on and they can’t help you,” she said. “It is saddening to see that the system is the way it is, but it’s not surprising. I fought for my kids. I was going to get what they needed.” 

Korey Elger of the child welfare division of the Colorado Department of Human Services in Denver.

Chapter Four: Fewer adoptions fail compared to 10 years ago

The percentage of children adopted from foster care who ended up back in the system has declined in recent years, dropping to 8% in 2021 from 17% in 2012. The improvement coincides with a national push to keep more children with their own families or with relatives rather than removing them from their homes in the first place. 

Colorado also has increased efforts in the past few years to better prepare families for what they might face after adopting a foster child, especially one who has lived in several foster homes or experienced severe abuse or neglect. Still, state officials acknowledge that now that they know how often disruptions occur, they can zero in on efforts to decrease them.  

“Those stories are the ones that keep me up at night, the ones that break my heart, because that is another failure for a child that has been a system that is supposed to keep them safe and protected,” said Korey Elger, the state child welfare division’s director of permanency, as in finding a child a permanent home. “Not only did we fail them with their biological family, but we then again failed them with their adopted family.”

The state recently strengthened its policies regarding what it calls a “child study” — a comprehensive report about what a child has been through, everything from in-utero drug exposure to sexual abuse to the number of foster placements. 

☀ RELATED

Under the new rules, caseworkers must update the child study each year. In the past, some child studies were missing crucial information because they had not been updated for years as a child passed through residential treatment centers and foster homes. “Those updates weren’t happening. Their story was getting lost,” Elger said. “Then you would present them to an adoptive parent, and they maybe didn’t know all those things.”

Federal child welfare officials who reviewed Colorado practices in 2020 found that in six of the largest counties, it took an average of 283 days after biological parents’ rights were terminated for caseworkers to present the child study to the adoptive family. 

“So many times we heard from adoptive families who were like, ‘I didn’t know that this child had had this happen in their past.’ And it really is affecting their ability in development and what that looks like,” Elger said.

It’s a state requirement that the meeting between the parents and the caseworker presenting the child study is recorded, an attempt to prevent parents from coming back later to say they were never told about the severity of a child’s issues. After the meeting, parents have 48 hours to decide whether they will adopt the child. 

If they proceed with the adoption, parents can then negotiate with the county child welfare division for an adoption subsidy, a monthly payment to pay for therapies not covered by Medicaid, camps and other costs until the child reaches adulthood. Every child adopted from foster care is eligible for the government insurance program, regardless of the adoptive family’s income. Families also can ask for cash assistance to pay for child care while the child is in elementary school. 

In their own words

“We’re still processing years after we’re done. It’s still coursing through our veins.”

— Bryon Downing


“Every part of it, they failed me. But it did not define who I was. I took charge of my own story and made my own definition of what success is.”

— Ryan Young


“It’s hard for these families because we feel like we didn’t do enough if it doesn’t work out. But sometimes you just can’t fix something that got irretrievably broken.”

– Carla and Frank Bennett

Hear more about Colorado’s failed adoptions, straight from the people who’ve lived them. >>

To adopt a foster child, the family must have that child in their home for at least six months — a rule aimed at preventing broken adoptions. During that six months, the child’s caseworker must visit monthly and make regular court reports. Once the child is adopted, those visits are no longer required and many parents are grateful that the county involvement is over. Their only requirement is to report back to the county three years later to confirm the child is still in their home and tell the county where the child attends school. 

Parents also must submit to a “safe home study” that is invasive, digging into marital issues, parenting skills and discipline. They have to take 40 hours of training, which includes first aid and CPR and four hours of “trauma-informed” care. There is no requirement, however, that they receive training about how to take care of a child suffering from “adoption-related loss,” or a child’s grief from losing their biological family — whether they knew them or not.

A potential foster parent is asked from the start whether they want to foster, or foster with the intent to adopt, to make sure that they are matched with children who are available for adoption. “That’s how we lose foster parents, when we’re not really truthful about what foster care is,” Elger said. 

Elger also pointed toward the state’s contract with an organization called Raise the Future, which provides training to parents in how to deal with severe behavior problems that are the result of past trauma. The problem is that much of the funding for the program came from one-time federal dollars, so the organization — which isn’t available in all counties and lacks the staff to help every family that asks  — is now making plans to decrease its services. 

The state contracts with the agency because many parents who’ve adopted would rather not go back to county officials when the adoption starts to fail.

Each of Colorado’s 64 counties has discretion over how to dole out financial help for families who adopted foster kids and whether to participate in post-adoption services through Raise the Future, which is based in Denver. The state does not review counties’ adoption work to determine whether families are getting enough support, nor does it assess after the fact why an adoption failed. 

A state adoption administrator only checks in with counties every three years to make sure they are correctly determining which adopted kids were eligible for federally funded programs. The Sun asked for those reviews under public records laws but the Colorado Department of Human Services said the reviews are verbal and no documents exist. State officials said they were considering what they should document in the future.

Stephanie Villafuerte, Colorado child protection ombudsman in Denver.

Chapter Five: Some recommendations weren’t fulfilled 

Colorado’s child protection ombudsman and other child advocates have pushed for years for data regarding adoptions that fall apart. State lawmakers gave the child welfare division $60,000 in 2019 to update its data system so that it could track broken adoptions of foster children. Each child is assigned an identification number, which is not visible to every caseworker who enters data into the system, that sticks with them post-adoption. The new technology allows the state to see when kids who were adopted re-enter care. 

The data released to The Sun includes only children adopted from foster care — not children adopted through private agencies, child welfare systems in other states, or from orphanages in other countries.

Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte, who five years ago identified inequities in the adoption subsidies families negotiate with counties, is still waiting for completion of some of the recommendations from a 2017 report by her office. The state child welfare division is expected to roll out a new negotiating policy next year, but Villafuerte said state officials have not fulfilled her requests for more transparency about the cash assistance and services some families receive outside their negotiated monthly subsidy.

The state recently released a report showing how much money each county spent annually on adoption assistance — yet it does not reveal whether those funds went to cash assistance, programs and therapies, or administrative costs. 

Villafuerte also requested that state child welfare officials create an online inventory of all post-adoptive services available to families, how they could request them and whether they are effective. The report state officials published in 2020 isn’t as complete as what Villafuerte envisioned, she said. And the lack of information about what counties are paying for and whether it makes an impact makes it hard for child advocates to ask state budget writers for more money to help kids, Villafuerte said. 

“We still don’t have the data that would give us a full and complete picture of what the youth need and what they are receiving,” she said. 

Villafuerte, however, doesn’t pin the lack of support for adoptive families entirely on the child welfare system. The system was set up to protect kids from abuse and neglect, not to provide mental health therapies. Caseworkers can help families get children covered through Medicaid, but that doesn’t mean there are therapists available nearby or even that there are enough therapists statewide who can treat children who’ve lived through severe trauma. 

Adoption is messaged as this promise of family, of connection, of being the stability after the instability of foster care. It’s often seen as a solution to trauma. Then being at this place that is supposed to represent stability and then see it blow up?

— Angel Petite, senior policy manager for Foster Club

“It’s really important to remember that over decades, their scope and duties and responsibilities have morphed into this child wellbeing system,” she said. “It’s very easy to point your finger at one entity and say, ‘I’m not getting what I need.’ More state agencies need to step up and get involved in these issues, and that is why I don’t think we’ve made as much progress as we would have liked.”

The Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which represents needy parents in cases where the government has removed their kids because of abuse and neglect, called the release of data on the number of broken adoptions “revolutionary” because attorneys there have struggled to get those numbers for years. 

The office’s case strategy director, Melanie Jordan, said Colorado courts are too often terminating biological parents’ rights and approving adoptions to parents who are unprepared to handle the needs of children with severe trauma. 

“When you adopt a child at a young age, you expect that you will give this child love and that will solve all these problems,” she said. “I just don’t think we prepare parents for the adoption.”

Maryn, 12, lures a daddy longlegs spider at Sunburst Park in Aurora.

Chapter Six: “Child’s behavior problem” cause of most adoption failures

“Child’s behavior problem” is listed in the state child welfare database as the reason 60% adoptions of foster kids failed in the past decade. The next biggest reason was caregivers’ “inability to cope,” followed by abuse, neglect or drug use by the adoptive parents. 

The fact that child welfare officials pinpoint children’s behavior as the primary reason that adoptions fail is unproductive and a failure to name the actual problem, which is that the system isn’t getting kids adequate help for their trauma, said Angel Petite, senior policy manager for Foster Club, an Oregon-based nonprofit focused on helping foster children have a voice in the system. 

“What it does is it points us to the wrong solutions,” she said. “The solutions are to make sure young people are supported and families are supported. It doesn’t recognize how trauma manifests in behavior.” 

The child welfare system should reframe the way it talks about adoption, Petite said. It’s not the solution to a child’s troubles, only a part of their story. The pressure placed on an adoption is too high, which can set up families to crack, she said.  

“Adoption is messaged as this promise of family, of connection, of being the stability after the instability of foster care,” she said. “It’s often seen as a solution to trauma. Then being at this place that is supposed to represent stability and then see it blow up? It compounds the loss that they have already experienced.”

Petite and other child advocates said kids who are at high risk of struggling with adoption should have access to therapies and extra support from the start, and especially after their adoption falls apart. 

And researchers know which adoptions are most likely to fail. The older a child was when they were removed from their biological parents and the more places they lived make them less likely to get adopted and more likely to experience a broken adoption. Also, families are more likely to have a failed adoption the more children, either adopted or biological, in the home, and when the mothers had higher levels of education, according to research compiled in a 2007 Colorado State University study. Single parents were no more likely to have disrupted adoptions than couples.

For Israel, experiencing severe neglect, a broken adoption and years of foster care made her feel alone in the world. “You can’t treat kids like that,” she said. “It’s pretty messed up. If a kid is telling you that their foster or adoptive parent is abusing them, listen, check it out. Don’t just sit there and take the adult’s word for it.” 

She hopes one day to work with foster kids, helping make sure they have a say in what they need to heal. “I just want to see people take this seriously,” she said. “These stories are so common and that’s really sad. When do we stop hearing this?”

This is part one of a four-part series called Colorado’s Failed Adoptions.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her...

Shannon Najmabadi

Shannon Najmabadi has covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun since 2021. She was previously a reporter at The Texas Tribune. Email: shannon@coloradosun.com...

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com

Photography by Olivia Sun

Olivia Sun is a staff photographer and Report for America corps member for The Colorado Sun. Olivia covers statewide politics,...