Colorado’s Failed Adoptions
The Colorado Sun is taking an in-depth look at how hundreds of children in our 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, we’ve found a lack of support for both children and parents.
- 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.
In Their Own Words
Hear more about Colorado’s failed adoptions, straight from the people who’ve lived them.
Suzanne Ruzich and Bryon Downing
“We’re still processing years after we’re done. It’s still coursing through our veins.” — Bryon Downing
Suzanne Ruzich, a retired nurse, and Bryon Downing adopted a girl from Otero County who they struggled to find services for.
Downing described looking online, talking to other parents and spending “untold hours on the computer.” He considered using the health insurance he gets through work when he couldn’t find anything available through Medicaid.
“Well, I called all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming all the way out to Nebraska, down south to Pueblo and even further and there was not a bed to be found,” he said.
Another time, the couple sought to find a residential treatment facility to care for the girl. She was checked into a group home because that’s all local officials said was available. They didn’t feel like the treatment helped. Nevertheless they received an $8,000 bill for her stay there. (The bill was later dropped.)
The couple is now on good terms with their adoptive daughter and Ruzich said she cares for the girl. But the years she was living with them were the most stressful time of the couple’s lives, they said. They considered dissolving the adoption.
“There was one time that I was gonna go to the crisis center because it was awful,” Ruzich said.
“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
Ryan Young, now 21, was adopted from Ukraine when he was 6. His adoptive mom sent him to a boarding school at age 11, where he stayed until 16 and then ran away, back to his adoptive mother.
But that didn’t last, Young said, because it was an abusive home. Soon after, he went into the Arizona foster care system, living with a foster family, in multiple group homes and, eventually, an independent living center where he shared an apartment with another teenager.
“The thing is, I never asked to be resilient or to experience what I experienced,” said Young, who now lives in Phoenix. “I always sought family throughout my whole life. I still do. I probably will never have a sense of closure in my lifetime, potentially.”
Young aged out of the foster care system this year. He’s working toward a degree in public service and public policy, hoping to help change the child welfare system. He also counsels young people in the system as a “lived experience leader” with the national advocacy group, Foster Club.
The young people whose lives are most affected by broken adoptions and the foster care system too often did not get a voice, he said.
“I hope that we all agree that preventing reentry into foster care should be the top-most urgent priority. The conversation about what permanency should look like — whether that is adoption, aging out or reunification — all those conversations should start and end with the young people.”
Carla and Frank Bennett
“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
Carla and Frank Bennett adopted two boys in Denver County in 1979 and 1984.
“One of our sons had extreme difficulty forming emotional bonds with people,” the couple said. “His birth parents had continued to visit him for three years while we fostered him. It was very upsetting for him to later learn from a social worker that he would no longer get visits with his (biological) parents. He became involved in substance abuse as an adolescent. He died by suicide as an adult.
“He couldn’t tolerate being close to people, and the more people tried to get close to him, the more he pushed them away. It was really sad to see that he couldn’t maintain friendships, because it is hard to be happy if you can’t get close to people. He got married, but that didn’t work out. And he was pretty estranged from us as well. But we feel like we did the best we could with the tools we had at the time. Maybe they weren’t the right tools, or maybe there weren’t any right tools that were going to fix the damage that had been done to him early on.
“There isn’t a quick and easy fix to help adopted children, but reforms, like those made in the recent Colorado legislation, are a step forward. Financial assistance is obviously not the complete answer, but it eases one of the stresses on these families and gives them a better chance to help their children grow and learn.”
How we reported this story
Over the past three months, The Colorado Sun has examined the state’s foster-to-adopt system.
The Sun filed multiple requests under the Colorado Open Records Act to obtain data on the number of broken adoptions of children from the foster care system and the reasons those adoptions failed. Until recently, the information from the Colorado Department of Human Services had been elusive — untracked for decades by state child welfare officials or the court system.
The numbers were alarming: Nearly 1,100 children who had experienced abuse and neglect before they were adopted have been returned to foster homes and residential treatment centers in the past decade.
Sun reporters interviewed more than a dozen Colorado adoptive families, including several parents who returned their kids to foster care or officially dissolved the adoptions in court. We attended a training designed to help people parent kids who’ve been through trauma. And we talked to child advocates in Colorado and across the country, state and county officials, adoption attorneys and researchers, and most importantly, young people who experienced broken adoptions.
Those young people said the experience will stay with them forever. Foster children, even without experiencing the added trauma of a broken adoption, are already far more likely to end up homeless or in the criminal justice system as adults.
Adoptive parents said they were filled with guilt and shame, but that they feared for their lives or the safety of other children living in their homes.
We also explored potential solutions in the hopes that the child welfare and behavioral health systems in this state will find new ways to protect children from being failed twice.
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