March 13, 2015; Washington Post

NPQ has often written about the issues inherent in the country’s understaffed and underfunded child welfare system. Ineffective protocols or a lack of state oversight have been cited in some of the worst cases of preventable child abuse. However, in what appears to be a clear loophole in the policies and guidelines in place, most states allow individuals to unofficially give away their adopted children to others in a process known as “rehoming.”

The practice is highly controversial, and occurs when parents or individuals give custody of their adoptive children to others without the careful—albeit sometimes flawed—vetting process child protective services agencies use to determine whether people are suited to be taking care of children. The term “rehoming” comes from the world of animal adoption; it’s when an owner gives away his or her pet to be taken care of by someone else.

Despite fervent objections to the practice, which adoption activist John M. Simmons calls “a monstrous act,” the practice is legal to the extent that it is not expressly prohibited. Many states like Wisconsin, Florida, Louisiana, and Colorado have begun passing laws to address the rehousing of adopted children. A previous alarming investigative report by Reuters and NBC News has explored the underground online world of rehoming as a feeding ground for sexual predators. Many of the rehomed children investigated were internationally adopted, had mental or physical disabilities, or had been abused.

Arkansas Republican Representative Justin Harris became the face of the practice earlier this month when the Arkansas Times published several pieces detailing the tragic story of two young sisters Harris and his wife Marsha adopted and then gave away to another family, only to have one of the sisters repeatedly sexually abused by her new “father.” In response to the tragedy, Harris, who will not face any criminal charges, has placed the blame in the hands of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, who “failed” him when he found the children too difficult to handle. It’s still unclear why the sisters, coming from troubled backgrounds that included sexual and physical abuse, were ever placed in the unprepared Harris household to begin with.

Rehoming appears to fall into a gray area of the law, which allows the practice unless it rises to the level of abandonment, a civil offense. Many Arkansas lawmakers are using the Harrises’ case to officially outlaw the practice. However, whether legal or not, many advocates have clearly stated it has no place in adoption.

“This is not the norm in adoption; most families do well,” said Megan Lestino of the National Council for Adoption. In situations where a family finds adoptive children to be difficult to manage, the proper authorities and officials must be involved to help prevent mistreatment of children, as occurred in the Harris case. Whatever decisions are made, the proper recourse should keep the interests of the children in mind.

“There’s probably no greater trauma than thinking you have found a forever family and finding that’s not the case,” said Sandy Santana, the interim executive director of Children’s Rights, an advocacy organization based in New York. “The foster kids are coming into the foster system because they have been abused or neglected. They’ve already experienced trauma; they’ve experienced separation from their birth parents.”

Along with government officials, the nonprofit sector has an evident interest in containing rehoming, which unilaterally harms the children that are involved. Undoubtedly, the act of leaving difficult children with other families will only further exacerbate the issues causing their behavior. While imperfect, the current system must be reformed to address the practice, but that effort requires the nonprofit sector’s help.—Shafaq Hasan