Opinion

Jennifer Graham

When adoptions fail

Even those who make a living sharing their lives are silent, devastated

ANTHONY RUSSO FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Critics of the writer Joyce Maynard say there’s no secret she won’t reveal, that her abortion, her breast implants, her love affair with a certain iconic literary recluse, are all for sale. At $1.50 a word — what the typical women’s magazine pays — it takes a lot of confessing to cover the mortgage.

But the famously prolific Maynard has fallen silent on the topic of her failed international adoption, flummoxing the rabble who decried a “vanity adoption” by a narcissist who needed new topics for her articles.

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Her reticence is both refreshing and vexing.

Two years ago, Maynard, a New Hampshire native, appeared smiling in the pages of More magazine with two Ethiopian girls she’d adopted. At 55, divorced with grown children, she wrote that she was “happy, happy, happy” to replenish her empty nest. Months passed, then a year. There was no more mention of the girls, not even on Maynard’s website. Fans noticed. Critics, too. A rumor arose that Maynard had, in the language of animal adoptions, “re-homed” the girls. Bloggers called for Maynard to reveal what had happened.

It was, quite possibly, the first time Maynard had been accused of not revealing enough.

Last fall, she wrote vaguely of grave disappointments and new beginnings. Finally, she confessed, in a humble letter on her website this spring. The adoption “failed.” The girls are in a new home — one with two parents and siblings — and have been for a year. It’s been an ordeal, and Maynard is no longer in contact with them. “Let’s move on from here,” she urges in the closing of the letter. But the discussion continues on the Internet.

Madonna and Angelina Jolie may be the glamorous public faces of successful international adoptions, but in her recent silence, Maynard speaks for the minority, the devastated families for whom a new addition doesn’t work out.

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“Families are embarrassed when there’s dissolution,” says Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption.

Around 15 percent of all adoptions fail, and the older the child, the more likely the failure. Of course, compared with the 50 percent of marriages that dissolve, 15 percent for adoptions doesn’t seem so bad.

Still, adoptions fail frequently enough that Johnson’s group held a seminar on the topic at its annual convention last week in Maryland. The goal is to construct a strong web of support not just for the children, but for the families they join; to avoid catastrophic failure, such as the Tennessee woman who, two years ago, put her adopted son alone on a plane back to Moscow. Public failure like that costs children homes, and international adoptions are already declining. Last year, Americans adopted just 9,320 children from foreign lands, compared with 22,000 in 2004. Throw a few horror stories into the ether, and they may stop altogether.

Maynard self-censors wisely. Intelligent people can disagree on whether she violated author J.D. Salinger’s privacy by disclosing their affair and auctioning his letters, but no one needs to know the specifics of why she could no longer care for two motherless Ethiopian girls.

Even without the gory details of Maynard’s case, the challenges of her situation should be evident. Children who come traumatized to this country don’t leave their trauma at the border. Sometimes — as in one case I know of — they assimilate beautifully, and then, months later, spread feces on the walls of their room. That’s too much information for most of us, yes. But it’s a possibility that people about to spend $20,000 to $40,000 to adopt a foreign child might at least consider.

To unappointed judges who say Maynard re-homed the children much like a troublesome cat, there’s news out of Tennessee.

Last month, a judge ruled that Torry Hansen, the woman who put her adopted son on the plane, must pay $1,000 a month in child support until the boy is 18, even though he is back in a Russian orphanage. It is, perhaps, the most expensive re-homing fee ever. For Maynard and other parents in the 15 percent of adoptions that fail, the cost is emotional only, but no easier to pay.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton.
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