This week the Supreme Court heard the case of Baby Veronica. This is a case in which adoptive parents were ordered to return a little girl who had lived with them from birth until after her second birthday. Her birth father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had reportedly relinquished his parenting rights. The basis of this ruling by a family court in South Carolina, where Veronica lived with her adoptive parents, was the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law enacted in 1978 that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families. While the Supreme Court reviews the legal merits of this case, it is worth reflecting on how the kind of loss Baby Veronica faces is not rare from the perspective of children in foster care or those who have been adopted.
In 2011, well over half a million children spent time living with caregivers other than their original birth parents. But something all these children had in common is that, whether for a brief period of perhaps a few days, months, or even for years, it was up in the air whether they would return to their original families or other relatives, move in with a different family on a temporary basis, be placed in a temporary group residential setting or set up to live relatively independently, or gain new legally permanent adoptive parents. This was the experience of over 638,000 American children who spent time in foster care at some point during 2011. Our analyses of data from the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System indicate that more than two in ten of these children (over 125,000) were reunified with their family of origin during the year, and not quite one in ten (nearly 50,000) left foster care to live with relatives. About one in ten (over 65,000) left foster care with a finalized adoption or guardianship.
Furthermore, in the United States, 1.8 million children live with adoptive parents (as of 2007), according to Child Trends’ analyses of data from the National Survey of Adoptive Parents. The vast majority know that they are adopted (97 percent of those ages 5 and older, according to their parents)—which means that they know they have a birth family with whom they might have grown up, had a few adults made a different decision.
How do children and youth understand and deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of their family circumstances? Author Pauline Boss, an expert on family stress, describes losses such as theirs, in which someone is psychologically present for an individual but physically absent, as “ambiguous loss.” Dr. Boss further asserts that ambiguous loss is more difficult to cope with than other types of loss that have a clearer finality, such as death.
Five or 10 years from now, I imagine that Veronica—like many children who are adopted or who experience foster care, particularly those who are older, who have had long stays in foster care, or who are adopted—will love whichever set of parents she ends up living with. (Many foster children never end up living with permanent parents, but that’s another story.) I imagine that Veronica will also think: “I miss my other parents. Did the judges make the right decision? What would my life be like if the judges had decided differently? Do my other parents still think about me?” And if she loses contact with the other parents, I imagine she will wonder: “Are my other parents okay?” Indeed, research on adoption such as that by Harold Grotevant, Ruth McRoy, and colleagues in the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project finds that adopted individuals wonder about such questions. Regardless of the decision the judges make, ambiguity will persist for Veronica. She will have lost one set of parents, and she will have to find a way to make sense of the loss—an experience that is not as uncommon for children as we might like to think.
Sharon Vandivere, Senior Research Scientist
 Of all children in foster care at any point during 2011, about three in five (nearly 395,000) remained in foster care at the end of the year.
Photo credit: Melanie Capobianco.