March 24, 2023

Tens of thousands of children have suffered the collapse of both their birth and adoptive families. Their pain has largely existed in the shadows, shielded from broad public view and the dominant narrative of a happily ever after.
Though most adoptions remain intact, a USA TODAY investigation found more than 66,000 adoptees ended up in the foster care system between 2008 and 2020. That is an undercount. Many states are bad at tracking adoption failure. And some adoptions break outside the child welfare system’s view, when youth informally move in with other people, are privately readopted, return to their birth countries or live on the streets.
After these adoptees’ adoptive families fractured, they used their experience as fuel to improve the system for others. Here are their stories:
Explore the series: ‘A broken system’ leaves tens of thousands of adoptees without families, homes
Matthew Peiffer flipped through a black binder of business cards he’d collected as a child. What had started as a childhood hobby became, in adulthood, an accounting of how many people had interacted with him and his two sisters. An accounting of how many people could have saved them.
But no one did. For a decade, the Indiana resident and his siblings endured physical and sexual abuse and neglect at the hands of their adoptive parents. In 2013, Peiffer’s 15-year-old sister Emily snuck away during their mother’s physical therapy appointment and reported the abuse to their former community arts teacher, who contacted police.
“We were just hoping and praying during that time that we were going to be saved,” Matthew Peiffer, now 25, told USA TODAY.
Their adoptive father, Loren Peiffer, was arrested in 2013 and pleaded guilty to six felony counts of child molesting, court records show. He died in prison while serving a 22-year sentence. The children told police their adoptive mother also was physically abusive, but she never faced criminal charges. She has since passed away, too.
Matthew Peiffer said he and his sisters were removed from their adoptive home and eventually placed in separate foster homes. The trio, who’d been adopted together as toddlers from foster care in Nevada, struggled with the separation and aftermath of the trauma they’d suffered. In 2016, Emily took her own life.
In his grief and depression, Matthew Peiffer turned increasingly to advocacy.
“I tried to put a smile on somebody else’s face,” he said. “Helping others, for me, helps me cope.”
Peiffer has advocated for training police officers and neighborhood associations in  identifying child abuse. He has pushed for legislation to create a stronger vetting process for prospective adoptive parents and a national database of child abusers.
Through a nonprofit he started, A Voice for Kids, Peiffer raised money to give Christmas gifts to more than 250 children in foster care. He also volunteers for All in Fostering Futures, a national nonprofit that helps create a support system for youth who were once in foster care.
Lynn Johnson, president and founder of All in Fostering Futures, said she is awed by Peiffer’s resilience and “sheer grit.”
“He doesn’t want anybody else to be harmed like he was,” said Johnson, who previously served as assistant secretary of the federal Administration for Children and Families. “He is not going to let go of making sure that kids are OK.”
Peiffer also created an alter ego, Muncie’s Smile Man. About once a month, he dons one of 40 giant inflatable costumes – his wardrobe includes a horse, penguin, Tyrannosaurus rex, baby, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Pillsbury Doughboy – and strolls along the city streets, waving to passersby.
His goal in dressing up: to bring light to others.
“It’s made me happy in return,” he said. “Being able to feel needed and feel important and feel like I’m making a difference.”
For most of her life, Sophia Williams-Baugh had no concept of what a healthy relationship should look like.
Adopted out of foster care at 6, Williams-Baugh said she endured years of abuse and neglect. She told USA TODAY she sometimes went days without food and was forced to go to the bathroom in a bucket.
She said she was removed from that Michigan home and placed back in foster care in 2001, just before her 14th birthday. The teen moved among foster homes and residential facilities until aging out of the system.
Williams-Baugh spent years celebrating her birthday, holidays and life’s major milestones alone. She said her traumatic childhood made it difficult to build lasting connections – especially after her adoption failed. She gravitated toward the wrong men, suffering sexual and emotional abuse.
“We thought these people were supposed to love us and be there for forever,” Williams-Baugh said, referring to her adoptive parents. “Then when we meet these men, we don’t even expect the love anymore. We don’t expect the forever. So we just go with the flow just so we can feel like we have somebody for that moment, even though we know it’s only for a moment.”
It took a long time to get herself out of that mindset, she said, but now, at 35, Williams-Baugh is married with five children.
She doesn’t want other children to go through what she did. Williams-Baugh shared her story publicly, served as a mentor for a foster youth and gave a writing workshop in a juvenile detention facility.
She also launched a greeting card business called Halo Greetings, selling cards designed for those connected to the child welfare system. “Once a stranger, but now the volunteer who has actually changed my life,” one card reads. “You are not alone,” says another. A third, for parents, expresses appreciation: “Thank you for being the best part of my story.”
Williams-Baugh plans to use the proceeds from her business to launch a nonprofit, Family For Us Too, to offer foster youth access to the support system and resources she never had.
She wants to create a family-like network for foster youth who are aging out of the system, while also connecting them with local therapists, nurses, hygienists and other experts. She envisions how-to classes on taking care of yourself, cleaning, parenting and handling relationships.
Though Williams-Baugh has struggled with attachments throughout her life, she found one deep family connection in Deborah Ford, the mother of Williams-Baugh’s high school sweetheart and grandmother of Williams-Baugh’s oldest son.
Ford watched Williams-Baugh’s evolution over two decades from a struggling teen in foster care to a mother and advocate. She said she’s immensely proud of Williams-Baugh’s compassion, strength and refusal to be held back by the challenges of her past.
“I think people need to see someone positive come out of a situation like that and know that anything’s possible,” Ford said. “She would be that person that would uplift people.”
Herding her two children into the car, Joy Alessi left the house for what she thought would be a simple errand.
The Texas woman and her husband were planning a quick trip to Mexico, and Alessi needed a passport. She and her children waited hours in the passport office for their turn, only to receive a swift, unexpected response – one that would alter the next three decades of her life.
You’re not a U.S. citizen, an agency official told her.
Alessi was stunned.
“That was the first I had heard of it at all,” she told USA TODAY. “I was very confused, first and foremost, and of course I was angry.”
Adopted from South Korea as an infant, Alessi described her childhood as turbulent. Her adoptive parents divorced when she was around 5 years old, and she bounced between their homes. Then, between ages 6 and 10, Alessi said her parents rehomed her several times, sending her to live with neighbors or members of her family’s church.
She moved back in with her adoptive mother and stepfather when she was 10, but said child welfare officials removed her four years later because she was abused. She spent the rest of her childhood in foster care.
International adoption does not guarantee citizenship, especially for those born before Feb. 28, 1983. Alessi said no one ever brought up her lack of U.S. citizenship, though records show her adoptive and foster parents were aware of it.
After leaving the passport bureau in the 1990s, Alessi drove straight to an immigration office. Officials there told her she had legal residency in the U.S. as a green card holder and recommended she go to the Korean Consulate for a passport from her birth country.
Until 2019, that’s how Alessi lived – divided between two countries, one of which she’d only seen once since she was 7 months old. When she sought legal advice about applying for U.S. citizenship, she said she was warned that it was risky. At that time, they told her she could face prosecution for having previously voted, believing she was a citizen.
As she neared her 50th birthday, Alessi decided she wanted to move forward with her citizenship application. On Facebook, she also learned there were thousands of other adult adoptees in the same situation.
She volunteered with the Adoptee Rights Campaign and later became its director, advocating for federal legislation to grant citizenship to those adopted as children by U.S. citizens. It has not yet passed.
Through the Adoptee Rights Campaign, Alessi pushed for research to quantify the scope of the problem, worked to increase public awareness and offered legal aid programs for adoptees.
Susan Soonkeum Cox was working as the vice president of policy and external affairs for Holt International, an adoption agency based in Oregon, when she connected with Alessi through their work on adoptee citizenship. Cox said Alessi is compassionate and has worked tirelessly to help international adoptees.
“She is a force of nature in a very quiet, unassuming way,” Cox said.
Alessi finally received her U.S. citizenship in April 2019, at 52. Today, she is applying to law school in Texas while continuing to advocate for the legislation to smooth the way for others.
“It’s a tremendous need,” she said.
Demetrius Napolitano slipped off his shoes and stepped into the Village Zendo, a meditation center in Manhattan, not knowing the experience would change the course of his life.
The New York man, then 23, had grappled with grief and anger in the decade since the failure of his first adoption. He didn’t know how to let out his emotions – sometimes fighting, punching windows or sabotaging relationships.
After aging out of foster care, Napolitano had given adoption a second chance, asking his mentors, John and Katie Napolitano, to adopt him as an adult. Yet even their love couldn’t fully heal the wounds from his past.
John Napolitano told USA TODAY he knew through his experience as a mentor that there were things Demetrius had to let go of. He invited Demetrius to join him for a meditation at the Village Zendo.
John Napolitano could tell Demetrius was nervous. He watched him fidget as they sat side-by-side on floor cushions. He gently rubbed the young man’s shoulder before the 20-minute meditation began.
Demetrius Napolitano said the experience opened his eyes to meditation as a tool to connect with his body, calm his mind and manage his trauma and anxiety. Starting in 2019, he traveled for nine months in Nepal and India to explore meditation and yoga.
When he came home, he started teaching mediation and yoga to children in Harlem. Then he launched Fostering Meditation, a nonprofit that teaches meditation, yoga, diet and cathartic writing – writing as a mechanism to release and process emotion – to at-risk youth and those in foster care. Napolitano speaks publicly about the challenges of his first adoption and time in foster care in the hope it will help others.
“He’s remarkably courageous for sharing his story so openly,” John Napolitano said. “I don’t think a lot of people have the courage to expose themselves and to be vulnerable with others – never mind in public. And the fact that Demetrius does it without flinching, I find very inspirational.”
Now 27, Demetrius Napolitano said he’s continuing to work on himself as he tries to help others.
“What drives me is always the reminder of if someone would’ve sat me down and said, ‘Hey, Demetrius Tercheron, let’s work on our breathing. Let’s do some stretches to release that anxiety that keeps your body stiff and afraid,’” he said. “It would’ve just saved me from a lot of headaches.”
The sign itself was nothing special, just a green square on the right side of an open stretch of road heading onto the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. But when Sicangu Lakota adoptee Sandy White Hawk caught sight of it, she couldn’t stop the deep pull of her breath.
Finally, after three decades, she was home.
“I felt like my lungs opened up for the first time,” White Hawk recalled.
The Minnesota woman told USA TODAY she’d lost the connection to her culture when she was adopted as a toddler by white parents. She grew up in an environment where no one – at home or at school – looked like her.
Her childhood was difficult. White Hawk said her adoptive father died when she was 6, and she suffered abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother. She battled addiction to drugs and alcohol from 16 until becoming sober at 28.
In 1988, White Hawk reconnected with her relatives and revisited the reservation she’d left so long ago.
“Every single day of my life until that day of July driving onto the reservation, I never saw my image reflected to me in any way,” she said. “It was mind-blowing and settling all at once. Like, oh my God, I look like somebody.”
That trip started White Hawk on a path of reclaiming her heritage and of helping others reconnect with theirs.
In 1999, as she watched the tribe honor a Korean War veteran through words and song, White Hawk said she thought about how amazing it would be to do something similar to welcome home adoptees.
Chris Leith, a prominent spiritual leader from the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota, and others helped bring her vision to life. They’ve held two dozen such ceremonies since then.
White Hawk also launched the First Nations Repatriation Institute as a resource for those separated from their culture by foster care or adoption. The organization offers technical assistance, such as help accessing records, in addition to education, research and advocacy.
Now 68, White Hawk also serves as president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and elder-in-residence at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, which provides legal services to families affected by the child protection system. She also trains social workers and guardians ad litem in cultural awareness and the history and impact of child removal through adoption.
William Thorne, a retired judge who served in tribal courts in 12 states and in Utah’s trial and appellate courts, said the world would be so much better if there were more people like White Hawk – people whose first instinct is to say, “How do I help?”
“She has one of the most giving spirits I’ve ever met,” Thorne said. He described that as “amazing,” especially given what White Hawk overcame as a child and an adult.
“She managed to find a way to heal,” Thorne said. “Then, rather than saying, ‘OK, I’m all better now. I’ve got a good life. I’m ready to go,’ she immediately turns to help somebody else.”
Marisa Kwiatkowski is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on children and social services. Contact her at, @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855.
‘A broken system’ leaves tens of thousands of adoptees without families, homes


Leave a Reply