No one disputes that children have the need for and the right to a permanent home. When safety can be assured, the birth family is the first choice. This includes the extended family of capable blood relatives.
The needs of a developing child, however, demand that the decision on permanence be made in a timely manner. Courts face a difficult dilemma when required to choose between the birth family, late-arriving kin, and a foster family who has cared for the child over time and wishes to adopt. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 used timelines (12 to 22 months) to identify that tipping point when the child’s right to permanence outweighed the birth parent’s right to maintain possession.
We have labeled that point “bonding” and defined it thusly in my book Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child:
Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at increased peril to the parties involved.
Four objective ways to evaluate bonding are offered. They include time in place; completion of a research-based bonding checklist; demonstrating the reciprocal connection through prolonged observation; and obtaining testimony from the community at large.
The importance of carefully defining a significant attachment stems from the serious and lasting harm that may follow when bonded relationships are disrupted. Multiple research has demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between severed bonds in childhood and a large increase in later mental illness, crime and homelessness.
The brain develops in a complex interplay between the genes one is born with and the experiences one has. Seung (Connectome, 2012) and others provide clear and demonstrable evidence from brain scans showing a significant growth in synapses from infancy through the pre-school years.
This suggests that the structure of the brain is not simply genetically determined, but depends on activity, experience, attachment and stimulation. As a result of this continuing research, bonding can no longer be referred to as merely psychological.
While courts may have traditionally favored genetics over the emotional and psychological bonds, an increasing number of jurisdictions have begun to shift that stance. Note is being taken of the significant impact that maintaining or breaking those bonds can have.
Appellate courts today are developing a vocabulary of their own to define bonding. Among the new additions to the lexicon are terms like “continuity of care,” “risks of transition,” “significant attachment,” “a father in the terms that matter most” and “significant emotional bond.”
The precise written language used by these courts defines bonding legally and can be brought to the attention of trial courts. For those interested, my book Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child provides a listing of appellate court decisions from across the country on pages 156 through 172.