Legal Definitions of Bonding


Mark Bontrager, J.D. and James Kenny, PhD (From “Fostering Families Today”: May/June, 2004)

More and more, the courts are becoming aware of the critical importance of bonding. In the past, courts weighed biological connections heavily and may have allowed this factor to overshadow the bonding that takes place when people live together for an extended time and “act” as a family. The recognition of bonding and continuity of care as significant factors in contested adoptions should provide guidance for trial court judges.

For the court to decide that bonding is critical, it must first be able to recognize bonding when it occurs. Too often bonding has remained a fuzzy concept, a feel-good term to highlight the presence of mutual affection and positive regard. In fact, bonding can be defined in a factual and evidentiary way. The court needs to know when and how bonding occurs, and what happens when it is interrupted.


Bonding is a significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue, and which is interrupted or terminated at considerable peril to the parties involved. Human beings bond by sharing everyday vital life events in daily life, such as eating, sleeping, and playing together. Bonding takes time. Research shows that it is likely after three months, probable after six, and almost certain after 12 months. The earlier in life that the bonded relationship is interrupted, the more serious are the consequences.

What Happens When Bonded Relationships Are Interrupted?

Psychopathology, now or in later adult life, is a statistically significant possibility. A child who has been separated from someone he or she depends on and loves may be afraid to bond or love again. Even more serious, as adults he or she may be unable to feel compassion or to form and maintain personal relationships.

Interrupting bonded relationships takes a heavy toll on human health and well-being. Such a severance can rightly be labeled social surgery, akin to and as serious as brain surgery, divorce, or death. The younger the child and the deeper the bond, the more devastating can be the result.

Interrupted bonding has commonly been listed as a major or contributing cause to psychiatric disorders in children. These include Reactive Attachment Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder (AD/HD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Adjustment Disorders, Learning Disorders, and Developmental Delay.

The research shows that interrupted bonding can also lead to later and more serious adult disorders. Over 50 percent of homeless adults were once shuffled around in foster care. The loss of bonded relationships has been shown to be a significant factor in mental illness, including most psychotic and neurotic disorders. Interrupted bonding has been significantly linked to adult crime. Multiply-placed and separated children are psychopaths in the making. Finally, children who are separated from the significant care persons often end up in poverty.

Bonding Is Primary

Bonding should take precedence over kinship. Bonding is kinship. Strong relationships and potential lifetime commitments are more valuable to the child than blood ties. The marriage relationship is one example of the precedence of bonding over blood ties. If bonding is so important, why have the courts not always seen matters that way?

An obvious answer to this question is that bonding has rarely been defined in a specific evidentiary way that can be presented as fact rather than opinion. The Child Welfare Manual of the Indiana Division of Family and Children provided four excellent criteria, based on a considerable body of research, any one of which is sufficient to determine whether bonding has occurred. These criteria are the Length of Time, the Behavior of the Child, the Reciprocal Attachment, and Family identification.

Time in place is one factual way to measure bonding. In a parent-child setting, bonding is likely after three months, probable after six, and almost certain after one year. Research indicates that three months is the usual length of time that human beings take to adjust to any new or different situation. Normal children will attach well within six months. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA, 1997) reflects this research by setting one year as a deadline for filing termination of parental rights.

The behavior of the child is a second way to determine whether bonding has occurred. Bonded children seek to stay close to the parent. They turn to the parent when frightened or hurt. They may object when the parent leaves them. They copy the parent’s mannerisms. They want the parent to watch and admire what they do. Bonding checklists can be used to measure these behaviors clinically.

Bonding is reciprocal. It works both ways. The strength of the parent’s commitment can be determined. The bonded parent wants to be the forever parent. The bonded parent wants to raise the child, to be there through homework battles and broken hearts, through the first car and the first job, through the child’s marriage, through job loss or divorce, through joy and heartbreak until death. Bonds are meant to be permanent.

Family identification is a fourth way to measure bonding. The evaluator should explore whether and in what way the child identifies himself as a member of the foster/adopt family. Check with the community, the school, friends, neighbors, and extended family members, to determine how and whether the child is perceived as a member of the foster/adopt family. Has the child developed self-reliance and a trust of the foster family?

Community consensus is akin to our jury system whereby the court trusts the collective wisdom about a critical matter. A good evaluator will explore and assess what those people think who know the child and his or her attachments best. What evidence can be offered to determine where this child truly belongs?

Pseudo -Bonding and Other Myths

While many people understand what is meant by bonding, the process has too often been misunderstood to the peril of the children and the families involved. The heretofore vague and “feel-good” definitions of bonding have given rise to several myths.

Some naïve persons believe that the child who has bonded well to one family is a “good bonder” and will do equally well if moved to another family. It may even happen that the child is pleasant and compliant and shows no overt signs of distress. This is rightly called pseudo-bonding and reflects the very opposite of bonding. The compliance is very often a superficial veneer, covering a lack of attachment, which may well show up in adult life as psychopathology.

Humans do not bond nor love generically. We bond to the specific person in this place. Suppose you have been happily married for two years when the kind and well-meaning person in charge of your life announces: “Tonight you will be going home to a different husband. He is a very nice man and lives in a very nice place.” Crazy? No more so than telling a foster child that he will be happy moving to a new placement.

A second myth suggests that no harm is done when an infant or very young child is moved from home to home because they will not remember the experience later. Completely erroneous. The earlier a consequential event occurs in life, the more it determines future patterns of adjustment. Separation and loss are always consequential events. If separation and loss are hard for an adult, they are catastrophic for a small child.

Still another myth suggests that bonding is a skill. Parents and children can both learn how to be “good attachers.” Of course people can learn to become socially skilled. Any good salesman has mastered the techniques of connecting in order to make a sale. This is not what is meant by bonding. In a related vein, foster parents are often counseled not to become too attached to the children in their care. Wrong again. Bonding is what happens to normal people of all ages when they share meals and bedtime stories, chores and recreation, videos and baseball games and TV cartoons. Bonding is part of the process of living.

ASFA, with its research-based deadlines for requiring permanent homes for children, has led the way. The courts at all levels are becoming open to the concept and importance of bonding. Caseworkers, CASAs, parents, foster parents, and attorneys now all bear the responsibility of seeing that bonding is presented to the court in a well-defined and thorough fashion.

Presenting Bonding to the Court

  1. If you are a foster parent who has had a child with you for one year or more and you wish to adopt, hire an attorney. Not just any attorney but one who is experienced and knowledgeable about the complicated process of foster care adoptions.
  2. The attorney can help you through the prerequisite termination of parental rights (TPR.) If the adoption is to be disputed, you may want to file for adoption even before the TPR to insure that you will be a legal party and have an equal voice in court.
  3. Hire a psychologist who is knowledgeable about bonding and experienced with court testimony. You need an expert witness to convince the court of the presence of bonding and the perils of ignoring it. Your expert should be familiar with the bonding research.
  4. Here are some other rather obvious but important points that should be presented to the court:
    1. One year is a long time in the life of a child. ASFA’s guidelines are important and should be followed.
    2. Foster care is (or should be) temporary. Foster care must not become a way of life.
    3. Reunification and adoption are the only two truly permanent solutions. While ASFA allows for kin care and “permanent” legal guardianship as alternate permanency plans, neither are a permanent solution.
    4. All children have the right to a permanent home. The primary consideration should not be the rights of the adult but the best interest and rights of the child. As ASFA makes explicit, the rights of the child are paramount.
    1. The courts at all levels have begun to recognize the importance of bonding as it relates to kinship. To make their case, foster parents who wish to adopt must engage an attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced in adoptions from foster care and an expert witness who can evaluate and define bonding in a way that will be convincing.