Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Can Adoption Lead to Child Abuse?

At Huffington Post, Lisa Belkin answers "yes:"
I have not been able to get four-year-old Sean Paddock, or 11-year-old Hanna Williams, or 7-year-old Lydia Schatz out of my mind. As Erik Eckholm reported in the New York Times yesterday, and Anderson Cooper discussed on CNN, most recently last week, the three children all died within the past five years, and they had several chilling factors in common.

Each of their deaths were brutal and agonizing: Sean suffocated; Hana, who was found lying naked in the muddy yard, died of hypothermia and malnutrition; Lydia showed signs of a brutal beating. In each case, one or both of their parents has been charged with their murder.

And in each case, those parents are said to have essentially punished their children to death, allegedly because they believed it was God's will. They are said to have been guided by the book To Train Up A Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl, which advocates beating children with rubber tubing, leaving them outside in the cold, and witholding food for days at a time in keeping with Biblical teachings.

* * *

[E]ach of these children joined these families through adoption. Sean was born in the US, as were his five adopted siblings. Hana was from Ethiopia, as was her adopted brother (their parents had six biological children as well), and Lydia was from Liberia (there were two other adopted siblings among the family's nine children).
Is this merely grisly coincidence? Or is there something about the adoption dynamic that makes violent abuse more likely?
One possibility is that adoptive children -- particularly those who spend their earliest years in an orphanage or shuttling from one foster caregiver to the next -- are more likely to suffer reactive attachment disorder, which are essentially the inability not only to bond, but to feel. The effects are not just psychological, but also physical, with evidence these children can have elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which increases their tolerance for pain. Some speculate that spanking a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder can spiral out of control quickly, because it takes abusive levels of pain before the child actually feels it and responds.
Belkin also notes that a commenter claiming to know Hana's family wrote:
They expected Hana and her little brother to assimilate into their family, and most likely ignored their culture, how they had grown up (customs, beliefs, etc), and most importantly, the trauma that Hana and her brother had gone through in their childhoods. These kids just weren't acting like their biological children. Instead of taking a step back and getting professional help, they decided that they would continue to follow the Pearl method, but continued to up the ante, because these kids were NOT succumbing to being "broken".
When we read media reports of adoptive parents who have abused and/or murdered their children, it raises lots of questions.  Who commits more abuse, biological or adoptive parents?  Is abuse of adopted children because of or in spite of adoption? If adoption is causitive, in what way is it causitive? Are adoptive parents less able to "feel the pain" of a child not biologically related to them? Is that tendency (if it exists) exacerbated if the adoption is transracial? Does RAD and the reaction of the child play a role, as Belkin suggests?  Is the stress of adoptive parenting a factor? Is the connection between adoption and religion implicated?

I wish I had the answers. . . .  What do you think of Belkin's suggestion? Reactions?


Sharon said...

I really hate the media tendency to attribute abuse of adoptees to if the kids are somehow to blame for what happens. Yes, RAD is real, but it's not an excuse for brutal parental behavior, and it's wrong and misleading to suggest that all adoptees have RAD. I adopted 3 older kids. All experienced trauma in their young lives. All needed time to adjust to our home. The road was rocky at times...but it wasn't RAD.

Shanna W said...

I am a foster-adoptive mother of two girls. In my opinion, it is not the potential of RAD (which is an overused term for the most severe form of attachment disorder & will be revamped completely in the new DSM coming out) that is the primary issue. In adoption, a child must attach to the adoptive parents, but the adoptive parents must attach to the child. It's a two-way street, not a one-way street.

I believe the abuse was able to be tipped to a level that led to death because the parents were not attached to the child. Unattached parents are the ones who would be able to increase the beating to such a level that the child would succumb physically.

I do agree that this was coupled with a total ignorance of what adoption requires when it comes to respecting the child and his/her culture. There was also most likely ignorance on how the adoption process works once the child is in the home.

I am not saying the children did not have attachment issues, it is most likely they did as that is totally normal. I would be hesitant to throw the term "RAD" out there though. RAD would indicate that the child never attached to anyone in his/her young life. It also assumes the child is incapable of attachment & I think that is a harsh assumption to make.

Attachment in adoption is a real issue that many people are not talking about. Adoptive parents may believe they should instantly "love" the child they adopted, but this is unrealistic as attachment involves relationship. We attached to our biological children over a 9-month pregnancy, then we went through a labor/delivery with them, and finally hormones/contact helped increase the attachment.

To assume that attachment of an adoptive child would require no effort at all is a dangerous assumption.

Shanna W said...

Well stated Sharon.

Shanna W said...

Also wanted to comment that the research article linked ( is discussing "disordered attachment" which is not the same as RAD.

I think a lot of people get up on RAD, but truly--that is not what most kiddos struggle with and it is sadly overused incorrectly.

LilySea said...

Rather than blaming adoption per se, I'd blame the religious perspective.

While the adopted children in these families died, what was going on with the biological children of these same parents? If they were using the method in the book, they were likely abusing those kids too--just not to death.
Clearly, while being adopted may have been a factor that made the abuse worse for the adopted children, the actual cause of the abuse was the parents' belief in the method.
And the parents' belief in the method stems from their conservative religious beliefs.

Adoption here is a red herring. We need to be examining the parenting "styles" of conservative religious people--whether they adopt children or not--with more care. It is a documented fact that the more conservative a parent is, religiously, the more likely s/he is to be an abuser.

Unfortunately, that same population--religious conservatives--often believe that adopting children is some kind of charitable act of religious devotion, too. So if we want to pull out and focus on the adoption aspect of these cases, it's the religious perspective we need to look at in the adoption preparation/home study period. Are the motives of adopters religious ones? If so, what are they, precisely?

I am far from picking on religion here. My own religious beliefs shape my ethics at every level, and were therefore part of my decision-making when I chose whether to adopt or use third-party reproduction to have children. But when a parent names religious belief as part of the reason for adopting, WHAT exactly those beliefs are and whether they will have a negative impact on parenting needs to be considered.

For example, while my sense that family can extend beyond blood ties is a product of my religious beliefs, I didn't adopt to "rescue" or "save" or "Christianize" a child. Those, I think are major red flags and should be cause for disallowing an adoption.

kyburg said...

I think 'To Train Up A Child' should be listed as a book NOT to have handy for adoptive children, as much as other books on attachment parenting are recommended TO have on hand. That's a beginning.

It's a terrible book and a dangerous one to use as a guide.

To me, any family planning to use those tactics would be one I would not place adoptive children in.

I'll start - and stop - there.

LilySea said...

Thank you for the link, Shanna. This is a topic I want to research more as I ponder fostering teens in the future!

Karen said...

I certainly do not think that "Adoption can lead to child abuse" But I absolutely believe that far fetched expectations and lack of knowledge/education about adoption and unrealistic expectations of bonding can lead to child abuse, in ANY situation; biological/step/adoption.

Anonymous said...


Lots of leaps here, some claiming "documented facts". I would like to see the comprehensive study that says religious/conservative parents are most likely to abuse. And take a hard look at that "study" and how it was conducted, by whom?,etc.

As both a mother(adoptive and bio.), foster parent & Social Worker in the school system, I can tell you flat out, based on my 20 years experience, that the vast majority of children we see suffering from abuse come from lower income, H.S. or below educated, often times single led, households.

Can I call that a documented fact, or is it something more indicative of the community I live in and my chosen vocation?

Would it fair to say low incomes, low education, etc. lead to abuse?

The children we have fostered all came from abusive situations as well at the hands of their biological parents. Sometimes physical, sometimes emotional or other.

Again, though I wouldn't make the claim that ONLY this group of children are vulnerable.

Abuse crosses all religious ( or lack thereof), all socioeconomic groups and all racial groups.

If you look at children with disabilities/behavioral issues, etc. across the spectrum, you will find instances of abuse rise dramatically. No study or discussion needed for this one; it stands to reason, the more difficult the task, the more isolating and demanding, the greater chance of systemic abuse and of primary caregivers losing their tempers or worse.

Do adopted children fall into that category? Some, certainly.

But please let's be careful when tossing out "studies", "facts" etc.; for every study, and causal finding, there usually resides someone with an agenda, wishing to produce a certain outcome.

The question might as well be:

"Can Parenthood Lead to Child Abuse?"


Sunday said...

"Shanna W said...

In adoption, a child must attach to the adoptive parents, but the adoptive parents must attach to the child. It's a two-way street, not a one-way street.

I believe the abuse was able to be tipped to a level that led to death because the parents were not attached to the child." I totally agree!

Too often RAD is being used as a label for kids with whom parents are unable to attach to and an excuse for abuse. "My kid has RAD, so all bets are off and I am entitled to do to them what ever I want. They are incapable of feeling (for me) and their fore less than human..." And how dare any one say different.

LilySea said...

Here are some studies about the correlation between conservative religious beliefs and abuse:

Religion, of course, is not the only contributing factor to child abuse, but it is clearly one, real factor.

Anonymous said...

These are all extremely sad cases and maybe RAD was part of the picture but we must remember that many bio children are abused and die as well.

Anonymous said...

LilySea - you said exactly what I wanted to say, but you did it so much better!

Steve said...

Twenty-one years of being a prosecutor has taught me that child abuse comes in all types of families and living situations. I have dealt with cases where the abusers were birth parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, grandparents, significant others of parents .... I have dealt with cases involving abusers from every known demographic group (young, old, male, female, rich, poor, married, single ....).

So, I take this suggestion with a grain of salt.

Mei-Ling said...

"These are all extremely sad cases and maybe RAD was part of the picture but we must remember that many bio children are abused and die as well."

I think people tend to act more horrified about a biological parent abusing her own flesh-and-blood than an adoptive parent abusing her own adopted child.

Anonymous said...

And these sad stories about kids who happened to be adopted were picked out of how many thousands of sad stories of abuse of kids who are not adopted? I would attribute this to some very sick parents. Mental illness has nothing to do with adoption.


Anonymous said...

These adoptive parents need to be reading Beyond Consequences, not To Train Up A Child.

Anonymous said...

I was brutally abused by the man who adopted me. I'm lucky I survived with my sanity. I left "home" at 14.

The only facts I need to know are the ones I lived. I NEVER should have been handed over to an alcoholic pedophile. HOME STUDIES are jokes and do not work.

Children are purchased by bad people in this country and the baby pimps don't care 'cause it's all about money, not the innocents.