Monday, March 10, 2014

Yes, We Are Aware That Bad Things Happen in Biological Families, Too

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In the past year, as a result of several factors (the publication of Kathryn Joyce's book The ChildCatchers, the Reuters rehoming scandal, and media attention to several heartbreaking cases of adoptee abuse or death at the hands of an adoptive parent), the issue of abuse and maltreatment of adoptees within adoptive families has been receiving an increased amount of attention, both inside and outside of the adoption community. Adult adoptees and others have also been drawing attention lately to less extreme but more widespread instances of microagression against adoptees, such as those illustrated at the tumbler account Sh**ty things adoptive families say to adoptees.

From my point of view, this increased awareness and attention is a very good thing. Until recently, the occurrence of abuse within adoptive families was adoption's dirty little secret obscured by a cultural tendency to believe only good things about adoptive parents. Among my acquaintances are adoptees who attempted to report abuse as children only to be dismissed and disbelieved by people who could not believe that the adoptive parents (perceived as good, selfless, and rescuing) could be capable of abuse. It may seem to some people that the current level of attention to adoptee maltreatment is overkill, but when an issue has long been kept in the dark it is natural and right for it to receive extra scrutiny when it at last comes to light.

But, not surprisingly, with the increased attention has come the backlash, primarily from adoptive and prospective adoptive parents. We are being reminded with increasing regularity that "abuse happens in biological families, too" and "some people are just horrible people who would be bad parents in any circumstances." We are reminded that lots of people, not just adoptees, have troubled relationships with their families. We are accused of giving a pass to biological parents and of always focusing on the negative in adoption.

To this I say, just stop. Please.

First of all, such critics are raising awareness of something of which we are already perfectly aware. Because biological families are the norm and adoptive families the non-normative exception, every single one of us, adopted or not, almost certainly knows more non-adopted people than adopted ones. We all know of people who were abused by biological parents. We all know people who have crappy, dysfunctional relationships with family members who are related to them by blood. We know that plenty of non-adoptive people have also had sh**ty things said to them by family members. No one who is working to raise awareness about maltreatment of adoptees within adoptive families is unaware of or denying any of this. In fact, in some cases, the very people who are raising awareness about adoptee abuse are the same people who are on the ground working to improve conditions and outcomes for all children.

It is a fallacy to assume that raising awareness about one kind of abuse or maltreatment denies the existence of other kinds of abuse. Those who have been speaking out in recent years about sexual abuse by members of the clergy, for example, are not implying that only clergy members commit abuse or that all clergy members commit abuse. Rather, they are raising awareness about one kind of abuse that occurred within a particular purview and was long kept in the dark. They are also examining the factors that are unique to this particular context of abuse and that need to be explored with an understanding of the context, such as the systemic cover-ups that occurred within the church itself.

Similarly, child abuse may happen in non-adoptive contexts, too, but it is still important--essential even--to look at the specifics of abuse and maltreatment as they occur within the adoptive context. In many cases, maltreatment in adoptive cases can be linked specifically to adoption-related causes, such as lack of parental preparation for the behaviors displayed by trauma-affected children or lack of bonding and attachment linked to the child's attachment disruption from the original family or to genetic dissimilarities (in temperament, etc.) between the child and the parent. (Dissimilarities can obviously occur in biological families, too, but are more likely in adoptive families. Additionally, if the parent has been falsely led to believe that the adoptee is a "blank slate," that too can be an aggravating factor.) Though it didn't happen in my family, I've heard many adoptees express that they were treated very differently from non-adopted siblings in the family, sometimes to the extent that the adoptee was abused and the biological child was not.

Adoptive families are also different from biological families in that they are legal entities created by way of human institutions. Because humans created the adoption institution, we are called to look at it more closely when its flaws come to light. We need to look at adoption-specific factors such as home studies and post-adoption support (or lack thereof). We need to be asking what can be done to fix what is broken, and we can't do that without first acknowledging the problems.

We also need to look at adoptee abuse within the context of the prevailing "better life" mythology of adoption. Many expectant mothers have been told they are selfish to consider parenting themselves rather than allowing their child to experience the better quality of life that adoption supposedly provides. Criticisms of the current adoption system are often countered with the argument that adoption combats abuse and neglect by getting children out of bad situations, without any acknowledgment that abuse and neglect happen in adoptive families as well. Furthermore, many adoptees hear throughout their lives that they are "lucky" and that they should feel grateful for the wonderful life that adoption has supposedly provided. When it turns out that for some adoptees the promised "better life" is actually something much, much worse, that is a story that deserves our attention. 

It's also important to acknowledged that adoptees who are mistreated in the adoptive family have been doubly harmed, first by the many losses associated with the separation from the original family and secondly by the maltreatment in the adoptive home. The biological parent who suffers the loss of a child to adoption only to later learn that the child ended up in an abusive home is also doubly affected. These stories deserve to be heard, and, until recently, there has not been a place for them in adoption discussions. It is not the job of people who have suffered as a direct result of adoption to make adoptive and prospective adoptive parents feel better by "focusing on the positive."

Finally, before I close I'd like to look in more detail at one particular accusation that has been put forth against those of us writing, speaking, tweeting, etc., to raise awareness of adoptee abuse and maltreatment, which is that by shining the light on adoptive parents who abuse we are "giving a pass" to biological parents and thus contributing to the number of children who end up in foster care. In addition to the fallacy that raising awareness about one issue is the equivalent of ignoring another, as I discussed above, this accusation includes another problematic assumption: all or most children in the child-welfare system are there as a result of abuse or maltreatment at the hands of a biological parent. I want to emphasize that if even one child has ended up in the system as a result of biological parent abuse, that is one child too many. I am not giving a pass to any abusive parent, biological or otherwise. But it is important to acknowledge that the reasons why children end up in state care are many and complex. Yes, some end up in care as a result of abusive or incompetent biological parents. Some end up there because of the actions of a step-parent or live-in partner of the biological parent; others as the result of factors such as the parent's failure to provide sufficient food or adequate housing (in other words, because of poverty); still others as the result of "discriminatory practices in society (reports of abuse and neglect) or within the child welfare system (investigations, substantiations, placements, permanency outcomes)" that result in racial and ethnic disproportionality in foster care and foster-adoption. 

All instances of child abuse and neglect deserve our attention and outrage, but we do not serve children by oversimplifying complex realities. We need to be looking at child welfare with a wide lens and with full cognizance of the various (and at times differing) factors that affect biological and adoptive families. 


  1. Yes, yes, yes to everything you've written!

    There's also the little matter that biological parents are ENTITLED to raise their biological kids, while adopting or fostering somebody else's kid is a PRIVILEGE -- so adoptive/foster parents SHOULD be held to a higher standard. Why else would homestudies, security checks, etc. be required before any individual is granted the privilege of caring for somebody else's kid?

    All child abuse is horrific but it is really, really horrific when it happens to an adopted kid -- as APs have passed a homestudy, security checks, etc and deemed capable of parenting a particuar child.

    It's a systemic issue -- adoption done wrong kills. The way that it is being practiced today is not working, is very much broken and the minor fixes that are halfheartedly proposed aren't anywhere near enough to what is needed to ensure children are kept safe. Heck, the process of determining which kids are available for adoption (both here and abroad) are horrifically broken too. Honestly, unless a way to fix this terribly broken system can be implemented ASAP.... there will be more tragedies!

  2. Oh thank you! Nothing gets my goat faster than someone assumed that *I* would have abused my son. While yes, no one is condoning child abuse in any form, being told again and again that bio families also suffer abuse is nothing more than gaslighting or dismissive of the issues that DO need to be faced within adoption.

  3. Absolutely correct! In fact, just the other day I was thinking about how home studies were performed and the criteria used back during the BSE and how in today's many of those AP's would have passed or not. Not to mention my parents had NO after adoption support from the adoption agency after they adopted both my brother and I. The system is so broken right now and has been for years.

  4. Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you for this!

    I've seen the battles my oldest son has had to face when he's spoken out about his abuse from his adoptive mother and adoptive family.

    To me, in so many ways, the responses received are nothing more than attempts to turn the attention away from adoptee abuse so others can "feel good" about themselves and their actions. Unfortunately, when this is done to adoptees who have the courage and bravery to stand up and speak out about their experiences, it's nothing more than abusing them all over again!

  5. "We also need to look at adoptee abuse within the context of
    the prevailing "better life" mythology of adoption. Many expectant
    mothers have been told they are selfish to consider parenting themselves rather
    than allowing their child to experience the better quality of life that
    adoption supposedly provides."

    All very important and well-stated points but this is the one that carries the day for me. No one makes this kind of promise about biological parents but it is made all the time about potential adopters.

  6. Once again I appreciate your raw style of writing.

    As an adoptive parent—we adopted a two-year-old about 15 months ago—I understand the stress and challenge of parenting in the adoptive context.

    While I agree that it is good to shed light on the reality of abuse in adoptive and foster families, part of the solution is for the community as a whole to provide support for these families. You highlight the unique challenges that an adoptive family faces. Instead of that family isolating and pretending that all is well within the walls of their home, I hope they reach out and find people that will come alongside them and help them.

    I just wrote a blog about my emotions after adopting. They are real. They are not always pretty. I know I can't do this alone.

    Thanks again Rebecca.

  7. Thank you, Kenneth.

    "Part of the solution is for the community as a whole to provide support for these families." <-- I very much agree! Somewhere buried in the archives of this blog is the post I wrote about the anxiety and depression I experienced during the difficult first months of my daughter's placement with us. I've also written about the urgent need for more pre-adoption education and post-adoption support for adoptive parents on my other blog:

    The post-adoption support part of the equation is actually something I am currently looking to become more involved in locally. And I so appreciate the work of groups like Good things are happening, thanks to some visionary folks out there, but there's still a lot more to be done!


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