When adoptive parenting becomes psychological abuse

Many years ago when I was a brand new parent, I met an adoptive mother at event of some sort and we got to talking about our children’s names.  In my husband's family, there are two names that show up in every generation, and I told her we had named our son one of them. She responded and said her husband was reserving his family's special name in case they conceived a son later on.

It struck me as so mean-spirited and selfish, yet this woman told me about it with no sense of guilt; it appeared to make perfect sense to her. I was speechless, and quickly changed the subject.  Now I wish I had challenged her and tried to understand what would motivate someone to adopt a child and immediately place them in a clearly secondary role in their family.

Some things I read online recently about abusive adoptive parents brought this encounter back to mind. It is deeply troubling to see how many adopted individuals have experienced abuse of all kinds at the hands of their adoptive parents. Like all Pollyannas, I have wanted to believe that, because I see strong caring families and treasured kids among my adoptive family friends, all adoptive parents love their children this way.

But they don’t.  I’m doubly sad about this: first, because we refuse to believe the adoptees who are telling us loudly and clearly that abuse happens, and that it is emotionally abusive it is to be raised by a family that ignores or disrespects your country and culture and dismisses racism; and second, that during the adoption process these attitudes are missed, or worse, accepted and approved.

I stumbled once on the blog of a prospective adoptive parent writing from Korea as she and her husband traveled to receive their baby. She spoke of visiting Chogye-sa, the wonderful Buddhist temple in downtown Seoul, and how she couldn’t bring herself to go in because the people were “praying to idols.” I commented about my own visits to Buddhist temples in Korea and how the peace they radiated brought me into closer touch with my own faith, but the comment went unacknowledged, lost in a sea of kudos for saving this child for Jesus.

Australian sociologist Dr. Kim Gray spoke about this at KAAN when it was in Boston several years ago. She shared the results of a study she had done about Australian adoptive parent attitudes toward their children’s cultures.  She called out one particularly egregious response, in which the parents stated that since everyone is a child of God, they wouldn’t be spending any special time focusing on any of this. It’s a no-brainer from my point of view that such prospective adoptive parents should be barred from adopting, but thanks to the prevalence of Christian adoption agencies, in Korea and in receiving countries, these attitudes are more likely applauded than decried.

Thinking back to the family saving that special name, it’s also a no-brainer that a child will never feel truly embraced by a family when the adoptive parents are holding out hope for “one of their own.” Adoptive parents have a responsibility to make absolutely sure our children know, through our words and actions, that we love them unconditionally for who they are. We have to show and tell them, frequently, that we love and respect them for their race, ethnicity, language, culture - for everything that is part of them.

If we send our children the message that we expect their gratitude for saving them from their country and culture, rather than loving them for it, they will suffer, because they will never know the unconditional love of their adoptive family.  This is just plain wrong, and it breaks my heart, it seriously breaks my heart.  I find it impossible to believe that there are adoptive parents who look at their children with disdain, dismissal and even disgust, and harm them emotionally and psychologically.

But they are out there. This kind of emotional abuse happens - and yes, I am calling it abuse, because if I call it anything else people won't take it seriously.

I don't have the professional knowledge to even begin to figure out how someone who physically or sexually abuses their child is able to get through a homestudy or how to stop them. This is something I hope that adoption agencies are looking for in every possible way, although adoptee experiences and the news tell me it's being missed.

I do have enough knowledge to know that if we're unsuccessful at preventing potential physical and sexual abusers from adopting, we shouldn't be surprised that more subtle types of abuse go largely unaddressed.

So my fellow adoptive parents: Talk about this. When people you know who are considering adoption come up to you and display these attitudes, call them on it – you can do it politely, but you must do it.  If you write about adoption, write about it.  If you speak to prospective adoptive parents, speak about it.

And above all, listen to the adoptees.


Psychobabbler said…
Another great post, Margie.

I can tell you exactly how folks make it through the homestudy. For one, they know how to give the right answers. For example, I personally have known several adoptive parents I have known over the years who stated that they did/would not engage in corporal punishment because they knew that's what they had to say in order to pass the homestudy, but never had any intention of disciplining otherwise. I suppose this might be picked up if other children already in the family were interviewed one on one by the social worker conducting the homestudy, but I don't get the impression that happens. The second thing is that, if most homestudies are like mine was, they really aren't the kind of in-depth interviews that are designed to get around the interviewee's desire to make a good impression.
Sue G said…
Well said Margie. I have friends who were fostered and/or adopted who are still having trouble with their relationships in middle age and beyond, not because of the primal wound of abandonment but because of the secondary wounding inflicted by their second/third/etc set of caregivers/parents.

Another suggestion I would offer to adoptive parents who want to do the right thing--when adoptee survivors of abuse talk about what happened, listen and learn. Do NOT make excuses for their parents. And above all do NOT tell them they are lucky to have been adopted!

One more thought--in the US at least, homestudies are a service for a fee. The only requirement for a successful homestudy is enough money to pay for it. The only exception I have seen is in waiting children programs where the homestudy is free and the wannabe parents really are scrutinized. But that varies from state to state. Also, seems more lax in foster than adoptive homestudies.
blackbelt said…
We have always had a mutually respectful relationship. You have been a wonderful example to me and I have read your blog with much thought.

I know adoptive parents who don't understand Attachment, who deny it, who decry it. I know adoptive parents who "white wash" everything - we're all the same - love love lala. (Unfortunately, I don't agree with them, just as they don't agree with me!) That part, I'm with you.

I am disturbed, though, that you seem to be saying Christian beliefs are abusive. This woman who talked about "idols" was crass and pedestrian but I would hardly consider it abuse. I hope you are not saying we devout Christians shouldn't be allowed to adopt.

I can show my son many aspects of Korea, including Buddhist art & architecture, but I wouldn't encourage him to be a Buddhist or Confucian. I will pass on our Christian faith, just as you pass on your ideals to your children. Maybe there is more to this story and that mother was deceptive in some way? like the example in the above comment.

Korea, though they have the history of Buddhism and Confucianism, is very much a Christian country now. It is Christian faith that started international adoption - for all its foibles and difficulties - but as you know even more than I, it is also beautiful. It was the Holts' abiding belief in Jesus Christ that lead them to step out in faith. I infer from this post that you think being a Christian-based organization is a bad thing. I hope you are not suggesting that a faith-based organization should give up their foundation.

Certainly there are extreme views in every religion. Certainly there are closed-minded individuals of every ilk. Why punish people for having a religion; for having a belief structure? Wouldn't it be scary if parents didn't have a belief structure? Doesn't everyone have beliefs no matter what label, whether there is a label?
Margie said…
Thanks, PB and Sue. I agree on all counts. Money and time are clearly a big part of the problem - if the agencies really scrutinized adoptive parents and if dollars weren't exchanged for homestudies which would make it more difficult for people with money to influence the process, and I would add if they were legally binding in some way to make adoptive parents liable for the lies they tell - then maybe we would actually find the folks who lie to get through the process.

Of course, the agencies themselves would have to be looking for the right things, and if they're OK with the savior mentality, that will never come out. Until there's real regulation and the imposition of best practices and policies, agencies will be able to treat adoption as an adoptive parent right, which will continue to allow them to parent badly with impunity.
Margie said…
Someone I like and respect left a comment that came to my email and then deleted it. The question it poses is important, so I want to respond to it.

It raises the concern that what I am saying here is that Christians should not be allowed to adopt. Given that I am a Christian myself (I am Catholic) and have raised my children in my faith, that would be pretty hypocritical.

What I am trying to say here are two things:

First, that some adoptive parents believe they can ignore their children's racial and ethnic needs on the basis of their faith. Social workers, sociologists, psychologists and, most important of all, adoptees themselves have provided evidence of the danger of such an attitude.

Second, that some adoptive parents believe that bringing a child to Christianity is a sufficient justification to adopt. This applies to any faith, of course, but it seems far more prevalent among Christians.

Hope that clarifies a bit.

Hope that clarifies.
Anonymous said…
I find it abusive, in every way, when natural mothers and families are dismissed and dehumanized.
Von said…
As a senior adult adoptee and someone who has done home studies as a professional although not in America, I have to say this is one of the parts of American adoption that is most broken.A skilled, experienced assessor can pick who's lying, gear questions to winkle out the truth and discover attitudes, intentions and prejudices. It requires time, care and being employed by those who are truly independent of the source of revenue.
I personally would not want to be given a family name and respect the rights of adopters to reserve that name.Adoption for adoptees would be far less broken if all adoptees kept their original or first names.
Statistically adoptees are more likely to be abused than biological children.Over 200 adoptees have lost their lives in America so far and while home studies are so poorly carried out it will continue.
CeeCee said…
What about the adoptive parents who say all the right things and PROMISE in their written homestudy statements, that they will foster respect for their children's culture of origin, help their kids learn about it, etc. And then they don't do it?? Or they do it, at best, in a manner that can be likened to "driveby cultural tourism." I see this over and over again in the adoption community of children born in China.

Sure, a lot of APs of kids born in China, me included, try to do all the right stuff -- including fostering relationships between their kids and adults in the Chinese community , working really hard to help their kids be at least somewhat conversant in the official language of their birth countries, etc. But then there are parents who take their kid to a "Chinese" restaurant in which -- surprise! -- the customers are all White people (P.F. Chan*gs, anyone?), enroll their kids in nearly all White schools (oh we've got racial diversity...little Susie is one of three Asians in her school), go to MAYBE one cultural celebration a year, and think they're just fine. And this is in a community that has LOTS of options for cultural support and education, diverse schools if you seek them out, etc. Those parents, I think, are (among other things) uncomfortable with other people of their children's race. They don't realize that their child, when s/he is not with them,
is seen as Chinese. Too bad they've been raised to be White and probably feel just as uncomfortable as their adoptive parents around other Chinese people.

Then there are the APs who do NOTHING and proclaim their child is an AMERICAN now. *headbang*

I really worry about these children, some of whom are kids of friends and acquaintances in my local community. How do we reach these APs when they are convinced they're doing enough, or that they don't need to do anything at all? It's like they've willfully buried their heads in the sand, to their children's ultimate detriment I am afraid.
Von said…
CeeCee and all, it is such a relief to see you take up these issues that we adult adoptees have been so concerned about for so long.I'm guessing you'll have more chance than we have because our concern is labelled as angry, bitter and anti-adoption.The personal attacks on us are at times hard to credit, coming as they do from people who would claim to be good people, upstanding in their communities and churches.When it becomes possible for adult, respectful dialogue to take place as it is here there is hope for the future of young adoptees, some of them anyway.
Sue G said…
Von I don't think ap's who behave in the way you describe can be converted. But their kids have a lifetime ahead to recover ( to the extent possible) with each other's support and if there is anything we can do it is to give our kids the tools to be there for their peers. Also I think/hope there is some value in being present to as a voice of validation from the parental side for our own kids as well as others'.
Sue G said…
Oops meant to direct my last comment to Cee Cee!
Joy said…
The denial is so great and large if you adopt that guarantees you sainthood and the price of sainthood is the child's psyche.

For example I know a first mother who is very rude to adoptees who asked me one time if I would have rather been abused than adopted. A first mother! Assumes my parents are child-abusers and that my adoptive parents are not, and get this, her child was abused by her child's adoptive parents.

Deep and long it runs.
Anonymous said…
We adopted internationally and went through the home study and you are so wrong when you say it is easy.

The Home Sttudy was not easy at all. In fact I think every bio parent should go through what we did before they start their families.

We were told to promise to at least try to expose our daughter to her culture. We are doing so now at age 3.
We were asked several times "do you realize this adoption will make your family bi racial." that was the stupidest question and there were many other stupid questions. The questions just fell short of asking how often my husband and I have sex. I would have replied none of your damn business and get out of my house.
Von said…
And what does 'exposing' someone to their culture involve Anonymous?
Sue G said…
Anonymous, no one here has said homestudies are easy. I have been through two of them and they were very difficult but even when I outright rebelled one day and would not talk to the social worker, we still passed our homestudy and were even allowed to have a copy, once we paid it off.

The criticism here lies within your own words: "We were told to promise to at least try to expose our daughter to her culture. We are doing so now at age 3.
We were asked several times "do you realize this adoption will make your family bi racial." that was the stupidest question and there were many other stupid questions."

Your agency asked the right questions and gave the right advice. You promised to "expose" your child and you are doing so--because they told you to? or because you really truly appreciate and honor the child's culture of origin? What will you do when your child starts finding the cultural "exposure" to be tedious?

What really gets me is that you thought the question of race and many others were stupid, and yet you passed your homestudy.

This is a case in point. I can see why you are remaining anonymous.
Psychobabbler said…
Couldn't have said it better myself, Sue.
Momma C said…
Thank you Sue- many APs never think that their family will now be biracial and kudos to the social worker that asked. They should have a bunch of follow up questions too like "why you think this is such a stupid question"
Von said…
Couldn't agree more!Adoption is about providing the very best parents for adoptees not finding children for parents.While some of the parenting tasks are similar for biological children many are not and special skills and sensitivity will be needed in so many areas.So many seem to lack them.
Margie said…
You nailed it, Sue. Nailed it.
Kelli said…
Great post- thank you for this. We take very seriously the responsibility to ensure our daugthers can be both confident and competent in both their birth culture (chinese) as well as their adoptive culture (American) but I see too many adoptive parents who, as you say, just attend one cutlural event a year and call it good. Or say, "we celebrated chinese new year- we made spaghetti with stir fried vegetables."
also agree wholeheartedly on the "adopting for god" (not your words, mine) vs adopting for your family. It really kills me to see families who state "our child was destined to be ours- God chose you for us" because that is basically saying God decided their bio parents would abandon them, they would spend countless months/years in an institution, unloved, not held, not cherished, and then finally they would be sent half way around the world to live with perfect strangers, lose their culture, their language, and all they knew. Doesn't sound like such a "gift" from God when you think of it that way. We need to be cognizent of our children's losses so we can nurture them and help them become wonderful adolecents and amazing adults.
And Yes- I also agree that homestudies are a joke. We spent way more time educating our last HS provider on International adoption issues (she was clueless) than was reasonable. We hired a different HS agency for our 5 years of postplacements...
Michelle said…
Our home study to adopt from foster care here in the US was HARD and LONG but that was how it should be! Part of the reason we selected the agency we did was their immersion process. Some people thought they were too long or invasive but we thought that was positive.

We were happy for the process and equally happy that we got a foster care license during our adoption process because it made us work out so many things before we adopted. My husband and I and at times our social worker too had specific talks about things we never imagined dealing with before. We loved the training so much ended up taking three more workshops at our agency.

For our foster-adopt program, you had to do 40 hours in-class time for licensing. Not only did we gain tools and do exercises that were hugely valuable but it weeded out a few people who were clearly unsuited to adopt. I cannot tell you how shocked I was over one particular dad's horrible attitude - midway through we were openly mocking him and found out that so many people in the class went back to their individual social workers to report them. Needless to say, they never got a child.

In our case, we also had to be interviewed by a team of nine people who were helping managing our child's case.

Our agency offered free counseling for children and families as long as you needed it. We definitely took advantage of that, twice in fact over a number of years. They offered support groups as well.

Frankly I was reassured that this much care was going into placing children. If this sort of stuff turns you off, then you shouldn't be adopting because doing it right as a parent who adopts doesn't get any easier.
Anonymous said…
Hi Margie! Thank you for blogging! I so appreciate all the information and thoughts you share here. In case you are interested and didn't already know there is large (and ongoing) discussion thread about this blog post over on the Holt Forums. Here is the link: http://www.holtinternational.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=128667
Margie said…
Thanks, Kelli and Michelle, I appreciate your comments and am glad you take all of this seriously.

Anon, thanks for alerting me to the forum discussion. I took a brief look and was glad to see that, interspersed with the expected dismissals, there were comments that seemed to understand what I'm trying to say in this post.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for your input and your honest appraisal of the home study.
Anonymous said…
Amen! Thank you, thank you, thank you Margie for your sharing. $$$$$$ is a big part of the adoption industry and for $$$$$ many people will let just about anything slide.
Anonymous said…
My children were taken from me many years ago. The welfare gave them to a family that the husband was pastor of a church. The adopted parents hurt my children so much the it makes the book called ( a child called it ) not seem so bad. My baby's were even told I didn't want them and then they were told I was dead. I never stopped looking for them and they didn't stop looking for me.
Does any one know of a good lawyer that could help my baby's sue the welfare for the hell they put my children threw. Maybe if the welfare gets sued they will do a better job at checking back grounds and maybe helping the parents Be better parents.
Anonymous said…
I specifically added elements to an existing biased article on "children who abuse their parents" as I felt this wiki was EXTREMELY BIASED against children. I was compelled to set the record straight. (It seemed that a parent was determined to scapegoat their parental responsibility and used "the child" as the scapegoat!

As a horribly abused adopted child myself, who had major felonies committed against me by ALL of my adopted family who were able to hide the abuse with their millions of dollars and cozy connection that protect them, and HIDE THE TRUTH about ABUSED ADOPTEES, I was EXTREMELY COMPELLED to include other dynamics in the wiki to address the bias containing the original article, which can be found here:

Anonymous said…
(Ironic that your name is "Margie")

FYI, when I became pregnant, my mother INSISTED I get an abortion and said I would be "disowned" if I had the baby...the mother who raised me (and it hurts NOT to call her "my mother", as I never had a "mother", was extremely emotionally, psychologically, legally and financially abusive.

My father was so weak he ALLOWED HER TO CONTINUE THESE ABUSES MY WHOLE LIFE, with the help of my brother, as they wanted to make sure I didn't get a dime for refusing to succumb to the abuse!!!

After the abortion had gone wrong and I was suffering from internal bleeding my "mother" came into the bedroom and started pushing on my abdomen yelling, "There's nothing wrong with you." I was lucky to have a close friend in the room looking after me, as he shoved her aside and immediately took me to the hospital where I was in ICU for 3 days...

There are MANY more horrid stories that would bring you to tears, like how she had my dog and horse out to sleep without telling me, beatings, lies to my father to cover mother/son greedy agenda, etc...
Anonymous said…
Those felonies included MAJOR cover ups of felonies they and others committed against me (even contributed DIRECTLY by certain official government entities and family attorneys who HID ALL OF THE FELONIES), but BECAUSE I WAS TOTALLY POWERLESS, I was ALWAYS put into situations by family members that continually destroyed my life, whenever they felt like it...to this very day they have stolen trusts from my grandfather, denied me rights to higher education that they had PROMISED in adoption papers, and gave a multi-million dollar corporation to my brother, now worth over $50 million dollar etc...and by the way, my brother tried to rape me when I was about 13 years old...the only thing that stopped him was that I was bigger than he was...and he was sleeping with my mother in her bed when my father was gone...TOTALLY abnormal behavior!!!
NO ONE WILL EVER BE PUNISHED FOR THOSE WRONGS, and including the stitches to my head after my brother attacked me, and my mother said to him, "Good. She deserved it." That was for calling him "mommie's baby"...evidently the truth not only hurts, it causes injuries to those who REVEAL THE TRUTH!!!

Anonymous said…
I'm 18 and an adoptee and I've recently realized I have been psychologically abused for years. I've been kept in the house because of things I "did wrong" I was grounded for over 9 years and still am. I was and is still not allowed to hang out with friends Ive been transfered in Jr high to a better school then in highschool to a better school. Not having permanent relationships with people my own age has put me into a deep hole of depression. I can't say how much they hurt me because when I confront one or both of them its my fault because I'm eating unhealthy or not watching two and a half men with them. Pointless excuses and I wish I could change the adoption process and make the parents have tests done that show they aren't manipulative and show they are fit to raise a child. If they can't bear a child naturally maybe they just aren't fit psychologically to raise a child that isn't there's. This is a real problem people need to realize is happening all the time. Parents bullying and in a way enslaving there adopted kid and trying to make them the child they could not have. Its unfair to me and I really can't wait to be able to leave far away from there constant manipulation and bullying. But also I'm already affected with not being able to have a normal family on my own because I'm afraid I'm going to be just like them.
Unknown said…
I'm an adoptee who was forced to be Christian and it's still triggering for me to be around anything that reminds me of religion. I just start crying as I remember all the spankings I got for wiggling during church or not looking at the preacher during his ceremony. I wasn't the only one who was abused at church. The whole congregation sat in approval as many children were pinched, thumped, and slapped throughout worship services. They believed it was good for us and necessary for us to become decent Christians. If I got chatty with another kid during church, my dad would take me out into the parking lot and beat me with his belt. Not just a little smack. My adoptive parents are clear about their beliefs when it comes to punishing children and they clearly state that if you don't do it hard enough, they'll see you as weak. They know who they can and can't say these things in front of. It angers me to realize at age 37 that I was abused, I was not the only one, and the whole community still approves of it. They will argue that spanking is a must and children will be terrible if they're not spanked.

My mom made write prayers to be printed in church bulletins. I couldn't write out my real prayers because they were violent wishes for revenge and I would get in trouble if I shared those thoughts. That's not what they wanted to publish. I also prayed my real parents would come back for me and prosecute these people for making raised purple welts all over my back and legs. A nurse came to our classroom in second grade and gave us a special lesson about good touches and bad touches. She clearly outlined what abuse is and that we should tell our teacher if this happens to us. So I did and she laughed as she said, "Abused children don't wear designer clothes. Go back to your seat."

Over and over again, I was told how lucky I am. Eventually I got used to it and by the time I turned eighteen, I didn't know how to live the way I had looked forward to. I told myself I would survive to make it to eighteen and then move on. I never quite did. I still don't want to be unappreciative.
Anonymous said…
My friend was adopted when he was young and his mom and adopted sister verbally abuse him 24/7. What should we Do? Is there a way get him out and live with real uncle? How do we get proof? Please help
Hello, and many apologies for the delayed response. This is an incredibly difficult question, because at the end of the day, adoptive parents have legal authority over their under-age children. But I would offer the following - and encourage any practitioners who see your question to add their thoughts.

Without knowing the age of your friend, it is hard to say if he is able to take action on his own behalf - talking to a school counselor, for example, to seek help. If the abuse is at a level that counseling would be indicated, this is a path I would encourage your friend to follow. It seems to me from the couple of sentences here that there is some kind of dispute between the adoptive parents and first family members that joint counseling might help to resolve.

If we are talking about a minor, I hesitate to offer specific guidance because, as I said above and presuming this is a legal, finalized adoption, legal authority is with the adoptive parent(s). If the abuse is serious enough to fall into legal definitions for child abuse in his jurisdiction, then reporting it to law enforcement or child protective services would be an avenue. This would place you completely at odds with the adoptive family, however, and might even subject you to further legal action if your claim is found not to have legal merit.

Do you have a relationship with the adoptive family? Would there be any way for you to suggest counseling? I sincerely believe that in cases like this, the guidance of an adoption-competent LCSW, particularly an adoptee, could be of tremendous help. Would this be a possibility?

Regardless of any actions you take, I hope that your friend finds support and is able to resolve the situation successfully.
Unknown said…
I was abused as an adopted child physical and emotionally by my mother. My father avoided her. One thing that hurt the most though was that my father had an antique mantel clock. I loved it and would polishing and wind it as a child each day. I asked of someday I could have it. My father said, "No that has to go to your brother to keep it in the family line. He's a Richardson". Then he walked away. This hurt more than my mothers beatings and cruel insults. Worse than my sister in law using the insult "you must be adopted" when her kids acted up in front of me. Woese than me cutting them out of my life about ago and them not caring.
jhon said…
she has several times now) to visit her son and his adoptive parents. And she was celebrating her first Mother's Day with the mother she had chosen for her son. They are like family now. I can't think of a more beautiful picture of open adoption. learn more
Lynne said…
what a bunch of crap most of these comments are. I am an adoptee. Very abusive parents. "Childhood" ...a living hell. As for bi-racial adoptions, they simply should NOT happen. The entire adoption process and experience for the adoptee is rough enough already, so don't throw horses of different colors into the mix and expect it all to come out like a beautiful bouquet of roses. Horse shit is what you'll get.

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