Justice for Hyunsu

Brian O’Callaghan and his wife adopted a little boy from Korea last October and brought him to live in the Washington, DC suburbs. Hyunsu was just three years old when he died on February 3rd. As if he death were not enough of a tragedy, we learned yesterday that Brian O'Callaghan has been charged with his murder, characterized in the article this way:

Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Fenton, listing injuries to the boy’s head, neck and back. “Basically this child was beaten to death from head to toe.”

Brian O’Callaghan denies that he murdered the child. His wife and family stand by him, and claim it was just a terrible tragedy.

As an adoptive parent, this story chills me to the bone. It’s not the first, sadly; in the Korean adoption world there is the horrible precedent of the Sueppel family murders, and more recently the abuse, neglect and murder of Hana Williams. The murders of no small number of Russian adoptees should make everyone wary of continuing adoptions from that country, but the vast majority of press – I heard a piece on BBC this very morning on the way to work – focuses on the adoptive parents shut out by Russian program closures.

For all the media love blanketing adoption, the sad fact is that bad people adopt, some of them bad enough to kill. Yet when these horrible tragedies take place, the vast majority of the adoption community falls back to its usual defenses, none of which even acknowledge that a problem exists:

Biological parents kill, too.
These cases are in the minority, what about all the successful adoptions?
Bottom line, children need to be in families.
Justice for children means finding a family for every one of them.
If you close the program, children will languish in institutions.
I think right now an institution would have been a far better choice for little Hyunsu, and all the children who have been murdered by the people who were supposed to have their best interests at heart.

I have selfishly skirted my own feelings about whether or not adoption can be fixed to the point of actually serving children rather than adoptive parents. The death of little Hyunsu – three years old, people, and beaten from head to foot – is my tipping point. The sheer horror of this child’s murder has pushed me over – and the silence of the majority of the adoption community, especially lawmakers with the power to actually do something to change the paradigm, tells me I’m right. They will voice their sadness, defend the status quo of their programs, and do nothing to prevent this horrible crime from happening again – never mind righting the violent injustices that exist right here in the USA.

It is clear that adoption agencies have no power to actually seek out parents who will do the best for the children who really need them and find those who may not be fit to parent. Heck, they cannot even get prospective adopters of non-white kids to acknowledge that racism exists. How can we expect them to find the potential child murderer in a line-up of freshly-scrubbed prospective adoptive parent faces?

So maybe the time is right to tear down the adoption house and replace it with services for children that focus on them as individuals, not program products. If, starting from the ground up, ethical and regulated adoption with Federal oversight has a place, fine. If not, so be it.

It is time for us to stop portraying adoption as an infertile's right, a response to God's call to save the orphans or a silver bullet against abortion. When adoption is done wrong, it kills. We need to accept this fact and dramatically overhaul this thing or end it. There must be #JusticeforHyunsu, and every other adoptee who has died at the hands of this flawed system.


Macey said…
What's really, really scary about this particular case is that it appears there were no red flags -- the adoptive father, by all accounts, appears to have been an upstanding citizen (military veteran, holder of TS clearance suggesting he'd never committed any crimes, etc)... right up until the point he beat his adopted son to death. The family had adopted a single child, kept birth order, etc.

How can this kind of tragedy be prevented? How can PAPs be better screened? What on earth would possess a seemingly law-abiding citizen (with the means to hire a babysitter, the insurance coverage to go see a doctor if he felt like he was going to hurt himself/his son) to beat the kid to death and COVER IT UP!?!
It is mind-boggling, but it happened. And it has happened too often in adoption.

Maybe there needs to be actualy psychological screening - although as I write that, I have no idea if it would pick up a tendency to this kind of anger and violence, or if it even would be legal.

We definitely need more information to even begin to understand what happened, but so far there is very little out there. Hopefully as this unfolds we'll get a better picture of how this happened.

But then I have to ask, will agencies and adoption facilitators take note? Or will it just be business (and I mean business) as usual.

So so sad.

Nora said…
This child was placed with his adoptive family less than six months ago, which means that social workers would still have been contracted to conduct required post-placement visits. Imagine how surface-level these visits must have been for no red flag to have been raised; imagine the missed opportunities to intervene and offer support, to offer refuge for this child. further, this family would have gone through the "new" court process, where they were required to stand in front of a judge in Korea and pledge their commitment to love and care for this child. Imagine how they were able to win approval at this stage of the process, and then murder their child a few months later. Lastly, given this man's military record and the positions he held, we can imagine he has been in high-stress situations before and navigated them with enough self-control to earn accolades on his professionalism. So what then could a three year old child have done to push him to this point? What is it about parenting a child through adoption that leads to so many, too many, parents who reach the same breaking point?
The very same thoughts are in my mind: what could possibly have pushed this man to this point? I think back to my kids at 3 and cannot fathom anything that they could do to warrant more than a reprimand and a time out. If that.

Something is so not right here, so completely and utterly out of line. It makes no sense, but this little boy was battered to death. How?

You are right about the visits, all it takes is an hour or so of calm to pass them, so even if there was something under the surface, it could have easily been hidden. I am pretty sure Hyunsu was still in the agency's custody, too, so I wonder about their culpability as well.
Margie this is why I love you and your blog- you hit it right on the head again.
Mary, I wish I didn't have to hit this one. It is just horrible, really horrible.
aaryn b. said…
Let's be honest: the post-placement home visits are not stringent at all. I don't even remember whether we had one, and certainly we had one, right? Furthermore, the vetting process that seemed so invasive to me at the time is, in retrospect, wholly inadequate. Even as the fingerprinting, background checking, essay answering and home visiting all seem to put a magnifying glass up to potential parents, it is pretty much set up for prospective APs to sail through, relative to the reason they are being "scrutinized." Change is desperately needed, and ethical oversight, too. Sadly, I don't know that the latter exists.
Absolutely correct, Aaryn. My husband and I were just talking about this, and we both remember that we cleaned the house and smiled a lot. If the homestudy hasn't found anything suspicious, it definitely won't show up in that visit.

And I also agree with your observation about it feeling so invasive at the time, but really minor now. This is certainly the result of the entitlement I felt at the time, and I've wondered what might have changed my mindset. I think what was missing in my case was a clear knock upside the head, in the form of a very serious training session, about what adoption was all about: namely the children. That message was only delivered with kid gloves; we were the clients, not the children.

Yeah, that's a paradigm that needs to shift FAST.
THIS \is what gets me crazy:

"Yet when these horrible tragedies take place, the vast majority of the adoption community falls back to its usual defenses, none of which even acknowledge that a problem exists:

Biological parents kill, too.
These cases are in the minority, what about all the successful adoptions?
Bottom line, children need to be in families.
Justice for children means finding a family for every one of them.
If you close the program, children will languish in institutions."

Great.. that might be all true to an extent but WHEN DO WE SAY ENOUGH?? How many more children need to die before we say the system is flawed? How many more mothers get lied to before we say the system is flawed? How many more fathers get screwed out of their children's lives before we can say the system is flawed??

When are we ( and I don't mean you we or me we) going to stop making excuses and and start making real change..
Mirjam said…
Excuse me, but was that a statement of someone? Biological parents kill, too? So that makes it less horrid then?

I can't get over the fact that the home study is done by the agencies in the USA btw. Crazy.
Adoption Digger, you are absolutely correct. Infants who are adopted are at risk for abuse, too.

Claudia, I realize that adoptive parents are really the problem in allowing change to happen. We are the roadblock - and that includes people like me - because those of us whose families are tight and children are doing well have a really hard time saying we shouldn't do this anymore. This is why I think it is time to turn the whole thing over to adoptees and first parents. You know the pain, you will stop the nonsense.

I honestly believe that when that happens, adoption will remain a less used but viable option for some children. Not the top of the list, not a program, not a demand-driven business, but a possible option for children for whom other doors are closed. That is why I think it is time for adoptive parents to say enough, too.

Oh, Mirjam, if I had a buck for every time I have heard that comment about biological parents killing too, I would be a rich woman.

As for the agencies doing the homestudies - for adoptions from state agencies that would not necessarily be the case, but for private adoptions it is. The social workers must be licensed and there are regulations, but no Federal oversight and a patchwork of state laws that mean when something goes wrong, no one is really culpable. It is a mess.

Yeah, we have to scrap this system and go back to helping kids.
Macey said…
Here's what makes me crazy about "biological parents kill too":

Biological parents are ENTITLED to raise their biological child; potential adoptive parents are seeking the PRIVILEGE of raising somebody else's kid, so (sensibly) a higher standard applies. This is why PAPs are required to pass a homestudy, security checks, etc. So it's especially horrifying that a supposedly well-screened AP harms child that has already been abandoned at least once.

Is there more to this story? I almost hope there's more to this story, that some sort of warning sign was out there but ignored, i.e. suggesting this debacle was preventable. This happens far, far too often. And if O'Callaghan really did give off zero warning signs... then nobody knows anything.
Anonymous said…
I don't know what sort of testing would have absolutely caught this, though. There are people who kill who no one ever thought would do so. There are children who die from abuse and neglect in orphanages and institutions, too, so it's not a given that all children would be better off there, either. This man had a child for seven years or whatever. Everyone who knew him seemed shocked. What would have led someone to think that he would do this?
When people say that biological parents kill their kids, too it's not meant to justify any homicide by any parent. It's meant to point out that this horrible act is not limited to adoptive parents and to counteract the idea that people adopt children so that they can kill them. Just like most people don't birth children in order to kill them. Things happen. People snap. People develop mental illnesses. People suddenly do things that no one saw coming. Not everything can be prevented or predicted.
kidnap said…
hi anon,

there are several instruments that can be used to predict violent or psychopsthic behavior. vrag, pcl-r, static99, sorag, etc.

i have long advocated that paps be screened with one or more of these instruments, at their own cost, of course.
Kate said…
Thank you so much for writing this. Our homestudy was just five years ago and frankly, it was a joke. We were already parenting my three daughters, and yet no one spoke with my daughter's teachers, doctors, or anyone else involved with them to ensure that we were taking good care of them. Our social worker never even went upstairs in our house to see where our son would be sleeping. The agency wanted to know if we had enough money and letters from three people saying we would be good parents. We did, so we were approved.

I want to know if Holt is going to tell Hyunsu's mother (and any other family) what his “forever family” did to him and take some responsibility for placing him in that home. Or are they just going to let her believe that he is enjoying his better life with his better parents for the next fifteen years?

Taking a three year old out of his foster home where he has likely been since birth, away from his culture and language and placing him in a new family with a very different culture and language frequently results in a very confused, angry, terrified toddler who wants nothing to do with their "new mommy and daddy". This is so different than bringing home a newborn who has never known anything else. I adopted a child who had a very, very difficult transition into our family and we had many issues for several years after placement (for good reason given all he went through prior to and during the adoption). It requires a different kind of therapeutic parenting, good therapy and supports for parents and child. There is no reciprocity in the relationship for a long time. Many people simply do not have the deep emotional stamina, finances and patience necessary for it. I love my son at least as much as my children that I gave birth to but it is not the same kind of parenting. He needed very different parenting as well as absolute unconditional love ESPECIALLY when he was struggling and acting out.
If there is going to be adoption - particularly transracial, transcultural adoption - there must be a far higher standard for prospective adoptive parents. Yes. It is true that biological parents do kill their children. However, no one who claims to be a professional has made the decision to deliberately place a child in that home while simultaneously profiting from the transaction.
"If there is going to be adoption - particularly transracial, transcultural adoption - there must be a far higher standard for prospective adoptive parents. Yes. It is true that biological parents do kill their children. However, no one who claims to be a professional has made the decision to deliberately place a child in that home while simultaneously profiting from the transaction."

Exactly. So well said. Thank you!
Anonymous said…
This is my take.First you have a family that are probably like most that think it would be so wonderful to adopt--and what about a special needs?? But not too special but just enough that we can handle. You know, do our Christian duty.
Second, mom is stay at home. She has the patience. It is what a mom does. And maybe she wanted another kid but couldn't have one. Maybe the church pitched in or they got help from somewhere or whatever to make the adoption easier.
So taking into account theses first two issues, the mom has pretty much put all the emotions into the adoption. Getting the nest ready, probably most of the paperwork, her heart is open, it is just what we do. Dad is there but most men can't imagine it. It has to be tangible. Touchable. Story doesn't say if they went to Korea or he was delivered as some adopted children are.
Third, the home studies are all happy shiny people. They want you to adopt. It is a business. They country gets money, the agency gets money, the social workers get money. Be real here.
So the child comes "home" and mom is the primary care giver. All is going as planned. I am sure that because he was adopted later that he is a scared little kid. He has mental disabilities and he doesn't know what anyone is saying. And he hates water. I am sure there are a lot of scary things. A lot. But mom is cool. And for some reason, mom left for a few days. It throws things off. And here is dad that doesn't know the first thing about the kid. Again, let's be real. Men don't bond with kids like women do. If it isn't of their loin, it may never happen. He's not gentle, he's talking louder, it gets worse. What do kids do? They get scared and cry louder and act out. What is the most common thing we hear about that happens to babies and kids left with mom's boyfriend when they go to work or run to the store? They come back to a shaken baby or one beaten to death. It doesn't matter if it is adopted or not. I don't think it would have mattered if this man had been in the military or sat at the desk at a bank.
You cannot screen for this whether you adopt or have kids and marry someone or even have kids together. People snap.
My son is from Siberia. He has ADHD. I get sick when I think of what would have happened to him if he had not received medication when it hit full blast when he was 5. Or if he had been adopted by a family that didn't have the money or patience or beliefs we had about medicine and treatment.
I wanted a child more than anything. I didn't care if it was green. My ex-husband did. He wanted a Caucasian child. I do think this places a big burden on families and again, not so much on the mother as women tend to have open hearts. We are born to nurture. To love. I see mothers with children they obviously didn't give birth to and I want to run up and say, "Me too!" but they may not have the emotions I have about adoption I have. My ex-husband did not want to be asked where our son came from. I am proud to say I went around the world twice to get him and I tell him that.
Nick was afraid of water as well. He had never been in a bath. We came in and jerked him out of the orphanage and hit the road. He did surprisingly well. I cannot fathom beating a child to death. I cannot stay mad at my children long enough to prove a point when they do something wrong. Nick is the love of my life. Out of all the kids in the world, I chose him. I look at him and my heart swells. I only wish I had been some part of making him. He now has a little sister that thinks he hung the moon. She learned to spell Nick before Mom or Dad. And he is the best big brother.
All in all, at the end of this, someone that kills a child should go to jail. Someone that harms a child, in any way, should go to jail. Related or not. And how family can stand behind a man that fractured a child's skull is beyond me. He is not the man you think he is or he is somebody else you are hiding everyone else from.

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