Recently, I came across a GoFundMe for a middle-class family of six that was adopting five siblings from an emerging nation. Their friends and members of their church had set up the fund to help them, and the writeup was gushing about how selfless and wonderful the family was to do that. It was an inspiration.
When I read it, though, my blood ran cold. I was, and remain, worried for those children. That’s because whenever I hear about cases of international adoptees being abused or even killed, there are certain characteristics that seem to recur with alarming frequency. Not any one of these is a guarantor that an adopter is bad, but having several of these traits sets off warning bells in my head:
- They adopt large numbers of children. We are talking about families with over a dozen adopted children. One had over 30.
- They obtain their children via nontraditional adoption disruption (i.e., they take children whose original adoptive families can’t handle them anymore). Sometimes these child transfers are facilitated online with little or no involvement from social workers. Sometimes these transfers are not even done legally, meaning that the child effectively disappears from the system.
- Their adoptions violate multiple guidelines for successful adoptions. They adopt children of the same age at the same time. They adopt children who are older than their biological children. They adopt more than one child in a year. They adopt non-biological siblings and tell them that they are biological siblings (yeah, I’ll let that sink in). They adopt a large number of children at once.
- They isolate the children via homeschooling. (Note: There are a lot of children who are homeschooled extremely successfully, but the ones I’m talking about are homeschooled as part of a larger pattern of extreme isolation.)
- They subscribe to strict child-rearing systems that advocate physical punishment (To Train Up a Child is a common example).
- Their reasons for the adoption are evangelical rather than family-oriented, and this higher calling will make them attempt to circumvent the laws in the country they are adopting, or to choose a country that doesn’t have protections in place because international adoption is not yet a common thing.
- They belong to small, close-knit Christian churches or are Christian fundamentalists.
- They enjoy the spotlight at the beginning. Whereas most international adopters hesitate about putting their children on display, these families don’t mind parading the tragic circumstances that led their children to be available for adoption.
Such people manage to find sketchy agencies in the United States that will approve them to adopt, or manage to gull respected ones into approving them. In the latter case, I don’t think there is fraud involved; I think that the agencies are deceived by the showy Christianity some of these adopters espouse, and the talk of the great support they will receive from their church community when the children come home.
At this point, there are are hundreds of abuse cases, some of them fatal, in international adoptive families that have two or more of the characteristics I listed. Unfortunately, these children often fall through the cracks because no one is watching out for them. They are socially and physically isolated. (In some of these cases, neighbors said they never knew these children were living there.) And when things go wrong, there’s no one there to help them.
I have quietly left several international adoption support groups because I noticed that some adoptive parents will make excuses for the parents in the abuse cases, saying that there was more to the story. This wasn’t the majority opinion on these groups; however, my feelings were so strong about this that I knew I’d be responding with great ferocity on a regular basis to any disclaimers — even a few “likes” were enough to enrage me. For me, it was black and white: when a teenage girl ends up starved to death or an infant ends up with skull fractures, I don’t care what else there was to the story. I know how hard it gets, honestly, I do, but that can’t be an excuse. EVER. I also feel like it’s rank hypocrisy for us to criticize the corrupt and flawed systems that got those children to the United States, but demur when it comes to calling out what happens to some of these children when they get here.
Right now, there is no formal research about the frequency of such cases, nor is there a profile of a typical abuser of internationally adopted children. However, there are enough cases piling up that it’s time to see if there are predictors of this kind of horrific abuse.