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Lisa Belkin Headshot

Can Adoption Lead To Child Abuse?

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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. (No, I am not linking to it, out of sympathy with those who are petitioning sites like Amazon not to sell this particular book, which does not directly advocate the level of abuse that killed these children, but that appears to have been misinterpreted and misused by at least some of the parents who stand accused.)

Much attention has been paid to the religious pieces of a this tale. Less noted is that each 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.

This cycle is the talk of a handful of adoptive parenting websites, and, in particular, it has been discussed often on Why Not Train a Child, which is dedicated to warning parents about the dangers of the Pearls' book. There an anonymous commenter there, who describes him or herself as knowing the parents of Hana Williams personally, speculates:

Initially, I think their intentions for adopting were "good" (although  I am uncomfortable with the idea of adopting children solely because you are religiously motivated to "rescue" them). I don't think they adopted Hana and her brother so that they could have some children to torture and abuse. However,I believe they made a huge assumption that these kids would respond to their methods just like their own biological children did. 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".

Adoption can save a child and create a family. It can also come with complications that biological parents are far less likely to face. All children are vulnerable, but adopted children are more so, because the very fact of their adoption tells of a shakier start in life. They deserve more of our protection. In at least three cases they did not receive it.