Tot's Death Dividing Adoption Community

Date: 1992-02-13

Jolayne Houtz

Although the truth about how the adopted 2-year-old ended up with a fatal head injury last spring is still unclear, Kayla Erlandson's death disturbed some delicate relationships of international adoption.

It's also unclear whether those relationships will completely recover.

Kayla's mother, Noreen Erlandson, is in the third week of her trial in Snohomish County Superior Court on a charge of second-degree murder. Prosecutors say the Bothell nurse practitioner delivered the fatal blows and bit and burned Kayla. The defense doesn't dispute that the child suffered a traumatic injury, but suggests that it happened while she was in someone else's care.

Erlandson is well-known in the local adoption community, part of a circle of parents who have adopted South Korean children and who have been divided by her case.

The Seattle adoption agency that helped Erlandson and her husband adopt Kayla has been among those most hurt by the case: It has been suspended from handling any more Korean adoptions until jurors reach a verdict.

The case also has sent ripples overseas to Kayla's birth country, where the South Korean media and government are following the case, and reignited decades-old questions about the wisdom of sending Korean babies overseas.

Some are offended by the suggestion that the Erlandson case is special because it involves an adopted child.

"I didn't feel that it was an issue of adoption as much as it was an issue of abuse," said Susan Cox of Holt International Children's Services in Eugene, Ore., which pioneered Korean adoptions in the 1950s. "It isn't any more or less tragic because it involved a Korean child."

Bill France of the Snohomish County prosecutor's victim-witness unit said it's impossible not to consider adoption as an element of the case. Kayla's troubled behavior in her new family, which experts said was linked to her early years in a Korean orphanage, is central to the prosecution's case. Snohomish County prosecutors yesterday tried to portray Erlandson as a mother so frustrated with the shortcomings of her adopted toddler that she fatally beat her.

"This has major implications . . . for families and (adoption) agencies," said France, who has observed much of the trial and also is an adoptive parent. "I just can't imagine an agency saying we can't learn something from this, regardless of the verdict."

Yet none of the three Seattle adoption agencies that deal with South Korean children has changed its guidelines because of the case.

Travelers Aid Society
in Seattle, which handled the Erlandsons' adoption of both Kayla and her older brother, Shea, has been temporarily suspended from further Korean adoptions.

The suspension put a hold on adoptions by 33 couples, at least until the end of the trial. That's when the Seoul adoption agency that contracted with Travelers will decide whether to lift the suspension.

"There's a lot of hurt on the part of those 33 couples who are waiting," said Travelers executive director Jane McKinley-Chinn. Among agency workers, "There's shock and there's grief, especially when you've been . . . involved with the people."

But she said the agency was confident of the adoption process. "We're constantly looking at how we do things. We've always been very, very thorough, very careful, and we'll continue to do that," McKinley-Chinn said.

Bill Harris of Catholic Community Services, another adoption agency that deals primarily with Korean children, said the focus on Kayla's ethnicity "can be considered as kind of a slam on adoption."

"I think we're all sensitive to it. Everybody feels violated, particularly adoptive parents," he said.

The case has hit close to home for hundreds of adoptive parents in the area, many of whom form a close-knit community. The trial makes them aware of stereotypes that persist about adoption.

Some of those parents are the ones who sit behind Erlandson every day in the packed Snohomish County courtroom, lining up as some of her staunchest supporters.

Paddy Cottrell testified for the defense that the Erlandsons were patient, caring parents who provided the best toys, clothes and food for their children.

"We have absolute confidence in these folks," he said afterward. "It really drives me crazy when people look at adoption as being some sort of special condition. It smacks of racism. . . . What this is about is the risk that parents face just being in the world. It's about a brutal attack on a family."

But other parents who met the Erlandsons through the adoption process testified for the prosecution that they questioned Erlandson's parenting skills.

Also watching the trial closely are some members of Seattle's Korean-American community, who also have been split by the case, said Paull Shin, a board member of KIDS, a Seattle-based group that promotes Korean cultural identity in adopted children. The group has more than 800 on its mailing list.

Some Korean-Americans understand that abuse can happen in all types of families, with both birth and adopted children, he said. Others raise troubling questions about the issue of race.

Adoption has always been a difficult issue for Koreans, who have watched their children, some of whom were not accepted by their own society, being sent away from their country since shortly after the Korean War.

A movement in Korea to encourage in-country adoptions may close the door to further international adoptions by the mid-1990s, adoption officials say.

In more than 30 years of American families adopting Korean children, nothing like the circumstances in the Erlandson case has ever been documented, Cox, of the Holt agency, said.

"For one extremely terrible circumstance to mar all the good things that happen would be very unfortunate," she said.

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