The common response to abuse in adoptive families

Whenever a child dies at the hands of its adoptive parents, the various news outlets that cover such crime,  often ask "experts" from organizations like the Evan B Donaldson adoption institute, the Joint Council on International Children's Services and even the National Council for Adoption for commentary. The response usually has the following pattern: "abuse in adoptive families is rare and without minimizing the tragedy we should look at how well adoptive families are being screened and consider that the vast majority of children adopted end up with loving parents that treat them well".

This well rehearsed response seems to satisfy both the journalists and the audience at large, but on closer examination, it has little validity.

Abuse in adoptive families is rare

There are several problems with this statement. First of all abuse rates in general are hard to establish. A literature review of 23 studies into the prevalence of sexual abuse of children found rates varying from 3% to 37% for males and 8% to 71% for females. So the highest estimate is about a factor 10 larger than the lowest estimate. Based on that it is fair to conclude that abuse prevalence studies are a bad predictor for abuse rates. At best, these studies can be used to compare various groups, but even then there are serious pitfalls.

The statement "abuse in adoptive families is rare" has to be taken relative to have any meaning. If not, abuse in adoptive families would be rare simply because adoptive families are rare in comparison to non-adoptive families. So somehow we have to compare the abuse rates in adoptive families to the abuse rates in non-adoptive families, but doing that, in several ways amounts to comparing apples and oranges.

The number of non-adoptive families is much larger than the number of adoptive families, which makes sampling a daunting task. It is not only difficult to find a representative sample of adoptive families (on which we will return later), it is even more difficult to find a large enough sample of adoptive families in which abuse happens to establish a reliable abuse rate. The lower the prevalence of abuse, the larger the sample size has to be.

Finding adoptive families in itself is not without difficulty. It makes sense, in order to establish an abuse rate, to try and find adoptees and ask them about abuse rather than to find adoptive parents and ask them if they have ever abused their children. But how are we going to find adoptees? Some outcome studies for example "randomly" contact people in the hope to find as many adoptees as possible.

There is a problem with that approach because every "random" selection is in fact based on a systematic procedure. One could either randomly pick addresses and conduct a home interview, or one could randomly pick telephone numbers and ask for cooperation. In either case it will omit the population that cannot be reached by that means. There are several reasons why the population of adoptees, in that respect, is different from the population of non-adoptees. There are indications that adoptees are over-represented in the population of psychiatric patients and in the population of children being placed in residential treatment centers and boarding schools. So randomly visiting homes or calling telephone numbers will never reach that population. It may well be that in those omitted groups the abuse rate differs from the abuse rate of adoptees that can be found by a "random" selection.

Another approach taken by at least one adoption outcome study relies on contact information provided by a small number of large adoption agencies. There are several pitfalls to that approach. The first question that comes to mind is: "how reliable are agencies in providing contact information?". Adoption agencies benefit from positive outcomes of a study, so how can we guarantee there is no pre-screening of the information provided? Another issues with this approach has to do with the small number of agencies involved. Each agency has its own adoption procedure, some are more rigorous than others in their screening procedure. The very small sample size of agencies makes systematic errors most likely. Each agency also has a specific market approach. Some agencies are more focused on domestic infant adoption, others mainly deal with adoption from foster care or inter-country adoption. Finally, with this approach, independent adoptions are entirely omitted.

Thus far, we have only talked of the sampling issues involved in the establishment of an abuse rate in comparison to non-adoptive families, but there are more difficulties. Adoptive families differ from non-adoptive families in several ways. First of all the mean annual income of adoptive families is much higher than the mean annual income of the population at large. Also, religious affiliation in adoptive families is stronger than in the population at large. This makes it difficult to compare the group of adoptive families to the group of non-adoptive families, because of the socio-economic differences.

There is also reason to believe adoptees will respond differently when asked about abuse in their family than a non-adopted person would. Some adoptees may resent their placement and therefore say they were abused when that was not the case, some adoptees may be afraid to admit to abuse, fearing it will disrupt their family relations (even when asked anonymously). Both scenarios are likely and we simply don't know if the two cancel each other out, or if one dominates over the other.

Finally there is the issue of what would be acceptable. Adoptive families are not the same as biological families, because they are formed on the premise that an adoptive family is more capable of caring for a child than a biological family. So in that respect adoptive families should do better than biological families, but how much better should they do? Can we quantify what would be an acceptable abuse rate for adoptive families? What abuse rate allows for calling it rare?

Screening of adoptive families

The notion of safety of adoptive families is usually supported by the screening process involved. Home studies and criminal back ground checks are an integral part of the adoption process and are used to make the claim that adoptive families are carefully selected. There are several issues with this claim, which all boil down to one simple conclusion: there is no evidence base for the efficacy of adoption home studies. Home studies are performed but there is no evidence it actually differentiates between potentially abusive adopters and families that will treat children right. Even stronger: we don't know if home studies differentiate at all.

One of the unknowns with regard to home studies is the pass-fail ratio. We know that several unsuitable adopters pass home studies, but we don't know how many unsuitable adopters fail the test. We don't even know if any unsuitable adopters fail the test. Yet there is some room for speculation here.

Every test no matter how well performed results in false negatives and false positives. A home study therefore will result in people being disapproved that would make reasonably good adoptive parents, while it will also approve  some adoptive families that will end up being abusive. The latter group (the false positives) we know. There are known adopters that end up abusing children. False negatives (reasonably good potential adoptive parents that don't pass a home study) are hard to find. So far we have not found a single blog, or forum on the internet where PAP's complain they failed a home study while they believe of themselves they are suitable candidates. So without knowing the pass-fail ratio, there is some indication this ratio could be very high. When that is the case the conclusion should be that home studies have little discriminating value and their efficacy to screen potential adopters is low.

Even when failing to pass a home study, potential adopters have the possibility to shop for another opinion. In every state there are hundreds of licensed social workers allowed to perform a home study, so for those persistent enough, there is always the possibility to find that one social worker who doesn't see the potential dangers. There is no registry of home studies, so every subsequent social worker asked to perform a home study is unaware of any previous attempts to seek approval for adoption.

Altogether, the claim abuse in adoptive families is prevented through thorough screening can not be made. There is no evidence for that claim and there are several indications home studies may not be as effective as we hope they are.

The vast majority of children adopted end up with loving parents that treat them well

The final argument made when confronted with abuse in adoptive families is more an emotional appeal than a real argument. As an argument it is even incorrect. The negation of an abusive family is a non-abusive family, which does not necessarily imply a loving family that treats their children right. For every abusive adoptive family it's certainly possible to find an adoptive family that is very loving towards their children, but it is equally possible to find a family that is non-abusive, yet cold and indifferent, or pushy and demanding, or any other characteristic that makes the family an unpleasant place to be.

We simply don't know if children end up with loving families or not. Based on pretty unreliable figures we may assume that many children end up in non-abusive homes, but that doesn't mean those families are automatically loving. It doesn't even mean the placement was appropriate, all it says is that children are not being abused.

There is another aspect that makes this statement false, the underlying assumption the child did not have a loving family before adoption. While some adoptees indeed come from horrible families and end up finding a loving family to live with through the act of adoption, this is not the case for all adoptees. Some don't come from horrible families at all. Some children are taken from their families because of a false assumption by child protective services the family is a potential danger. Some children are relinquished because parents were lead to believe they were not suited to take the responsibility of raising a child. There are several scenarios where a child ends up being adopted, where such was totally unnecessary.

As much as it is nonsense to claim children are always better off in their original family, it is equally nonsensical to claim children are always better off in their adoptive families.

So the knee-jerk response when confronted with abuse in adoptive families as given by the "experts" has very little basis. It is also highly defensive, as if the good name of adoption is being tarnished when evidence arises it is not picture perfect. An appropriate response would be to acknowledge the abuse and look at the circumstances which made it possible a child was placed in an abusive family. Of course that would mean taking responsibility for decisions made. It would also mean acknowledging that adoption is not always picture perfect, nor can we expect it to be. In that sense it would be unrealistic to demand that no abuse ever happens within adoptive families, but we can at least ask of the professionals working in the field to make their best possible effort to prevent it. As it stands now, there is still a lot of room for improvement. For starters we could investigate the efficacy of home studies and learn what works and what doesn't. As long as screening has no evidence base, we might as well replace it by waving a magic wand and hope for the best.


I don't think anyone with money fails...

I think that is perhaps the worste thing about all of it... anyone with enough money can buy a baby... :(

Protection for Adoptive Families

I have spoken to adoptees who reported abuse to adults who then called CPS and when CPS workers found out they were adopted automatically assumed their parents could not be capable of such things. The myth of screening adoptive families which then makes them somehow more suitable to parent is somewhat of a farce. Anyone in the United States with a decent income and no criminal record can get an approved home study. Even if someone has a criminal record in one state they can move to another state and adopt.

no uniformity whatsoever

You make two interesting observations that, I believe, actually need addressing beyond the scope of this thread. Although I too have only found some anecdotal evidence, it seems there are cases where CPS workers don't readily pick up on abuse reported in adoptive families. Apart from disbelief adoptive parent could be capable of such things, there is another aspect to it. CPS workers are employed by the same organization responsible for the adoption from foster care programs. So investigating abuse in adoptive families (especially the sizeable portion that is adoption from foster care) actually is an investigation into the placement decision of a colleage. In all states, except North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan and the District of Columbia, licensing of placement agencies is done by the same department responsible for CPS. So there too a conflict of interest may arise.

The other interesting point relates to the criminal back ground check. Apparently Tennessee does not currently require criminal background checks as part of an adoption home study. In Wyoming, a criminal background check is performed only when ordered by the court. Furthermore Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missourri, Montana, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming do not require federal criminal checks. So it is very well possible people moving to these states while having a criminal record will be allowed to adopt.

I realize various states need to have some independence to tune their foster care and adoption policies to the local needs, but that doesn't have to mean safety measures cannot be applied uniformly.


I live in a rural area where I know about 100 adoptive families; give or take a few.  I only know of one family who was turned down.  The reason they were turned down was this:  they had one biological son, aged 8 years; they told the adoption worker,
"I guess we want another child so _______ will have a play-mate."  He stated after the turn-down that he probably shouldn't have said that...   They went on to adopt through another agency and adopted a baby daughter who was in no way a play-mate for the older son.  Later on... talking to the adoptive mother (who is on huge doses of medication for a mental disorder) she told me things that made my skin crawl; things about her husband that she just couldn't understand; things about her husband always giving the older son a bath with loud 60's music playing and hearing that son cry, and when she asked about it was told that it was a father-son bonding experience.  But who am I to say anything now since what happened in my home was horrendous and I knew nothing.  Did this mother "know" something?  I don't think so; yet I believe in Red Flags...  The first adoption agency DID pick up on something; yet, it was not exactly what I picked up on a few years later.
Dealing with human lives and their futures should necessitate that agencies do EVERYTHING in their power to dig deeply into the lives of the PAP's.  And when I hear the whining about privacy being invaded, I get literally sick when I remember what happened in my own home.
I remember a foster child of a friend, who was a very needy child and required a lot of patience.   One time the foster father reacted hastily and slapped the child.  It never happened again.  Only a few people ever knew about it.  It was not reported because we all knew it could happen to anyone.   And yet I can't help but believe that these are things that do happen in the best of homes.  The humanness of a foster/adoptive family; and the vulnerability of an innocent child placed without any thought of their wants and needs... well, things happen.  I do not condone the slapping.  I only know that there is a fine line between a heedless reaction and child abuse, and there needs to be more public awareness that adopting a child is NOT a fun thing to do, but a very serious undertaking of responsibility for another human life.  There will be mistakes, but it's when the mistakes start snowballing into abuse that things get pushed under the rug and more damage is done.
I remember a family who adopted a little live-wire from VietNam and when he was 2, they left him at home to nap while they went to the older children's ball game.  When they got home, he was lodged between the wall and the bed and had a gash on his forehead.  No one did anything but watch this family ever after... No one saw or heard anything more that was this bad.  People just do not tell...   It seems to be a non-spoken law among some adoptive families.  Truth

NO, I have not been a perfect, or even good adoptive mom at times.  I've done some things I'm ashamed.  I'm only telling you  the things that do happen and hope this is not the beginning of me getting torn a "new one."  Each one of these kids has grown up to be ok; not showing any signs of abuse.  I don't know what the future holds...  Each child is different.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

red flags

I liked you brought up the single slap issue, which reminds me of a personal experience.

When I was about 14 years old I had a teacher who was among one of the kindest, but also one of the most vulnerable teachers I have ever had. He was not one of the best teachers, he simply had little authority and as a result his class was often chaotic, yet I liked and appreciated him. So while some of my class mates were annoying and disruptive, I usually didn't follow them. It was simply not a nice thing to do, but for some reason some day I did join them in being annoying and disruptive. I think everyone in my class joined in, when teen-agers smell prey they go for the jugular. That day I was the last to leave the class room and while on my way out I made some remark (I don't even recall what I said) that made this teacher lose it and he hit me with his fist.

Was it right he did that? No. Was I hurt or traumatized? No. In fact I felt ashamed I had driven him to the point he hit me. So we both had been wrong and it never happened again. Had he done it again, I would have gone to the headmaster and report it. I hope he was shocked enough to never do it again and I was shocked enough to never let peer-pressure drive me to do things I didn't want to do.

Relating this to adoptive parents. I don't believe they have to be perfect. Things like a slap do happen and while that doesn't mean it is right, it's not something to make an issue of. In a way the call for perfection only makes things worse. It leads to brushing things under the carpet and it also leads to unrealistic demands on adopted children, who have to represent the perfection of the family. I am almost tempted to say to adoptive parents: relax and be a family.

In that sense I hope our work here will help shatter the image of adoptive families, not to make them look bad and dangerous, but to make them look as consisting of regular people. The call for perfection is only a breeding ground for pathological parenting.

That said, the point remains we have to be selective when placing children. Red flags are too often ignored or brushed aside when they can't really be substantiated. When there are doubts, or it somehow doesn't feel right, a child should not be placed. Adoption is a priviledge not a right, so there is no injustice to prospective adoptive parents when they are refused without having all the proof. The burden of proof a social worker has when approving adoptive parents lies with the safety of the family, when in doubt don't. Social workers don't have to prove they have given prospective adoptive parents a fair chance to get a child. All they have to do is prove they have given a child a fair chance to a good family.

Well said...

Thanks NIels.  You stated it very well.  If adoptive parents could just relax... I don't know if the fact that they "can't procreate" leads them/us to believe we must "prove something" or if we just go at adoption as something to "attain."   And once attained, some may feel the push to be perfect.  But you stated it very clearly:  "All they have to do is prove they have given a child a fair chance to a good family."  It should be ALL about the child and their needs.  Other than that there should be no adoptions for any other reason.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

Adoptive Parents Being told to Relax

Relaxed parenting is something I think most of us have as a goal while raising our children - adoptive or biological - and some of us are, some aren't, depending on who we are fundamentally. What I want to bring up is that as an adoptive parent, I was challenged almost daily about my parenting, about why I wanted to adopt, about knowing (or not knowing in our case) who my daughter's birth parents were. I experienced people asking me personal and probing questions about my child's health - both mental and physical - from the time she was an infant. And my daughter was a friendly, laughing, inquisitive Russian baby. It does tend after a while to put one on the defensive which doesn't help on the relaxing thing. I know I sometimes found myself pushing her to be more "just like all the other kids" than the other kids.

I didn't see this POV, and felt it was an important one to share.

Good point...

Over the years, I have engaged in many conversations with APs who have shared just how "observant" other people are when it comes to the family with an adopted child.

On the one hand, it seems most Americans would like to say (and think) "the adopted child is just like a bio child", but over and over again, many of us learn - through personal experience - there is far too much labeling when it comes to the adopted child.

When a child is looked at, judged, and labeled as much and as frequently as an imported adoptee, how can ANY parent or child "relax"?


I was adopted through a reputable private church agency. My adoptive mom said they never had to go through screening or take any psychological tests. She said that was why they chose the agency. A social worker visited their home after my placement but she scheduled it a month ahead, giving them the time, day, etc. so they could have things in order when she got there. My adoptive father made a substantial financial arrangement with them that lasted many years. He said it was a donation. Domestic violence was an issue in our home when I was young. Sometimes I feel like I wasn't the client in my own adoption.

Stereotypes about adoption

Home studies take place over a period of months. There is no long-term followup on the adoption. It is assumed that the family walks off into the sunset together.

There are stereotypes about adoption. It is assumed that all kids in foster care came from abusive homes. This is not necessarily true. It is assumed that babies were placed for adoption because their mothers "didn't want them." (Almost never true.) Adoption is also viewed by some as a vehicle for infertile people to get a child rather than to place children in homes.

Adoptive parents are viewed by many as warm, wonderful, living saints who take these poor, unwanted, unloved orphans into their homes out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. It is therefore not possible for an adoptee to be abused in their eyes. An adoptee who attempts to report abuse, even if they have visible injuries, will be accused of lying.

Kids who are being abused are told to tell someone, but adoptees often have no recourse. Both times the person didn't believe me because I was adopted, despite my injuriess. One called my parents and reported what I'd said. After that I was too afraid to try to tell someone again. Neighbors always believed the adopters' explanations of how I got hurt, even when they were ludicrous. Once it was usually explained that I was in a bicycle accident....although I didn't HAVE a bike, and the neighbors should have realized they never saw me riding one.....

Adoptees who decide to search are often viewed as "ungrateful" or immediately asked if they were abused. If they were, that's assumed to be the ONLY reason why they are searching. That has nothing to do with it.

Somebody needs to educate the idiots. thanks for trrying to do this.

Critical comments

Sadly, I agree with every point you made, especially when it comes to stereo-typical responses from those who choose to ignore the complaints made by an adopted child.

The following was posted on PPL a few days ago. It reminded me of the stereo-typical comments found on popular web-forums before PPL came along.  I think it fairly represents the person who does not want to learn about an angry abused adoptee's experience:

Unfortunate and ungrateful You should appreciate what your parents who adopted you did for you. Because oBviously your real mother might have been a slut or your real father might of been a poor peasant. THEREFORE THANK THE LORD FOR THE GOOD LIFE THESE PARENTS GAVE YOU!!!! THERE WAS A REASON WHY YOU WERE TAKEN AWAY FROM YOUR BIRTH PARENTS!!! I BET MY LIFE ON IT THAT YOUR LIFE WOULD BE A LIVING HELL IF YOU ENDED UP WITH THE BIRTH PARENTS

A bit rough and hideous, isn't it?

I myself have been posting about abusive adoptive homes for over 10 years.  I wish I could say such hurtful comments written by the ignorant still don't upset me... but then again, I wish abuse in adoptive homes weren't the unbelieved secret it still is.

Behind closed doors

While the above post described the down playing of abuse in adoptive families in the media by such organizations as the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), behind closed doors, entirely diffent words are spoken, as the minutes of a meeting held by JCICS on August 24, 2005, show.

Here are some quotes from that meeting:

Children adopted from Russia are challenging, we KNOW they can drive any parent to extremes.

We need to focus on how we tell parents this and how we make them really hear it.

The timeframe for a Russian adoption can be relatively fast (for example, say 6 months). Does this impact the situation at all? Only 6 months to educate and train a parent as opposed to a country program that has a waiting period of 9 -12 months.

We have a serious lack of hard data. It may not be valid to state that this problem is only in Russia.
Some of these factors that we think are happening in Russia are the same factors in Ukraine (kids that are Caucasian, time frame is quick, parents have similar expectations). Also, before the internet and media access, there may have been cases of adoptive children being abused or dying that we do not know about.

We need to think about the financial piece of adoption. So many people’s revenues are generated by accepting families and facilitating adoptions. Unless there are some standards that US government or Russian government set, why would agencies abide by them? Sadly there are some agencies that would look at the money being offered and don’t have children’s interest on the forefront. Money drives this field just like so many others. Parent’s shop around until they find an agency that they think will be able to meet their expectations.

Families adopting from Russia are sometimes looking for children that will look like their biological children (white, blue eyed, blond, etc). They may be unable to have children or do not want to the longer waiting period to adopt in the US These parents often have false expectations Families that longer waiting period to adopt in the US. These parents often have false expectations. Families that adopt from other countries (India, Guatemala, etc) where it is clear that it is a trans-racial adoption seem to be more open and expect the differences in race and ethnicity. They are prepared for their children to look and act differently. Perhaps some families adopting from Russia are expecting this “pseudo-biological child” to be perfect like their biological child would have been.

There are no consistent, agreed upon, standards or curriculums recognized within the international adoption community. There are guidelines, suggestions and fragmented efforts—some excellent, some substandard, some non-existent. A lot of talented people out there could pool their experiences and resources and collaborate to develop a fairly consistent, standardized international adoption curriculum.

Newbie parents in particular, having no context (no parenting experience) to plug the information into, absorbed very little and disregarded a great deal. Families don’t absorb the information, but instead tend to keep it at bay. They expect to be the exception. Referrals to adoptive families tend to be the successes. It would be good for agencies to refer families to those that have struggled as well to widen the lens.

follow up?

I really wonder if beyond damage controle, this round table meeting has ever led to any follow up. Skeptical as I am of the adoption industry, I guess that's not the case.

Adoptee who can go on record as abused

I just stumbled across this site and read all the way down the comments and thought I'd jump in with my experience. I was adopted at 18 months old back in the early 60's. My adopted dad (adad) convinced my adopted mom (amom) to call social services and report our neglect he had discovered after following my older brother and sister home when they kept coming back night after night staring in their window. My adad convinced wife to file papers to adopt me when he found the state had pulled all eight of us. My amom didn't want me but her husband convinced her to do it.

This is how I ended up with a tormented childhood. This women never held back letting me know how she hated me. The home study was obviously a joke. Get this, while in middle school I made a friend who lived on the other side of town. I finally was able to convince my amom to let me go to her house one Saturday. That one Saturday when leaving her home as my friend nicely agreed to walk me half way home we crossed her neighbors yard along the way. Come Monday my friend said her neighbor wanted to talk to me but she didn't know why. Without going through all the nerves that this generated in me, it was months before I could return to my friends home and she went to the neighbors home with me. I discovered that this neighbor knew me as a 20 month old. Yes, they had pictures of me, lots of pictures. I was told that they were assuming they could adopt me as the family I was with was having issues with me. She said my adad would call her when the State was coming out and she'd return me in time for their home appointment. She also said after the State left my adad would return me to her. She said I on many times came back with bruises and scratch marks on various parts of my body. Apparently the last time she took me to them they never returned and was told to stay away.

I was in rather shock about this and was terrified to say anything to anybody about it. This amom was horrible, she beat me all the time. I was told I use to sit against the wall and bang my head against it. I have since learned that children who has never experienced bonding will do this or things similar. She whipped me with belts and anything she could get her hands on. Neighbors even remember calling welfare services on her and because we were pretty well off for the times they always gave the "all clear". I never ever remember being looked at all but who knows.

This bmom was a very horrific person, she called me her "fucking little bitch" all the time. I could go on and on but will spare you the details.

You may wonder, what was my adad doing? Well, their relationship was always a fight and he just stayed gone working all the time. Amom would always tell me if I said anything to him I'd get it worse. She even accused me of trying to still her husband when I was 12 or so. She even put on me that she thought he was watching me through the wall when I was taking a bath. The master bath and hall bath shared a wall. I remember her scouring the wall for a pin hole but never found one. She put it on me to make sure I never took a bath at the same time he showered. Now, you tell me this wasn't an absolute sick person. How was this all able to happen to me when adopted children are only adopted because they are wanted??? Please add me to the list of adoptees that fell into abusive hands. And remember this was 50+ years ago and this is still going on so how many more decades are going to pass before our system changes to protect ALL children.

Thank you for listening.

I am sorry you had that

I am sorry you had that experience. I have known other abused adoptees too Adoption is so in need of reform. Peace to you.

Pound Pup Legacy