Saturday, October 23, 2010

Adoptive Families Ask: What Could We Do?

Jane
"What else could we do?” John Sutton asked Dateline’s Keith Morrison plaintively, that would have prevented his adopted son Christopher from hiring a hit man, Garrett Kopp, to kill his wife and attempt to kill him, permanently blinding him.

Christopher Sutton was troubled from the beginning, even getting in fights in preschool. As he got older and his behavior worsened, his adoptive parents, John, an attorney, and his wife Susan, sought treatment for him through counseling and boarding schools.  When he was 16, they sent him to Paradise Cove, a brutal behavior modification program in Western Samoa.

His sister Melissa, also adopted and seven years younger, insisted that their parents loved both of them; adoption was not an issue.
She echoed her father in explaining why Christopher was sent to Samoa: “He was arrested for drugs, that being something, my father being a lawyer as well as a parent, what do we do?”
The prosecutor at Christopher's trial characterized him as fundamentally evil. "What motive did  Christopher Sutton have to want both his parents dead? Money," said assistant state attorney Carin Kahgan. "That man, the defendant, had profound anger, hatred, and greed. His parents were worth nothing more to him than a mean to get money.

Christopher, testifying on his own behalf, said he wasn't the uncontrollable kid that he was made out to by by the state. But, he said he had typical issues for kids. "My grades were always an issue. I got C's. I had about a C average. That was never good enough. Once I started with the body piercings and tattoos, the rift continued."

It appears that no one, not John or Susan Sutton, their daughter Melissa, Christopher's defense attorneys, the new media, or even Christopher himself connected Christopher's behavior with his adoption. The Suttons cannot be faulted for this failure; when Christopher was born in 1979, his adoptive parents were likely led to believe that having an adopted child was just like having a biological child, particularly if the child came to them as a days' old infant as Christopher did. Even today, adoptive parents like Scott Simon promote adoption as a blessing, a joy, a miracle ordained by a higher power. Certainly not something that can lead to murder.

Adoption: Uncharted WatersIn Adoption: Uncharted Waters (2006), psychologist David Kirschner, Ph.D. writes:
“I began to discern a recurring pattern of behavior among young adopted patients. I would interview the parents first, to obtain a detailed history of their child, and more often than not, they were on their way out the door when they would turn and say: ‘Oh, I don’t know whether we mentioned it, but Mark is adopted.’ They would immediately add, ‘but that has nothing to do with the problem.’ Then, when I examined the child, I invariably discovered a rich fantasy life, revealing that indeed it was the problem, or at least a major part of it. … There were also elaborate themes of loss, abandonment, and rejection; and the child’s behavior problems often included lying, as they felt they had been lied to; stealing, to compensate for the theft of their identity; and truancy or running away, a symbolic effort to find their biologic roots in an environment in which they felt they fit and belonged.”
While sending Christopher away, first to boarding schools and then to a boot camp, undoubtedly gave the Suttons much-need respite, it likely compounded Christopher’s sense of abandonment. Kirschner writes:
“The sense of rejection and abandonment is paramount. It is often the trigger that ignites a violent response in these adoptees, who are no longer able to cope with the ambiguities and stress of their situation. … Having been rejected at birth, the child is haunted by the prospect of another abandonment. His or her challenging behavior is an attempt to overcome this apprehension by, paradoxically, revisiting it – as well as to test the parents’ love. … Sooner or later, however, the adoptive parents are likely to fail this test. … If, as he moves through adolescence, his behavior exceeds all reasonable limits, if it reaches the point where his parents feel they have lost all control, outpatient treatment may no longer seem adequate. In too many cases, the child is placed in a residential program, and his worse fears will then have been confirmed. He will have once again suffered the ultimate rejection.” (emphasis added)
Kirschner discusses extreme cases where adoptees have committed murder. He goes so far as to state: “None of these murders would have occurred, in my opinion, if these adoptees all had been given truthful, honest information while growing up; if their feelings of loss and abandonment had been validated; and if they had not been frustrated and blocked in their quest for information and reunion.“

Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For WholenessKirschner's theories are controversial. Obviously, the overwhelming number of murderers are not adoptees and the overwhelming number of adoptees are not murderers. The trigger-man in the Sutton case, Garrett Kopp, had not been adopted. Still we know that adoptive families have unique issues. We encourage adoptive parents in seeking help for their children to consider the effects of adoption and to participate in support groups with adoptees and read about the adoption experience from those who lived it.

22 comments :

  1. I'm not sure adoption is the problem. The man sounds like a sociopath, and to be honest, his genetic background plays a HUGE role in a lot of things. We don't know if the birthparents took drugs or alcohol or had mental illness in their families. All of these things need to be taking into consideration.

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  2. Dear Anonymous:

    We agree genetic background plays a HUGE role in a lot of things.

    And a HUGE part of how we see things is from the perspective of one's status or connection to a topic. To enlighten us and clarify your thoughts, would you tell us what your connection to adoption is, if any?

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  3. @anon:

    Of course you aren't sure adoption is the problem, in cases as complex as this probably Christopher Sutton himself could not tell you exactly what turned him. I must notice you typically fall back on the bad-blood argument, don't blame adoption, blame genetics.

    It is more complicated than even something like genetics, not all siblings of killers kill.

    The problem as I see it though, is that adoption may be a factor for adoptees who are experiencing psychological difficulties. The evidence from a steeped in adoption observer of the Sutton family is that adoption was not allowed to be discussed.

    Is there a correlation? Perhaps. Is that worth looking at? Definitely, unfortunately so many are so afraid to investigate that these discussions often get stymied in conjecture, defensiveness and opinion.

    It is too bad that these issues can't be looked at with sensitivity and intellectual curiosity instead of being drowned out by those who are so invested in magical thinking. Such is life.

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  4. It's interesting that adopters typically attempt to take all credit for any successes, while blaming genetics for the not-so-successful. Astonishing, too, that the adopted person THEMSELF is not given credit for THEIR successes. It must all be down to what their "saviours" bestowed upon them...

    So adopters will demand acknowledgment and applause when things go well... and blame the natural mother and father when things aren't so rosy. How convenient.

    It is astonishing what lengths adopters will go to to deny adoption is the cause of any negative outcomes; that a trauma has occurred and the people separated suffer horrendously. They would rather ignore that little inconvenience. If they had their own children, they might be aware (if they could look beyond themselves) of the pain and anguish that devastates the lives of the mother, father and child. Perhaps the adopters should try focusing on the individual they procurred and their needs.

    It's no longer surprising when we hear of an adoptee who is rejected, blamed, labelled, etc. by the very people who adopted them. Sad, but no surprise.

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  5. Anon says "We don't know if the birthparents took drugs or alcohol or had mental illness in the family."
    David Kirschner's thesis doesn't discount hereditary traits or other pre-adoption factors.

    What he's saying is that there is a subset of adoptees who are at risk for clinical problems and that denial and pretence on the part of the adoptive parents (such as expecting their adopted children to reflect the traits of the adopted-into family) can increase this risk, and in a few cases tip at-risk adoptees over the edge.

    Of course abuse plays into it too. The Sutton family clearly adopted a reward and punishment system to deal with this young man's behaviours.
    Whether they were always like that towards him, who knows. One thing for sure, being a lawyer, John Sutton had to have been aware that U.S laws against physical and psychological abuse don't apply to the kind of treatment meted out to American teens in "behavior modification" camps overseas.

    Personally I think anyone, adopted or not, who was kidnapped and sent off to one of these gulags would come back a simmering cauldron of rage. Which is not to say that Christopher Sutton would not have killed if he hadn't been sent away, or if he hadn't been adopted. But sometimes even unanswerable questions are important to ask.

    Regardless of what a lousy kid he may have been, how awful to be woken from sleep to be kidnapped by a bunch of thugs, taken to some godforsaken boot camp and then to realize that it was done on your own parents' authorization.

    It's almost like they were saying "Your behavior tells us you're begging to be rejected. Ok, we'll reject you. We'll send you off at huge expense to be broken down and then we'll have you returned when you've been reconstituted just to our liking. You didn't deliver after we adopted you, so we're going to force you to do so now. "

    David Kirschner is not anti-adoption, just pro looking long and hard at situations like these, in order to find out what went wrong.
    As Joy says, it's more complicated than that. It's not a simple matter of cause and effect. In this case the parents were a problem too. Not to say they deserved what they got. Nobody deserves that. But that's not the point. The point is to try and see what went wrong and apply that knowledge where it matters.

    Anon mentions that we don't know if the birthparents took drugs or alcohol or had mental illness in the family. But that's how it is with closed adoption. There is nothing tangible to take into consideration. A-parents are free to impose their own fantasies onto a child whose history has been erased, and children are put into a situation where they can develop elaborate fantasies about original family and the reasons for their relinquishment.

    Haigha (Kippa that was)

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  6. Apparently Christopher's behavior was so bad that they ( the aparents) placed him in a behavior modification camp across the world. Anytime a parent is so desperate that they place their child in a program halfway across the world means three things: 1)he was kicked out of every other program in the states 2) he was a serious treat to his family's safety 3) all of the above. I don't think adoption played a large role in this troubled person life. Again, it could be a combo of drugs/alcohol during pregnancy and mental illness. Go to some of the aparents forums and read about the troubles they are having because their children's bparents drank, took drugs and/or has mental illness. These kids are suffering the consequence of the bparent's irresponsible behavior. It's very sad, and this young man's history has the same traits

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  7. Anon says: "I don't think adoption played a large role in this troubled person life. Again, it could be a combo of drugs/alcohol during pregnancy and mental illness. Go to some of the aparents forums and read about the troubles they are having because their children's bparents drank, took drugs and/or has mental illness. These kids are suffering the consequence of the bparent's irresponsible behavior. It's very sad, and this young man's history has the same traits."

    Here we go again, the crazed slut crack whore birth mother image. What I love is that "don't think adoption played a large role" from a person who does not know any more about the case of which she speaks, but can say....She is of the ...hear no evil, see no evil...etc. regarding the sense of abandonment and confusion that comes with being given up by one's natural mother and then raised by genetic strangers.

    Instead, it's all the birth mother's fault. Bad genes. Bad care of herself (and fetus) during pregnant. Bad birth mother. Where are these people when the adoptee turns out to be the star pupil, the gifted athlete, the brilliant musician? Taking all the credit. Then it's: good upbringing.

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  8. Is it possible that the above "anonymous" is leaving us threatening comments? And that she can prove her case and we had better "watch" the lies and slander.

    Is it possible to slander someone who is anonymous?

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  9. It's a fact that most kids born to "mothers" who ingested drugs and alcohol or have mental illness often"repeat" the cycle. Everyone knows drugs, alcohol and mental illness can effect a child/fetus. People are in denial that these problems are genetic, or due to the bparents irresponsible actions,it's a fact. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that adoption is the problem, look at other factors. This man's sister didn't exhibit the same traits, why is that ( she was adopted)?

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  10. Who's in denial?
    Read the comments, anonymous.

    Nobody's denying that genetic factors are important, but if anonymous can't accept the possibility that environmental conditions can, at the very least, interact with genetic factors in such a way as to encourage the development of aggressive behaviors that might otherwise have remained latent - or even never have developed - anonymous is kidding anonymous's self.


    Haigha

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  11. A book for adoptees going into reunion.

    It's an older book but I think "The search for Anna Fisher" is excellent. It's extremely well written and shows the different possible outcomes (i.e. firstmother couldn't welcome Florence into her life but her bfather was overjoyed). Also Carol Schaefer's "The Other Mother".

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  12. Anon points out that Christopher Sutton's adopted sister didn't exhibit the same traits. The Sutton children, however, fit the classic adoption pattern Nancy Verrier describes in "The Primal Wound." In every family with two or more adopted children, one is the bad adoptee and one is the good adoptee.

    Adoption, of course, results in very few homicides. However, adoption increases the risk of negative behavior just as smoking increases the risk of lung cancer and obesity increases the risk of diabetes. And, just as all smokers suffer some lung damage, all adoptees suffer some damage from being adopted.

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  13. "In every family with two or more adopted children, one is the bad adoptee and one is the good adoptee."

    Hi Jane. Hoping you'll let me know which one I am in my family.

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  14. "In every family with two or more adopted children, one is the bad adoptee and one is the good adoptee."

    That's quite the generalization. Perhaps Verrier based her observation solely on adoptive families or children who have needed help for that reason.

    Anecdotal of course, but I personally know of three families, each with two adopted children (one family with two girls, and the other two with a boy and a girl) where that is most definitely not the case.
    I also know non-adoptive families with children where the 'good/bad' paradigm is applied.

    Haigha

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  15. If I remember correctly, Verrier stated that in hundreds of families when there were two or more adoptees, one acted out and the other was compliant almost without exception, and birth order or gender was not a factor.

    That certainly describes my own childhood; my older adopted sister was in constant conflict with our mom; I learned to avoid conflict and internalize it. All the symptoms described built up in me as well - the anger I internalized at my adoptive family never reached homicidal levels, but the effort of leading a double life - outwardly grateful and loving, inwardly seething - were probably a reason why I lied, cheated, stole, began drinking at 12 and drugs at 17.

    What really convinces me these things are adoption related is that once I addressed my unresolved adoption issues, the anxieties that drove my behavior have largely disappeared. I wish I had started with my therapist much sooner - like age 4...

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  16. 'a lousy kid'? No kid is lousy, only parents and their parenting.

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  17. "No kid is lousy, only parents and their parenting."

    Certainly parenting is *hugely* important, especially in cases like this one where the children are adopted or otherwise raised outside of their original families (just ask David Kirschner). But it is not simply a matter of nurture over nature, as the cliché quoted above would have us believe.

    It seems to me that in most cases where otherwise normal seeming children demonstrate serious behavioral problems, it is almost invariably as a consequence of the way they've been raised. The rest are a matter of chance (i.e, a complex of other, often unidentifiable, factors).
    However do I believe that the majority can be helped with consistent and loving care from parents and the community.
    JMO of course.

    Haigha

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  18. I still don't agree with your viewpoint on this issue.

    I am fully aware that adoption loss leads to behavioral problems for adoptees.

    I went into foster care when I was three years old. My birth mother IS a meth addict whose boyfriends molested and beat me and my 4 siblings until her rights were finally terminated when I was seven years old. So I'm sorry if you don't appreciate the "crack whore image" of many birth mothers but it has been appropriately earned by some of them.

    I have been through a failed adoption and more than 26 foster homes before I aged out of care at age 18.

    After all that I have been through because of my meth addict birth mom, I managed to graduate high school, make it through 4 years of college, and maintain relatively healthy relationships with friends and family.

    I would give ANYTHING to go back to the day I was born and force somebody to take me away from my birthmom before she could leave the hospital with me. You cannot imagine the hell that I went through because somebody thought she had the right to parent me and my siblings.

    Now on the other side of this issue - I know that not all birth mothers are awful drug addict abusive people. Like many women these days I found myself in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy about a year ago. Given my experience in foster care I am a strong believer that it can be detrimental to a child to be raised in a single parent household
    when that parent barely has the financial means to support herself let alone an infant and does not have any social support in place to help raise a child. I CHOSE to give my child more than I could offer him at the time. I CHOSE his wonderful amazing adoptive parents. I CHOSE to place him for adoption because I believed [and still do] that it was the best thing for both of us. Guess what? That makes me a birth mother. Am I drug addict? Never in my life. Am I a whore? Not at all. Am I fit to be a mother? Hell yes. Did I decide to place my son for adoption anyways? Yes.

    I feel like the overall attitude towards adoptive parents on this site is a slap in my face. There is not a couple in this world that I cherish more than my sons parents. I trusted them with the most important thing in my life. If I didn't think they were capable of facilitating discussions and relationships to encourage healing from adoption loss - there is no way I would have ever placed him with them. Adoptive parents are not any more or less prepared for adoption issues than many birth parents are. I find it offensive that you paint adoptive parents in such a negative light. We are partners in this endeavor, not enemies.

    And in case someone decides to get their panties in a bunch that I'm posting under anonymous - I am doing so because it will not allow me to post it any other way. If you feel like you need to know my identity to determine whether I'm truly qualified to speak on this matter then feel free to wander over to my blog and look around.

    http://brinnicole.wordpress.com

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  19. I just saw the dateline show on the Sutton tragedy and came across this blog as a follow-up. I found the quotes of Kirchner as being very insightful and offering understanding into the subjective gestalt of an adoptee. All this insight may indeed be true, but the actual guilt of Christopher is very questionable to me.

    Personally, he is either the best liar I have ever heard or he is innocent. I favor the latter and would have said reasonable doubt existed and would have voted not guilty. I detected not one iota of artifice in his testimony. Kopp on the other hand looked stone faced and a little too laid back and cool to trust.

    You don't convict on a hunch. You convict on a trustworthy signal. His tears upon revisiting a painful past are understandable on their own merits. No other significant revelation need be read into them. The prosecution got their conviction but of an innocent man in my opinion.

    Victor

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  20. Christopher Sutton is a spoiled brat. If his biological mother had kept and raised him and wasn't able to spend a lot of money on him, he might have turned to crime anyway. There's always an excuse, right? Perhaps hiring thugs to kidnap and send their son to a brutal type of environment was a mistake. After all, the school was forcefully closed down. Perhaps they should have warned their son that if his behavior doesn't improve, he'll have to move out to a group home, and his parent would stop the financial support until he agrees to get help and learn to get along in society.

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  21. I don't agree with Kirschner and other therapists who say that adoptees have problems because they believe that they'll be "abandoned again" by the APs.

    Not true for me at all. Instead what bothered me most was the lying, pretending, and the longing for my mother. Why did no one find this boy's mother?!

    I would have been glad to have been 'abandoned' by my adopters. At least when we're adults we can ABANDON them! :-)

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  22. Well i haye to burst all of your bubbles. Yeah being adopted might have played a part but if anything it was the program. They arent "teen help" most of everyone I know that went to a "teen help" program came back more messed up then when they were sent. More struggles, total animosity towards parents for sending them there. What happens or has happened in those places isnt what anyone wants to hear. Only those who were tjere believe. And some were abused beyond belief. Most are now shut down. Many re-opened because they changed the name.

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