' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: International Adoption: The Abuse Continues

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

International Adoption: The Abuse Continues

Just after I wrote the previous post, "Utah agency places cast-off international adoptees" about Wasatch International, which places, or attempts to place, foreign adoptees who have been rejected by their adoptive families, one of our readers, Sara, sent us a link to a horrific case of abuse of foreign adopted children by their adopters.

According to reporters Molly Born and Paula Reed Ward of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kristen and Douglas Barbour adopted two Ethiopian children in March. By October--five months later--the Barbours were in court, charged with "starving their six-year-old son and leaving him with lesions from being kept in urine-soaked clothing for long periods of time." As for the girl, the charge read, "The 18-month-old girl will likely be blinded in one eye and paralyzed after suffering head trauma."

The Barbours started the adoption process through Bethany Christian Services, at the same time they started their biological family. Their two biological children, ages 2 and 4, were unharmed.

Media reports of abuse of foreign adopted children abound. On November 8, the Portland Oregonian  reported on Nikolina Stoyanova, adopted from Bulgaria by Justin Smith and Janis Kuchler of Pendleton, Oregon through an adoption agency, All God's Children. Smith and Kuchler "abused her--eventually pleading guilty to to criminal sexual abuse." Stoyanova was sent to a state mental institution, Oregon State Hospital-Portland, where she choked to death due to the negligence of the staff.

A couple of our readers took me to task for noting that some international adoptees are abused, pointing out  that abuse in not unique to adopted children. Reader Robin responded succinctly:
"Adopted children are PURPOSEFULLY placed into an adoptive family to get a BETTER life. There are supposed to be oversights, a thorough investigation of prospective adoptive parents, home visits, legal procedures, etc. No child who is INTENTIONALLY placed in an adoptive home should suffer abuse ever....
"I have heard this argument too many times that because there are kids who are abused by their bio-parents that this somehow rationalizes adoptee abuse."
A reader pointed out that anecdotes about abuse cannot substitute for sound data. True, but to my knowledge no one collects data documenting all the cases of abuse of foreign adopted children and compares it to abuse of children adopted domestically, or children abused by natural parents. The Russian government did collect data showing that 17 children adopted from Russia were murdered by their adoptive parents and many others were abused. While hard data is lacking, I believe that families who adopt internationally fare less well than those who adopt children from foster care.

Of my friends and acquaintances who have adopted internationally, the overwhelming majority have had serious problems with their children. To my knowledge, none of these adoptive parents have abused their children, but all have resorted to sending their children sent away for treatment, putting therm on behavior-modifying drugs, or placing them in special education programs. As adults, some of these the children have committed crimes; others rely on their adoptive parents for support.

Of course bad behavior on the part of the children does not justify abuse, but it does help explain it. It's logical that children adopted from foreign countries are more likely to misbehave than children adopted domestically. In addition to the trauma of losing their original parents, they also must deal with the sense of displacement due to losing everything that was familiar--even if what was familiar was pretty bad. Furthermore, these children may grieve for their first families, and unlike children adopted domestically, they know they are almost certainly unlikely to ever see their families again. And it's well documented that child welfare experts recognize the importance of the birth family to adopted children, particularly those adopted at a later age.

The Barbours, devout Christians, had an idealized vision of adoption. Douglas Barbour wrote on their blog, Our Adoption Journey: "Adoption by Christians brings children into the covenant community and thereby enables them to enjoy the blessings associated with that connection." Kristen Barbour wrote of the bond "already forming between her biological and adopted children" before the children had ever met. Things changed quickly. Kristen Barbour wrote about the children's first few days in the US: "'In the last week, we have cuddled up with a child and gotten puked on. Caught puke in our hands.... Sometimes when people think of adoption, they don't think about the nitty gritty, get down and dirty hard times. And we are in the depths.'"

Interviewed by the Post-Gazette, Adam Pertman, the Executive Director of the E. D. Donaldson Adoption Institute, did not comment on the case but stated, "The greatest predictor of success in adoption is appropriate parental expectations....You've got to prepare yourself for the kid you're going to get.'" Since Bethany Christian Services has refused to comment or even acknowledge that the Barbours were clients, we do not know what they told the Barbours about possible behavior issues. However, Bethany, like all adoption agencies, makes its money on parental expectations. It has little incentive to tell prospective adoptive parents anything which might cause them to back away from adopting. Conversely,  parents who adopt from foster care are required by state law to take classes to prepare them for what may lie ahead, and how best to deal with it.

Pertman also stressed that follow-up education is "essential to having successful family integration." While adoption agencies may provide post-adoption counseling for adoptive parents--Bethany claims it it conducts post-placement visits in the first year and refers families who are struggling to additional services--agencies do not provide counseling, respite care, or other services provided by state child welfare agencies.

When state authorities place a child in an abusive home or fail to remove a child from one, there are consequences. The media is all over it. Workers are punished--some have been charged with crimes--administrators are booted, legislators hold hearings, laws are passed, budgets are adjusted.

Not so with private adoption agencies. All God's Children is still in business. In fact, it is receiving getting kudos because it, along with a couple who also adopted child from Bulgaria, have started fund-raising for a scholarship  in Stoyanova's name at a local community college.

Another reader suggested the answer is "to have more realistic and stringent controls on who is fit to adopt." The Barbours were extensively screened by Bethany through "essay questions, hours of interviews, with their caseworker, child abuse clearances, medical testing and a home study." Douglas Barbour worked as a deputy attorney general for the state. Kristen Barbour was a college-educated stay-at-home mom "who blogged about cooking and craft projects and lavished words of love and praise on her family and God." They lived in a two-story home with a big backyard. In short, the perfect couple.

The only possible red flag was that the Barbours planned to start their biological family at the same time they began the adoption process. Bringing two strange children into the home while trying to meet the demands of young children would likely create a stressful situation. Bethany either didn't see the potential problems or chose to ignore them. Bethany, like other adoption agencies place children as well as screen prospective adoptive parents. This is a built-in conflict of interest. Although agencies charge for home studies, the real money comes from placing children with adoptive parents. Although states license adoption agencies, it's unlikely that states would require agenciesto have more stringent controls. Adoption agencies would raise the specter of worthy couples unable to adopt and children left in orphanages because of red tape. Even if states strengthened requirements, many would lack the funds to enforce the rules.

Another reader points out that her two adopted daughters would have ended up on the streets and likely faced a life of destitution and prostitution if she hadn't adopted them. These girls' good fortune was only the luck of the draw. Adopted into a different home, they could have ended up sexually abused like Stoyanova. Adoption is a lottery, as John Sayles forcibly depicts in his 2003 film, Casa de los Babys. And of course, saving two girls from prostitution did nothing for the many poor girls in the world who are forced into prostitution every day.--jane

Adoption saga ends with charges for Franklin Park couple
Scholarship fund created in memory of Nikolina Stoyanova, Oregon State Hosptial-Portland patient who died
Abuse case jeopardizes adoption agreement between Russia and US
Creating a Healthy Adoption with an Older Adopted Child
Casa de los babys
Half The Sky Movement
and a story from Nigeria:  Nigerian's battle to keep her baby

Casa de los Babys
"...The story of six women who go to a Latin American country to adopt babies. As in other films by this master of cinema [John Sayles], it is not a simple story with a simple ending. Instead, it is a complex political and social tale that can be viewed on many levels."--Amazon reviewer.

As a first mother, I found the movie riveting and telling, as I seem to know way too many people who have adopted from Central and Latin America; I could not help relating to the poor women who were giving up their babies. Highly recommended. The link above will let you watch the film for $2.99 or you can buy it for $4.99. Someone gave me a disk and I am glad to have it on my shelf. --lorraine

From FMF:
Can International Adoption Be fixed? As Well as The Drug Trade
Joyce Maynard's adoption "disruption"
Returning a Child: It Happens More than You Think
Foreign Adoptions Aren't Plunging Fast Enough
Reproductive exploitation--one more way to abuse women

Foreign Adoptions Aren't Plunging Fast Enough
Reproductive exploitation--one more way to abuse women


  1. Adoption is a lottery is the truth... for everyone involved. Sadly, it doesn't make it the any better to have people trained if there is no oversight after the adoption is finalized. Most abuses do not occur prior to that point and no one is sure what the adoptive parents true motives are.... and if they are selfish - and that includes religious - they usually are not good people. This applies to foster care as well.....

    The only way adoption is good is when it is totally about a child - not an adults needs, wants or desires.... when it is about that, it is hard and crazy.

    Foster care is even a crazier lottery - for the children and adults....

  2. Agreeing with Lori, adoption out of foster care is as much a lottery as International adoption. Recommending it as an alternative is not the solution to international adoption abuse. I have not seen evidence that international adoptees as a group are more trouble or troubled than domestic adoptees. It seems that there are understandably more behavior and other problems in children adopted at an older age out of various sort of adverse environments, whether here or abroad.

    The stories I have read of extreme abuse of adopted children usually involve families who are fanatically religious,believe in extreme "biblical" discipline, who adopted through an agency that makes religious fanaticism the primary standard for judging prospective parents, and all other judgements are viewed through that lens. If they are Bible-believing Christians, they must be ok.

    I think a step towards adoption reform would be to take adoption out of the hands of religious agencies altogether, as well as taking the profit motive out. I would view anyone with extreme religious views, who believes God speaks to them directly and told them to adopt, or who were pressured by their pastor or denomination to "take in orphans" to save their souls should be automatically disqualified from having any child placed with them without extreme and ongoing scrutiny. This should be a red flag, not a condition for adoptive parenthood as it is with many religious agencies.

    Fine if they come to the decision to adopt because they have the education, love, and means and the training to offer a good family life to a child, and also happen to be Evangelical or Fundamentalist, but that should never be the prime motivating factor, and it should not put them at the head of the line to get a child. These people need to be realistically and bluntly educated in how very difficult it is to raise a special needs child. If they already have biological children, adopting more is probably not a good idea. If they have a rosy "God will provide" view of taking in an older, damaged child, they need to get rid of that or get out of the line to adopt anyone.

  3. maryanne wrote: "Recommending [adoption out of foster care] is not the solution to international adoption abuse." Let me connect the dots for you maryanne.

    Reducing the demand for foreign children will reduce corruption abroad and unethical, if not illegal, practices here because it will make adoption less profitable.

    Making adoption less profitable will put sleazy adoption agencies out of business. If sleazy adoption agencies are out of business, they will not be able to place children in situations where they can be abused.

    Honorable folks wanting a child who currently adopt from abroad (and unwittingly finance corruption and line the pockets of sleazy adoption practitioners) should adopt American foster children and donate to international relief agencies.

    In other words, if you want a dog and want to help dogs, resist that doggie in the window, who came from a puppy mill. Adopt a dog from an animal shelter. Then donate to your local spay and neuter organization.

    Your solution, to take religion out of adoption, is impractical, if not impossible. The minute state licensing authorities clamped down on adoptions based on religious motivation, the state authorities would be in front of a court trying to explain why their actions did not violate the First Amendment.

  4. And yet a few years ago a study was published having extensively followed both domestic and internationally adopted children and internationally adopted children faired better emotively than their domestic counterparts.

    One rationale for this was the idea that parents of Internationally adopted children were more likely to seek counseling and support as needed for their children or respond to potential concerns more proactively. Many felt this went hand in hand with the pre adoption training received by families pursuing IA, though such a correlation would be hard to prove.

    Just adding this to the discussion.

    Abuse of any child is horrendous. Sadly we see far too many cases in this country at the hand of families, whether adoptive or not.

  5. Anon,

    Please give us the cite to the study on international adoption.

  6. I know that this is completely off-topic, but I thought this might be in your wheelhouse. A 15-year old girl in foster care needs an adoptive family. She has an infant daughter, who thankfully she kept! As we all know, the best way to prevent adoption is to provide mothers like Alas with support and resources. She isn't old enough to live independently, and I worry that she might be pressured into surrendering her daughter to care. I understand if this comment isn't posted (I somehow doubt FMF is pro-adoption photolistings), but I know you have readers who are APs, PAPs, or first mothers who might be willing to mentor a young mother in care. Anyway, I thought I'd give it a shot!


  7. Anonymous: Unusual situation, or maybe not, but if we can help find Alas (is that really her name?) a family to take both baby and mom, we would be pleased. One of my friends who adopted 20 some years ago ended up saying that she felt she should have adopted both the mother and the child. But of course, then she wouldn't have adopted the child, now would she?

    Keep us posted. You can email me at forumfirstmother@gmail.com.

  8. Jane, just to be clear, neither my wish to take religion out of adoption placement nor yours that everyone wanting to adopt take a child out of foster care rather than adopting internationally is really going to happen. Both are theoretical ideas, and both are "impractical, if not impossible" as far as either actually happening. There has to be a realization that the hard-to-place kids in foster care, who are older and often have other serious problems, pose as much of a challenge to parent as older and special needs children adopted internationally.

    What bothers me is the idea that anyone who has already adopted internationally, even from decent agencies, is somehow more guilty than anyone who has adopted domestically out of foster care. I just do not see that in real life.
    There is abuse and corruption in all kinds of adoption, as well as decency and sincere desire to help children. Like so much else, it is not a simple either/or proposition, and what seems logical and works in theory often has little practical application.

    Donating to help keep children in their own countries is a good thing, as is ending as much as possible the corruption and profit motive in international adoption, but these are separate issues in real life from foster care adoption which has its own problems.

  9. This just in from Nigeria:

    "I know a lot of illegal adoptions are going on. Under the guise of adoption, children are being trafficked to other states and to other countries," said barrister James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative who points out that the law in Nigeria prohibits international adoption.

    He says money is a factor.

    "There are so many people who have locally-made applications for adoptions. The story is that there are no children but we are aware that there are so many children who are adopted by foreigners from Nigeria."

    Mr Ibor highlights the strong link between poverty and the vulnerability of children.
    Barrister James Ibor Barrister James Ibor believes many children are being taken abroad

    "We have cases where some of them actually have their children in churches and they either die or their babies die. Some of them are adopted.

    "Many of them never see their children again - even when they are willing, they are coerced or manipulated to give up their children because of their circumstances."

    Read more here, about the story of one teen who wanted to keep her baby, and succeeded:

    Nigerian's battle to keep her baby

  10. Maryanne,
    I have never said--and don't believe--that anyone who has adopted internationally is guilty of anything.

    The people I know who have adopted internationally and those who have posted here are fine people. They have not intentionally done anything wrong.

    What we've say here is that if you stand back from individual cases and look at the big picture, adopting from foster care is far better policy for both families and society at large.

    International adoption has dropped dramatically in the past few years. The drop appears to be due in part to the current economic situation and the efforts of foreign countries to end corruption and to help its vulnerable mothers. The drop may also be due to the realization that there are not a lot of adorable Dondis just waiting to be plucked off the streets or out of orphanages who will magically adjust to the US. In other words, the bloom may be off the rose.

    Taking religion out of adoption, on the other hand, is a legal impossibility.

  11. Hi, I've posted this link before on FMF. There is a meta-analysis of internationally adopted children that compares their adjustment with non-adoptees and with domestic adoptees. They looked at MedLine, PsychLit and ERIC from 1950 - 2005. The name of the article is Behavior Problems and Mental Health Referrals of International Adoptees: A Meta-analysis.

    Femmie Juffer, PhD; Marinus H. van IJzendoorn, PhD

    Link: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=200958#REF-JRV50009

    The go-to message referred to by Anon 5:31 is as follows:

    "In contrast to popular beliefs and hypotheses expressed in empirical studies, international adoptions show better behavioral and mental health outcomes than domestic adoptions. Our findings indicate that this is not explained by lower rates of preadoption adversity experienced by the international adoptees compared with domestic adoptees, as evidence of pre-adoption malnutrition, neglect, or abuse was reported more often in the international adoption studies. It is possible that in many transracial international adoptions, physical differences between parents and children are so obvious that the fact of the adoption was never a secret, resulting in more communication and trust in the family. Families choosing international (transracial) adoption may have different parenting qualities compared with parents in more traditional adoptions. No systematic information about parenting abilities is available in our data set. However, in most countries parents undergo a screening procedure to assess their potential fitness for parenting and receive (some) preparation. Finally, genetic risks may differ between international and domestic adoption. Whereas children in international adoption are often adopted because of lack of resources and poverty, relinquishment in domestic adoption may (also) involve mental health problems in the birth parent,such as substance abuse or psychiatric disorders. Although reasons for relinquishment may overlap, genetic risks predisposing for mental health problems may be less prevalent in international adoptees.

    "The relatively positive outcomes of international adoption do not imply that international adoption should be preferred to domestic adoption in the sending countries. In our meta-analyses, domestic adoptions in developing countries could not be included due to the lack of empirical studies."

  12. Calling adoption a "lottery" brings us back to the myth of context-less derivations that have nothing at all to do with the class and lifestyle of those adopting. This is a false premise which is not worth maintaining. Until the class of adopters is ready to look at how their societal role is fundamentally the source of domestic as well as global inequality, then we are still talking about "reforming" something which should have ended long ago. Putting bandaids on a cancer patient is palliative for neither the sufferer nor the supposed caregiver.



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