Common Red Herrings in Adoption Discourse: That Happens in Biological Families Too

I find it rather interesting that when adult adoptees express and share thoughts on our younger counterparts being abused or killed while in the care of their adoptive parents, we are so often informed “well, that kind of stuff happens in biological families too.”

Do people actually think we don’t know this?

This week, the Associated Press covered a horrific story out of Maryland. An adoptive father, Brian O’Callaghan, has been accused of killing his three-year-old adopted son. The young boy had barely been in the United States for five months, having been adopted from Korea by O’Callaghan and his wife in October 2013.

Many of us in the adult adoptee community were deeply saddened to hear about this case. And I have absolutely no doubt that anyone reading about this case, adopted or not, would feel the same. For some adult adoptees, however, instances of abuse or death involving our younger adopted counterparts hit very close to our hearts—in a way that we feel necessitates a deeper discussion on the role that current adoption practices might play in such cases.

Adoptive families are different from biological families. There are aspects of an adoptee’s experience that simply do not exist within the construct of a child being raised by his or her biological family. Like all adoptees, the young boy in this case had already experienced the loss of his natural parents and family. As an international transracial adoptee, he then left his country of origin with people who were unfamiliar to him and moved to a new country where an unfamiliar language was spoken and he was given a new first name. This was how the boy’s experience with O’Callaghan and his wife began. For this adoptee to wind up dead five months later involves unique, adoption-related “stuff” that doesn’t happen in biological families.

According to the police report*, O’Callaghan indicated that a bond had not formed between the young boy and him. O’Callaghan’s wife had returned to work and he was using Family Medical Leave to care for the young boy at home, during which time the boy sustained fatal injuries. Doctors conducted tests and concluded that the injuries were consistent with acute head trauma and O’Callaghan could not provide an explanation as to what would have caused such serious distress to his adopted son.

The fact that the young boy was adopted brings up a myriad of considerations that would not arise in a murder case involving a child being raised by his or her biological parents. Adoption, for example, is often specifically touted by adoption agencies and society as providing a child with a “better life” than that child would have had with his or her biological family. Additionally, the industry encourages adoptive parents to think of themselves as “saving” an orphaned child. The adoption industry also claims that its extensive home study processes ensure that adoptees are being placed into safe and secure environments. Clearly, these processes are far from reliable.

According to the Washington Post, the O’Callaghan’s adoption was managed by Catholic Charities. For those of us in the adult adoptee community, this begs the question of whether the agency offered adequate pre- and post-adoption support. If O’Callaghan didn’t feel bonded to his adopted son after five months, what resources were available to him through Catholic Charities? Clearly, the extensive home study process didn’t produce anything indicating that the young boy would be in a dangerous home. But was any follow up completed by the agency during the first five months?

This young boy was not provided with that “better life” through adoption. He lost his life to adoption. He most likely had parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Korea who might never know of his death while continuing to think that he is safe and secure in the United States. He had already experienced much trauma and loss prior to arriving in the United States barely five months ago. And clearly, the adoptive parents were not adequately prepared for what this might do to a child and how to manage it. This speaks to failures in the adoption industry and in a society that responds to adult adoptees pointing out such inadequacies by saying “well, this kind of stuff happens in biological families too.” Watercolor Tree Email Small TransparentRed Herring: Something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand.


*Source: Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK):


New York Times Hosts Debate on Race in Adoption; Leaves Out Adoptees

This week, the New York Times offered varying views of transracial adoption as part of the online Room for Debate feature that is considered part of its opinion section.  The topic of the debate was “In Adoption, Does Race Matter?” and several people contributed written responses. The group included laywers, a social worker and the president of a Christian organization. None of the participants are adoptees.

Much like NPR did recently with its story on transracial adoption, the New York Times opted not to include opinions offered by the best qualified people to answer such a question: adult transracial adoptees. Instead, the news organization featured only the opinions of those observing adoption without having actually experienced it as an adopted person. This is an important distinction. Only those of us who were adopted actually know how adoption affects us or if a certain aspect of adoption “matters” or not. And yet, when it comes to stories on the adoption experience, the media consistently turns to non-adopted sources who can, at best, only offer observation based on peripheral experience or, at worst, their own non-experiential personal opinion.

There are plenty of adult adoptees–transracial and non-transracial–who are lawyers, social workers, religious leaders, and more who would have made this debate more compelling. In fact, any transracial adopted adult, regardless of career path, would have added major insight to this feature because of the simple fact that they can actually answer the question. And yet, once again, adult adoptees were passed over in favor of gathering opinions on the adoption experience from people who haven’t actually lived it.

As an adult adoptee and a journalist, I am very disappointed in the New York Times for this willful oversight. Adult adoptees are quite easy to find, readily available and more than willing to discuss the topics raised in this debate and any other that involves digging deeper into the actual adoption experience. To pass adult adoptees over when covering adoption-related stories is lazy and indicative of the societal notion that adoptees remain children, unable to speak for themselves, long after their childhoods have ended.

It’s pretty simple, really.

If a media organization is investigating if race matters in adoption, it should interview adult transracial adoptees.

If a media organization is investigating if transracial adoption harms children or communities, it should interview adult transracial adoptees.

If a media organization is investigating if it is ideal for children to be raised by parents who look like them, it should interview adult transracial adoptees.

If a media organization is investigating any topic involving the adoption experience, it should interview adult adoptees.

Back in high school, I read the New York Times that was delivered to my house each morning. My dream then was to one day be the newspaper’s Op-Ed Editor. I even went to college and majored in journalism. I might not have made it to the hallowed halls of the New York Times, but I’m pretty sure that I could produce a better story on the transracial adoption experience than it managed to do this week.

I will say it again. Adult adoptees are the best sources of information when it comes to the adoption experience. We do not need anyone to speak for us. We are perfectly able to speak for ourselves. What’s the media’s excuse for leaving us out of their investigations on adoption?
Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160An expert knows all the answers–if you ask the right questions.

~ Levi Strauss