Are Dead Children the Benchmark for Adoption?

By: Julie Beem

This whole Russian adoption ban issue is ridiculous!

There, I said it.  I suspect many of you were thinking it.  A knee-jerk political reaction designed to make Americans in general, and American adoptive parents in particular, look like violent, evil monsters.  The Russian government uses the deaths of 15 Russian-born adoptees as the fuel to stop thousands of adoptions and to insist that they be allowed to come to this country to provide oversight on our adoptive families.

Wow, talk about trying to remove the stick from our eye without ever considering the plank in their own!  Let me say, first and foremost, that anytime a child dies, it’s a tragedy.  But, as Adam Pertman pointed out in this article,  children raised in biological families have a higher probability of dying than those in adoptive families.  I don’t have the statistics on that, but I did locate statistics on the number of children who are removed from CPS caseloads annually in the U.S. due to death (and they hover around 380 a year for the last several years.)  Now these deaths are not always at the hand of their caregivers, but I’m still thinking statistically that Mr. Pertman has a point.

What is going on here?  Well, the politics are of little interest to the adoptive families who are impacted by all this wrangling.  But the cold hard truth is that dead children, children put on planes to return to their homeland, or as in this case, a parent killed by her adoptive daughter do mean something awful is happening in these families.  As an internationally adoptive parent, I agree with those who say that very few people would spend a year (or more) of their life, thousands of dollars, mountains of paperwork, and often multiple trips to a foreign country to bring a child into their family they didn’t intend to love, cherish and care for.

So what is going on here?  Reality and expectations are somehow colliding.  Could it be that the parents want a child that fits a perfection standard and they’re disappointed?  Maybe, but would mentally healthy adults kill a child just because they were disappointed?  (I’m assuming that the vast majority of adoptive parents are mentally healthy – and basing that assumption on two things – the vast majority of Americans are deemed mentally healthy and adoptive parents have to undergo higher scrutiny than biological parents do before they’re allowed to parent.)

It is much more than just unmet expectations.  These families are in crisis!  Why?  Because whatever has happened to these children (i.e. their trauma, drug exposure, neglect, malnutrition) prior to joining these families causes behaviors and reactions that are very unexpected and often severe (i.e. dangerous and shocking).  So either the parents did not gain a clear understanding of the possible challenges from their adoption agencies.  Or, even more likely, when these parents are actually experiencing the depth of the challenge of parenting traumatized/attachment-disordered children, they cannot find the resources and support they need.

So back to what’s ridiculous.  The Russians’ answer is to stop adoptions.  But where is the child’s best interest?  Nowhere was I able to find data on how many children die in Russian orphanages or how many Russian children die at the hands of their biological parents before being removed and sent to orphanages.  But I can’t assume that Russia has fewer of those tragedies that we have here in the United States.

So we’ve missed the point again!  Infants who are traumatized (including prenatally by drug/alcohol exposure) are at risk for a variety of dangerous behaviors, responses and neurological deficits in their development.  The more traumas, abandonments and less opportunity to bond with a primary caregiver who is attentive and present a child has, the more likely the child’s emotional health will be impaired.  Healing those emotional wounds requires very dedicated, specific parenting and lots of therapeutic supports & resources.  Families aren’t getting these.  And when they don’t…tragedies happen.

Julie has been ATN's Executive Director since 2009. She joined the organization in 2004 after finding incredible support from fellow ATNers when she was searching for answers about her own daughter's early childhood trauma and attachment disorders. Julie leads a staff of passionate professionals and acts as spokesperson for the organization. Prior to ATN, Julie was the president of a marketing and communications consultancy, The Epiphany Group, and has over two decades of experience in professional services marketing, strategic planning and communication strategies. As a graduate of Partners in Policymaking and through personal experience, Julie has garnered a great deal of experience in the areas of special education, school issues, and disabilities advocacy. A published author, Julie wrote a chapter in the EMK Press Adoption Parenting book and was the special needs blogger at for two years. She frequently presents workshops on attachment and trauma to local and national groups. Email Julie. Julie holds an MBA from Avila College in Kansas City and was a Certified Professional Services Marketer. Julie, and her husband Dave, are parents to four (bio, step and adoptive), including their youngest daughter, adopted from China. This daughter’s attachment difficulties and developmental trauma disorder have changed their lives significantly…in amazing ways.