Adoption Gone Awry

Adopting a child is one of the most selfless acts of love there is. Sadly, it doesn’t always result in a happy ending.



“I never would have gone through with it if I had known all the facts,” says Queens resident Eva Stein*, 77, of the adoption that she and her husband, Sidney, embarked on as a young couple. The two Holocaust survivors had been trying for five years to have a biological child when they approached Louise Wise Services, a New York-based agency that specialized in Jewish adoptions.  It was 1959, and the domestic adoption industry was a thriving operation, supplied with inventory by single mothers shamed into giving up their babies by a judgmental society. The cloak of secrecy surrounding adoptions back then was designed primarily to protect the identity of the birth mothers, though the collateral damage caused by this often fostered duplicitous measures taken by some agencies to ensure that “problem” children would find homes. 

The olive skin of Glen, the infant boy who was matched with the couple, was covered in red blisters. The agency attributed the welts to allergies. The Steins had no way of knowing they were actually the first sign of withdrawal from the drugs he’d ingested through his birth mother’s alcohol-infused breast milk and the heroin that rested in his cellular network from his birth father’s use of the drug. 

“We were told that his father was a chemist and his mother a violinist,” recalls Eva Stein. “We wanted a child dearly, so we believed them.” Visions of their budding scientist/musician performing the classics in an orchestra danced in the Steins’ minds. The truth, however, was that the closest Glen’s biological father came to chemistry was in the mixing of his own drug concoctions—from which he eventually ODed—and the only thing his biological mother “fiddled” with was trouble. She was an overweight woman with other children from different fathers.

At the age of six, Glen would lie down in the middle of the street in hopes of being run over by a car.

A husky boy, he was bullied by neighborhood kids. In turn, he bullied his younger brother and sister (some couples are able to conceive once the strain of adoption is over), perhaps sensing the genetic bond linking them. As his resentment erupted, he would punch, shove, and beat them out of frustration and a sense of isolation. By the age of 13, he began to smoke pot. Pot led to “shrooms,” “shrooms” led to acid, acid led to pills, pills led to cocaine, and cocaine led to the potent cocktail that had waited all those years to course through his veins—heroin.

Run-ins with the police became common and, at one time or another, Glen—who had grown physically large, powerful, and violent—attempted to kill every member of his family. He choked his father; he held a butcher knife to his sister’s throat; he once stormed into the house wielding a machete. “I was afraid to bring friends over,” says his sister, Sarah. “God forbid they would let others know what went on in our house.”

His family gave him support in the form of therapy and drug-addiction rehab programs, but to no avail. By the time they were in their 20s, his siblings had severed all relations with Glen. Now, more than 20 years later, his parents speak to him once or twice a year when he calls from wherever he’s found refuge.

As with giving birth, adopting a child comes with risks (and, of course, joy). And while most adoptions turn out well—data shows that adopted children tend to enjoy superior home environments and superior access to healthcare—sadly, some go awry. According to the Federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, 127,000 children were adopted in the U.S. in 2001 (the most recent year for which there are available statistics); that number was relatively the same as it was in 1992. What changed was the demographic: adoptions in 1992 were 77 percent private (including within families, with 5 percent conducted abroad) and 18 percent through public agencies. Nearly a decade later, 46 percent of the adoptions were private, with 15 percent done internationally and 39 percent though public agencies. The 2000 U.S. census reported nearly 2.1 million adopted children in U.S. households, of which 18,000 new adoptions came from overseas. Five years later, that number had risen to 22,000.

Adopting a child is one of the most selfless gifts one can give, bestowing the promise of nurture, love, and support to another human being who will become part of his or her own family. Fortunately, there are thousands of stories of happy adoptions—and they are to be encouraged. But too often, those who enter into this lifetime commitment have no idea of the many pitfalls that potentially await them.

The research does not paint a particularly rosy picture. In their 1990 book, The Psychology of Adoption (Oxford University Press), Drs. David M. Brodzinsky and Marshall D. Schechter note that “research shows that adoptees are more likely than their non-adopted counterparts to display a variety of acting-out problems (e.g., aggression, stealing, lying, oppositional behavior, running away, hyperactivity) and have low self-esteem, and a host of learning difficulties.”

Betty Jean Lifton, an adoption counselor in New York City and author of Journey of the Adopted Self (Basic Books, 1995)—and herself an adoptee—reports that roughly one-quarter to one-third of all adolescents and young adults in clinics and residential treatment centers are adopted. She maintains there is such a thing as “adopted child syndrome,” an organic brain syndrome that allegedly results in certain learning disabilities, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, infertility, ADD, untimely pregnancies, and suicide.

Furthermore, according to Drs. Brodzinsky and Schechter, “although adopted children constitute approximately two percent of the total population of children in the U.S., they represent between four and five percent of the children referred to outpatient mental-health facilities and between ten and fifteen percent of the children in residential care facilities.”
The bottom line, says psychologist Katie Liebenberg, whose private group practice, GIFT (Group Individual Family Treatment) of Westchester, specializes in the treatment of adopted and fostered children, is that “kids who are adopted tend to have more complications at every developmental step.”

Things have changed since the Steins adopted Glen: Louise Wise Services was shut down some years ago following a storm of legal cases stemming from similar complaints (parents unknowingly adopting children of schizophrenics, drug addicts, and people with other illnesses and conditions); full disclosure of the child’s biological background, if available, is now expected and sometimes required by law; and, as a result of more single women raising their children instead of giving them up for adoption, more people are going overseas to adopt.

There are never any guarantees a child— biological or adopted—will grow up to be happy and healthy. But, when bringing a child into your home who doesn’t share your genetics, you run the risk of being unaware of your child’s inherited predispositions, which can include addiction or mental health problems.

Experts agree that the first signs of trouble may appear early in some adopted children. “At around three or four years of age, when children are beginning to recognize their independence, those struggling with issues of attachment and separation might display aggressive behavior or tearfulness and anxiety around leaving Mom and Dad,” says Irene Studwell, a licensed clinical social worker based in White Plains. “At six or seven, when children go to school, begin to make friends, and start sorting themselves out socially, they often begin to notice that they are different from their peers or their own parents, particularly in trans-racial adoptions, or that their family stories are not like everyone else’s. This can lead to a new, and perhaps painful, view  of adoption and to real sadness and a sense of abandonment.”

It’s also during this period that a child’s natural egocentricity may lead him to think that perhaps it was in some way his fault that his biological parents gave him up. An adopted child may think, “‘Well, it has to be something about me. I’m a bad person,’” says Liebenberg.

Regardless of his or her birth history, rebellion often sets in by a child’s early teens but, experts say, some adopted children may be more rebellious and more at risk for addictive, antisocial, or otherwise self-destructive behavior. “No one’s going to adopt a kid that comes with a loaded history,” says Liebenberg. “Often, parents don’t know the medical history.”
Health background information on children up for adoption can be sketchy, particularly in overseas adoptions. Children from Mexico, China, and Latin America often come from families so impoverished that neonatal care may have been minimal, thereby potentially affecting the children’s long-term health. And in Eastern European countries, e.g., Russia and Romania, where rates of alcoholism are high, the incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome is, consequently, high.

Sometimes it’s the children’s emotional health that has been damaged. Before being adopted, some babies spent their entire young lives in their cribs, while others may have spent time in a troubled household. And some children come with such severe problems that, by the time they’re adopted, they already may face a life of hospital care or residential treatment. The longer a child has been in an orphanage or foster care, the more likely it is, experts say, that he or she will have severe problems. One survey found that the average length of time that children in the U.S. were in foster care before adoption was nearly four years.

With such dire statistics stacking the deck against happy adoptions, it seems hardly fair that when adopted children enter their teens, they may face additional difficulties: rejection by their biological mother and/or father or worse. The teen years are when many adopted children express a desire to meet their biological parents, and when they do, experts say, many are met with disappointment. Whatever fantasy a child may have about his birth parents frequently is likely not to be true.

Many adoptive parents try to comfort their children from feeling the rejection of having been “given up” by saying, “We chose you. You were picked.” But this tactic, no matter how well meant, often backfires, Liebenberg says. “It puts pressure on the kids who feel, ‘I’m never going to live up to this chosen identity; instead, I’m going to identify with my biological identity,’” she says. “So even if the birth mother was a drug user, some kids want to hold on to even the negative aspects of their biological parent.” Liebenberg remembers a teenage girl who declared, “I’m going to be a hooker, just like my real mother.”

As with the Steins, no one in the family comes away unscathed if one of its members succumbs to pressures like drinking or taking drugs, or if he or she suffers with a mental illness.
Liebenberg recalls the case of a 14-year-old girl who was adopted from Russia at age five. “The parents were extremely successful and very involved from the beginning. They had her in speech therapy, occupational therapy. But when I met her, she had made a lot of passive suicidal attempts. She was cutting her body, acting out, and abusing her younger brother, who was born to the couple after the adoption. She tore up the parents’ house, and the marriage was falling apart.

“The girl was very angry,” she continues. “She threw my chair against the wall. I had to end up hospitalizing her. She went into a series of hospitalizations. So, here was a family that was very well intentioned, who did everything they possibly could, but their daughter was just so deeply troubled. Ultimately, it wound up affecting their marriage and affecting the younger brother, who went into treatment for guilt issues. And by the end, they had to put her on Medicaid because they were literally out of money and couldn’t afford treatment.”

Adoption brings with it unique issues: children who look nothing like their parents. “Kids often say, ‘I don’t take after anyone!’” Liebenberg reports. “It’s a very lonely feeling.”
Liebenberg recalls the case of an African American girl who had been abused in her early childhood. By the time Liebenberg treated her, the girl, adopted by a white family, was seven. “I encouraged her parents to read books that show people of her color to her and to allow her to celebrate that part of herself. The problem was that she associated black people as being bad because those were the ones who abused her. It impacted her self-esteem and her identity. ‘I want to be close to my biological mother, too, but is black bad?’ she wondered. It resulted in an identity conflict.”

Other issues arise when parents, particularly intellectual and upwardly mobile ones, have expectations that their adopted children cannot meet. “It happens quite often that adopted children have different IQs than their adoptive parents,” says Liebenberg. “The parents think that if they expose the child to everything, the kid will magically be successful and go to Harvard. I worked with one family where the boy was a good kid with a low IQ. The parents, the father particularly, just couldn’t get it. They got him tutors. They mistook his intellectual difficulty for he not trying. It was the parents who I needed to work with. I had to prove to them that no matter how many tutors they got him, he was not going to go to Harvard.”

Clearly, the question of nature vs. nurture is impossible to answer. Anyone can be predisposed to an illness or condition, or have a gene that makes him or her more likely to develop an ailment or disease which may or may not manifest. “Not every genetic propensity turns into a physical illness or emotional disorder—in adopted children or anyone else,” Studwell says. “An adopted child might have such a difficult genetic inheritance or have suffered such severe early disruptions of attachment or even mistreatment that the most wonderful nurturing experience can’t wash that away. Or, such a child might magically get just the right kind of attunement from his adoptive family and become more resilient than we might expect. And then there are those who seem to match emotionally and temperamentally and hit very few developmental roadblocks. It always seems like a perfect storm of factors.” 

Unfortunately, support was unavailable when the Stein family dealt with their trauma. Asked how he’d advise couples considering adoption, Sidney Stein sighs and says, “There’s really no right answer. You must arm yourself with as much information and support as possible and proceed with caution. And hope for the best.  It could be a disaster. But, on the other hand, it could be the most wonderful thing you’ve ever done.”

Adrianne Stone-Gibilisco has a biological child, but is inspired by her many friends who’ve had happy adoptions.