Adoption Ethics


BOB FAW, correspondent: Life is peaceful now for the Harshaw family since their eight-year-old adopted son Roman has been at a residential facility where he is being helped with his escalating violent behavior. Last year Roman tried to drown his sister, Grace, in their swimming pool. Another time, says his mother, Roman…

JULIE HARSHAW: …got mad because he wanted her to continue to play with him, and so he went over and found a two-by-four that was on the side of the yard and came up behind her and was going to hit her over the head to stop her from leaving. It would have killed her. I screamed at her to run, and Roman, you know, two minutes later didn’t even know what he had done.

FAW: The Harshaws adopted Roman from a Russian orphanage when he was 18 months old. They were told he was healthy, but as he got older Roman became hyperactive and aggressive. Eventually he was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, leaving him with the mental capacity of a three-year-old.

post02-adoptionethicsJULIE HARSHAW: He gets frustrated very easily, and when he gets frustrated or mad he basically can’t control any of those emotions.

FAW: Roman has punched holes in walls, nor does he sleep much. To keep him from wandering off, the Harshaws had to install alarms on every door and window. Watching Roman, never knowing what might trigger an eruption, has exhausted this family.

CHIP HARSHAW: Over the last six years, you get worn down. Every day is incredible stress here, and not just for mom and dad but for everybody. We are in a terrible dilemma. We look at him as our son. You know, what would you do if it was your biological child, you know? Is it just because he’s adopted that these questions are posed? To us he’s our son, and we’re fighting for him.

FAW: Other parents who have adopted troubled children from Eastern Europe have taken more drastic measures. Dr. Ronald Federici runs a clinic for families wrestling with difficult adoptions.

DR. RONALD FEDERICI (Developmental Neuropsychologist): I’ve picked up children at the baggage carousel at airports. I’ve had them left in my office, in my office—they drove off. I’ve seen some horrific situations where parents, good people, totally lost it and wound up in prison for murdering their child. The amount of child abuse cases have been enormous.

FAW: When a Tennessee mother packed off her adopted son on a plane back to Russia with only a note, many people were outraged. But others who have walked in that mother’s shoes, were more understanding.

post06-adoptionethicsJULIE HARSHAW: My first reaction was that I could empathize with her, knowing that she must have been going through probably a lot of the same things that we go through, and certainly don’t condone how it was done.

FAW: You could understand?

JULIE HARSHAW: I could understand, and unfortunately, people like to judge you before they know what you’re going through.

FAW: Eighteen-year-old Elyana identifies with that little boy sent back home alone to Russia. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be cast away.

ELYANA GOLDWATER: When I heard about the Tennessee issue, I thought, “This is not a store. You can’t buy and return.”

FAW: Elyana was first adopted in 2000 by a family that wanted to help someone less fortunate. But it was not a good match, and the parents halted, or what caseworkers would say, disrupted the adoption.

GOLDWATER: It felt really, really bad, an it feels really bad right now, too.

FAW: It does leave scars?

GOLDWATER: It does, it does.

FAW: Elyana’s pain, her longing, was captured in a poem she later wrote.

GOLDWATER (reading poem): When I was little, little as you, I had a dream I thought would never come true. I dreamed of a family that would fill my heart with love.

post03-adoptionethicsFAW: For “disrupted” children, the wounds are lasting.

FEDERICI: Permanently scarred by having the hope of an attachment and then the disruption. The concern that I have on a lot of families is that when they adopt they may not always see it as a permanency nowadays, because there’s a lot of openings or availability to disrupt adoptions. Many of the agencies who know they may get sued will say we’ll take the child back.

JANICE GOLDWATER (Adoptions Together): The issue is how much a parent claims a child as their own, and so when parents claim their biological children as their own it comes naturally. We’re programmed hormonally to claim our children when they’re born. When we adopt children, it’s more of a process, and so once a parent has claimed a child as their own, you rarely to never see them give up on that child.

FAW: Janice Goldwater, who runs an adoption agency in Maryland, is Elyana’s mother. Elyana was adopted a second time by the Goldwater family in 2000 when she was eight. Janice found out everything she could about Elyana and knew the family would have to invest time and money in helping Elyana heal. When it comes to adoptions, she says, the best intentions are not enough. Love does not conquer all.

GOLDWATER: We actually had social workers that said, you know, as we looked at different children, “Oh, she just needs love. She just needs some love. She’s had really difficult years and just needs some love.”

FAW: And that’s naïve?

post04-adoptionethicsGOLDWATER: That’s very naïve. That’s very naïve.

FAW: Who is morally responsible, then, for the outcome of an adoption?

(speaking to Janice Goldwater): Morally, the parent has a responsibility to find out as much as he can.

GOLDWATER: Absolutely.

FAW: And the agency morally has a responsibility to reveal as much as they can.

GOLDWATER: To share everything. That’s right.

FAW: What’s the reality?

GOLDWATER: Families do get a tremendous amount of information, and in, you know, some instances they don’t.

FAW: The Harshaws, who spent over $25,000 to adopt their son, say they were not informed of Roman’s problems and are suing the adoption agency they used. The agency disputes their claims.

FEDERICI (speaking to patient): You are doing pretty good on this one.

FAW: Dr. Ronald Federici, familiar with hundreds of cases in the last 24 years, says agencies don’t work hard enough at getting the information about these children, and parents don’t push them enough.

post05-adoptionethicsFEDERICI: Both sides have not done due diligence. Families didn’t ask because they were told there’s nothing else available. Parents go in hopeful, trusting, pay a lot of money, but are often ill-informed and don’t do enough due diligence on their end on the part of the agency, and push them harder.

JANICE GOLDWATER: Sometimes nobody knew. Issues emerge as the kids grow. We’ve placed infants that appear to be healthy and grow up and have autism, Asperger’s. You have all kinds of issues that nobody had any idea was going to happen.

FAW: The moral choice facing the Harshaws in regards to their son’s future is difficult. Grace could be in danger if Roman returns home. Daniel, their 13-year-old son who’s stayed away from home because of Roman, may start doing so again. The family stress was so bad Daniel asked to see a therapist. And the Harshaws’ marriage has been severely tested.

JULIE HARSHAW: Chip and I basically are like two ships passing in the night. We don’t see each other, because one person has to control Roman while the other person has the other two. So the family unit’s kind of falling apart.

CHIP HARSHAW: We’ve considered everything, even in our marriage we have, and the truth is that we really need each other because of this issue. At the same time, sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re married anymore, because of the amount of stress that we’ve become different people because of this situation.

FAW: People who watch this will say, at some point you’ve got to say to yourself we have tried everything, and that being the case we can walk away.

post01-adoptionethicsCHIP HARSHAW: There’s a bond there that has been created. He is our child, and we are his mom and dad. That he knows. That’s all he knows, that we are mom and dad, and to turn our backs on him and to walk away and say there’s nothing else we can do, that’s what is bothersome to Julie and I.

FAW: Even what they’ve done temporarily, putting Roman in a facility where he can get treatment, does not ease this family’s anguish.

JULIE HARSHAW: I was thinking about Roman, I’m thinking about what he’s doing. I’m thinking, about am I a horrible mom for having him there? If I let go of him permanently I don’t think I could ever live with myself. There is that part of him, that little boy, that is there that is trying to love the only way he knows how, and it’s not his fault that he can’t control himself.

FAW: When he does come home, what are you going to do?

GRACE HARSHAW: Give him a hug.

FAW: A big hug?

GRACE HARSHAW: A squeezie hug.

FAW: Ultimately, what happens to Roman is uncertain. For Elyana, the prospects are much brighter. Remember that sad poem she wrote? Listen to how it ends.

ELYANA (reading poem): First my heart said never. But now we are family forever.

FAW: Even her name now seems fitting. Translated, she says, Elyana means “God has answered.”

For Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, this is Bob Faw in Silver Spring, Maryland.

  • Maggie Will

    While this story may be true, you should also run another story, balancing the ‘other’ sad truth about international adoptions: the fact that many who go that route know EXACTLY what they are getting into, but they opt to ‘purchase’ children rather than take the time to go through thorough studies, pre-placement visits and reputable agencies for the placements. One thing that has become clear in international adoptions is that while some are noble, just as many seem to involve people looking for ‘perfect’ children who can be returned like ‘pound puppies.’ Until that attitude and mindset is change, PBS’ time would be better spent on improving international laws to protect all concerned, but mainly the children. Also, I wonder would these folks be so quick to ‘return’ their biological children — after all, adoption is a lifelong commitment that should be taken just as seriously as giving birth to a child. If adoptive parent(s) cannot make that commitment, perhaps they need to reconsider if they are ready to be adoptive parents at all. Children aren’t perfect and neither are these folks.

  • Channah

    I honestly believe that to adopt a child here in our own country is the most ethical thing to do. We have children here (maybe not all of them are babies) who need homes and loving parents.

  • Laura

    Really. Well instead of giving birth then shouldn’t all people “ethically” adopt US children instead of birthing their own? Isn’t that “ethically” what everybody should do or only people that cannot give birth to their own children? When you look at it in that light is it more clear to you why it is such an inappropriate statement ?

    Should somebody that cannot birth their child not be able to adopt a baby that will not be taken away by a birthparent that changes their mind? Thats what happens daily in the USA. Should they have to wait 4,5,6, or 7 years to adopt a baby b/c that is commonly the wait for a healthy US baby? Are you aware that many of the older (not babies) children here in the good ol US of A have the same type of issues as the overseas children?

  • Laura

    Regarding the incorrect, uninformed comment by Maggie Will…. For your information individuals that adopt overseas have to go through the same rigorous prescreenings as individuals looking to adopt in the USA. In both cases there is a thorough homestudy done by a US homestudy certified agency. Then for overseas adoptions a local fingerprint check and an FBI fingerprint check and a statewide child abuse check is done. Then individuals may have additional hoops to jump through depending on which country they are choosing to adopt from.

    Yes, is it possible that some individuals try to do a private adoption not through an agency. Probably. However, since their are also numerous INS requirements the chances for this occurring are slim. However, take a look at your local college newspapers. Regularly there are people advertising to adopt privately.

    The screening and process and time and money involved in an overseas adoption is more than you can imagine. In over ten years of being involved with the international adoption community I never once found anybody who adopted with the mindset that they could or would return a child that didn’t work out. I have never once seen or even heard of your “pound puppy” theory.

    Also, ask anybody that birthed a child that later suffered from severe emotional behavioral issues that literally put their family in mortal danger why they are not “committed” when they have to seek residential long term care for their children. Their responses will be no different than most adoptive parents going through the same thing. Our children are our children no matter if they grew in our hearts or bellies and it is agonizing for all involved to decide what to do.

    What I have heard and know from my personal experience is that when problems arise it is like walking through healthcare he__ to get good, appropriate treatments for your child without having to take out a second mortgage and spend every penny you have. Even group health insurance balks at paying for inpatient neurobehavioral therapy for more than 30 days, which isn’t even close to the amount of time necessary for effective treatment and stabilization. Then there are the school districts who you have to fight tooth and nail with to get even reasonably appropriate programming and if what you need is residential/therapeutic schooling forget it. Then the wonderful world of our government agencies like Office of Mental Health and Office of Developmental Disabilities where there are waiting lists for services, sometimes for years and where many services just cannot be accessed without going through these agencies and the criteria for qualification differs from state to state and county to county.

    It is not an easy road and these families should not be condemned for wanting to make a forever family by adopting from overseas and then seeing their hopes and dreams vanish and their lives turn into a bottomless struggle for peace when all they did was choose to love a child as their own and make that child their own.

  • Proud adopted parent

    Re: “I honestly believe that to adopt a child here in our own country is the most ethical thing to do. We have children here (maybe not all of them are babies) who need homes and loving parents.”

    We adopted internationally. One of the main advantages is that one doesn’t have to worry about some drugged out birth mom appearing on your doorstep wanting cash.

    Our children will be international good will ambassadors. I am teaching them their native tongue and making them proud of the birth country.

    I have read so many disaster stories about eastern European adoptions. I wouldn’t have the courage or faith to do it. We know of adopted kids that have literally ripped apart the adopting families. I definitely do not judge the parents, who out of desperation, disrupt the adoptions. People like Maggie Will are simply wrong if they think these parents do it lightly like sending a puppy back.

  • Monica Pignotti, PhD

    What is often overlooked by mental health professionals who see only the worst cases is that by and large, the majority of late international adoptees, even the ones who languished for years in orphanages, when followed over time by researchers, were not found to have serious mental health problems. While it is true that a subset of these late adoptees do have severe problems, there is another subset which has shown remarkable resilience and did respond favorably to a loving home environment. Others had mild problems which went away and some of even the most severe symptoms, such as autistic type behaviors went away on their own over time. I have published a systematic review of longitudinal research (research that followed the children over time) on this topic that will be appearing in the next issue of the peer reviewed journal, The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. The results may surprise some people and are a testimony to the resilience of human beings.

    Moreover, for the subset of children who do have severe, enduring mental health issues, it is not at all clear that the extreme, radical boot camp type interventions are effective or even safe. Parents considering such interventions need to be aware that although some of the people delivering them are indeed licensed as mental health professionals, these interventions have not been tested with randomized clinical trials published in peer reviewed journals. Since for many of the children, longitudinal research I reviewed showed that the problems do go away or become less severe over time, people need to keep that in mind before opting for an untested intervention. Positive testimonials do not cut it, when we’re talking about the life and emotional well being of a child. Just as one would not give an untested drug to a child just because it had positive testimonials, mental health professionals should not be doing untested interventions on children and by untested, again, I mean lack of peer reviewed published randomized clinical trials, preferably independently conducted by someone who has no vested interest in the outcome. Note that I have been personally attacked for saying these things, but this is a topic I cannot in all good conscience remain silent on.

  • Linda Rosa, RN

    There are some related trends that I find disturbing, for example:

    There is evidence of some adoptive parents handing off their unwanted adopted child to a “therapeutic foster parent” (found on the Internet) who houses the child, usually along with many other children, for a monthly fee. These parents rely on their legal right to have their adopted child live with anyone they wish, for as long as they wish.

    There is also much material on the Internet that tends to demonize adopted children, claiming that they are little “sociopaths in training” because they have been severely traumatized by being separated from their mother at birth. These “experts” claim most adopted children have the bogus diagnosis called “Attachment Disorder” (AD), and that the only cure is an unvalidated and abusive practice called “Attachment Therapy” (aka Holding Therapy, Rage Reduction, etc.).

    AD should not to be confused with Reactive Attachment Disorder which is rare and defined in the DSM-IV as being either very withdrawn or overly friendly with strangers. It has no violent features.

    Just about any child could be diagnosed with AD. AD has a long, laundry list of signs. Even good behavior by a adopted child is interpreted as diagnostic of AD — it is said to be “stalking prey” behavior. A major sign of AD is considered “lack of eye contact,” although many foreign adoptees and some children in the US South, do not look directly at adults out of respect.

    New adopted parents exposed to such unreliable materials tend to interpret even normal child behaviors as worrisome. The myth of “Attachment Disorder” has unfortunately entered our popular culture and not only scares adoptive parents to disrupt and subject children to extreme “therapies,” but probably also scares off others from adopting in the first place.

  • Momof5

    We adopted a boy from foster care. He was a year old when he came. He was delayed across the board. He is now 9 years old, has now been diagnosed PDD, ADHD, ODD and he is exactly like Roman. I feel like this story is about my life. My son cannot go most places without major incidents. My husband and I cannot go anywhere together without bringing two vehicles in case someone has to leave early because of our son. Someone has to be with him while the other one is with our other children. I cannot work because no one will watch him. He does not realize when he causes harm to others. He does not realize when he puts himself in harms way. He is so smart in some ways while in other ways, he doesn’t have a clue. We relocated to get him into a school that is more experienced with children with his needs. We have recently installed new doors that to open we have to enter a code. We have no time alone. I feel sorry for our other children because they cannot go anywhere with their parents together. We love our son and are still praying for a miracle but we do not know what the future will bring. We are hanging in as long as physically possible but he is getting stronger every day. I could go and on but I will stop here. Please do not judge unless you have walked in those very same shoes.

  • Momof5

    I should also say that we have adopted five children total, four from foster care, and one was a private infant adoption. Our son that was a private adoption is 24, married, has a 3-year-old son and he is in the Airforce and doing great. Our girls came to us at the ages of 4 and 5. They were placed with us as a 2-week placement. Things did not go as expected with bio-parents and we adopted them at the ages of 7 and 8. Now, at the ages of 13 and 14, they are very different girls. They are both beautiful, doing well in school, and have big plans for the future. Our youngest boys came to and the ages of 1 and 3. Things did not go as expected with bio-parents and we adopted them at the ages of 4 and 7. The 9 year old is in the story above and his brother is 11. Our 11-year-old son is very sweet and kind hearted. He can turn on a dime though. He has anxiety and mood swings. He loves going to church and I am still expecting God to help him overcome what he went through. It is amazing how some children can overcome and others have trouble getting past things. I believe that many birth parents stress out also but it is magnified when it is an adoptive family. We cannot know how it is in a family unless we are in the middle. The last thing that I like to see is a family splitting up but it is much better to remove the child, than to hurt the child.

  • Blessed Mother

    Our family welcomed a child from Eastern Europe who was from a “disrupted adoption.” This child came into a home with other adopted siblings and a mother who was also adopted. One thing that has become very real to us is that not all people should adopt, because not everyone will let themsleves truly bond with and fully love “someone else’s child.” Best intentions of people who want to bring children home may not always prove to be a solid and forever match. Had we not intervened, our child would have been labeled with Reactive Attachment Disorder and sent away to a situation that specialized in RADS kids. That would have been a tragedy, for it was a mislabeling that was not based in reality. Because the first parents never bonded to our child, it seemed easier to label and disrupt. Our child is well settled, and is “just a regular kid” loved by his family, doing well in school and friendships. We have been blessed by our child’s presence in our lives.

  • Judithwith5kids

    It’s not all about international adoption. We adopted an 18 month-old from South Carolina. We later found that we were his sixth home, the first four being non-state agency foster care. He had been in the hospital twice for malnutrion, and almost died both times. Also, I happened to meet my son’s pediatrition who told us that when his birth-mother’s amniotic sac broke, the delivery room smelled like a still. There was no reason for our social worker to have withheld this information, particularly about the FAS. He began beating up our youngest daughter, and after we knew we really couldn’t protect her, he went into a special placement for children with FAS. (When we put him in a home, a number of church members accused us of chosing our birth child over our adopted child. It was incredibly painful. We were chosing our weakest family member from the most violent.) Our son cannot hold a job more than a month, at best. He is considered to be a sociopath due to his very early lack or care. What adoptive parents go through is sometimes hell. Love absolutely does NOT cure all problems.

  • jean

    Julie and Chip and those others who have seen this program and can also identify with the difficulty of raising such troubled children deserve our love and respect. They love their adopted children AND they have to protect their family. It is the most terrible dilemma. May you find wisdom and peace in discerning how to act on behalf of your families. By telling your story you may begin to move people toward compassion rather than judgment. I hope so. May God grant you courage and support in your community.

  • Mary

    Y’all should do a piece on the ethics of domestic infant adoption – lots of areas to write on there – so people like Proud Adopted Parent can realise just how false, hateful, and hurtful a comment like “One of the main advantages is that one doesn’t have to worry about some drugged out birth mom appearing on your doorstep wanting cash” is.

    There are so many ethical and civil problems with infant adoption in this country, you could write at least a book. Everything from discriminatory laws, coercion, manipulation, civil rights violations, classicism, racism, sexism, misogyny, and a lack of respect for mothers, families, and children. Considering this blog looks at issues from a religious perspective, and adoption is steeped in religious rhetoric and the billion dollar industry is largely promoted by various Christian sects (notably Catholic and Mormon), I believe it would be an interesting topic for you to pursue. Though I mostly consider myself to be non-religious and am uncertain of my belief in a God or Gods, I generally respect this blog’s perspectives, and I would be delighted to find you had taken a look at America’s infant adoption industry.

  • Michael Fannon

    Most cases I know of where an infant is adopted, the infant grows up to be just fine and comes from a good home. I have two siblings and four cousins who were adopted as babies and only one of those six has had issues directly related to him being adopted. At least three of the six don’t care they are adopted and know their adopted parents are their parents. Two others I haven’t asked directly but one met her birthmother at age 18 at the birthmother’s request and has gotten close to her, but the child never had a hard time with being adopted. Another one has some issues related to LD/ADHD, but these are not related to adoption. The one who does have issues related to adoption seems to be a rare case and he sometimes felt different because of questions he was asked like “why are you black if your parents are white.” Two other people I know, outside my family, never cared at all that they were adopted. I am stating this because I think adoption is very much worth families considering and their are classes they can take, as my parents did, to be ready for the issues that arise in some more rare cases like my brothers. Those can be fixed by saying the right things when the child is younger and my parents admit talking too much about my brother being adopted since they were told not to totally hide it from him. Adoption of older kids is likely more complicated and the only 2 cases of that I know there is one case where the girl had some issues but ended up okay. The other two were one case where the girl was fine after she got over being neglected when little and a third case where a child couldn’t get over horrible mental and verbal abuse before her adoption at age 9. That girl continues to have issues as a teen and her father, adopted father, died young.
    So in the well majority of cases an infant is usually just fine and when their are questions in teenage years its nothing extreme. When adopting an older child there is more issues of Post Trauma from their early years and attachment problems though that is not to say that it happens always.

  • mihail able

    Most cases adoptive parents lie. They are tired and do not want to raise someone else’s child ….. and they come up with horror stories to get rid of the child. If the boy tried to commit murder …. It is necessary to call the police and an investigation. It is necessary to compare the reading adopters and witnesses. We must have the evidence and have proof. Lots and lots of lies.

    Bloody account 21: 0 in favor of American killers. Russian children (more than 60,000 Russian foster children in the US) did not commit murders in the United States. NEVER! Present evidence or shut up.