When Adopted Children Are Killed, Who Is Responsible?

When an adopted child is killed by his/her adoptive parents, is the adoption agency that did the home study complicit?

Generally, the agency that did the home study and approved the parents to adopt is the same one that does any required post-adoption reports. There may often be a second agency that does the actual selection and placement of the child from the country of origin. The legal responsibilities are generally clear. What ethical responsibility does the agency have, in screening prospective parents for potential abuse or worse of their children? What about after the placement has occurred?

Pound Pup Legacy provides sobering information about U.S. and international adoptions in which adoptees have been killed, abused, deported, or otherwise harmed. I imagine little Sherin Mathews will soon appear there. She is the three-year-old child from India recently found dead in Texas. Her adoptive father has been arrested. 

Media reports indicate that Holt International, based in Oregon, was the agency that did the home study, placement, and post-placement work for the adoption of Sherin Mathews. I am guessing that a local agency or affiliate in Texas did the study and the post-placement visits. Did Holt miss something?

In any required post-placement visits, did the social worker, who is a mandated reporter for child abuse, miss hints of danger?

Adoption Advocates International, the agency that approved the adoption of Hana Williams and Immanuel Williams, declared bankruptcy and went out of business in 2014. Hana and Immanuel are the Ethiopian adoptees whose adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were found guilty for Hana’s murder and for abuse of Immanuel. An AAI staffer testified at the trial about both the home study and the post-placement reports.

Hyunsu O’Callaghan, a Korean adoptee killed by his adoptive father, was placed as a special needs child through Catholic Charities. According to Pound Pup Legacy, Holt Korea (an affiliate of Holt International) was the facilitating agency in Korea.

There are, sadly, many other examples of adopted children killed by their adoptive parents. India, Ethiopia, Korea, and other countries look very closely at these tragedies: Their children were uprooted from their country so that they could be safer and better cared for.

I also think of the child’s parents in the country of origin: When the parents are known, does the adoption agency notify them? What is the ethical if not legal responsibility to them? Does the State Department, which may well have the information in their files? Does anyone provide counseling or support to the parents? I realize that there is no longer a legal connection between the parents and the child. That does not mean that the parents have forgotten the child at all.

What, if any, responsibility does the adoption agency bear?

Would more rigorous home studies screen out parents who are (or become) abusive and worse? Would more stringent and frequent post-placement visits help? There are lots of people looking at this, and legislative proposals being considered. I think we have to look at accreditation as well: Holt is fully accredited by the Council on Accreditation, which may soon no longer accredit international adoption agencies.

Photo by © Maureen McCauley

Any child killed is a tragedy. A child killed by his or her parents shocks us; when those parents are adoptive parents, the shock reverberates. Adoption is supposed to mean a better life for a child who needs a family. The home study and the whole adoption process are supposed to prepare parents, and to screen out those who should not be parents. When things go horribly wrong, and a child is abused or killed by those who are supposed to love and protect her, can we count on the judicial system for justice? What do we say to the countries of origin who have to believe that the families have been vetted and approved? What are the responsibilities to the child’s family in the country of origin?

It may be that there was no way to predict what happened to Sherin, Hana, Immanuel, Hyunsu, and all the others. Still. Better preparation seems a minimal standard. More adoption-competent social workers seems minimal. A mandated and enforced special level of oversight for all adoptive families might be an improvement, perhaps a proactive step to preventing any further deaths. Adoptive families often do not want to pay for additional visits or inquiries post-placement, beyond the state requirements. Non-enforceable post-placement reports are often not sent in by adoptive parents, even as the country of origin requests them. The U.S. Department of State, for example, has posted an alert about Ukraine‘s requirement for these reports. I suspect Ukraine is not alone in not receiving the reports on a timely basis. Other countries may not have the infrastructure to translate, file, and follow-up on the hundreds and thousands of reports; knowing this, some families just stop sending them.

It is heartbreaking to hear of these deaths. Is it naïve to think we can prevent them?