Adoption and Abduction: Legal Differences, Emotional Similarities

Adoption and Abduction: Legal Differences, Emotional Similarities
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Currently making international news is the miraculous recovery of 18-year-old Kamiyah Mobley who was kidnapped from a Florida hospital by a woman who had been lurking in the hospital in scrubs looking for a suitable victim. She snatched the newborn infant and flew the state with her, changed the baby’s name, name, and hid her from her parents for 18 long years while they mourned the loss and prayed for her well-being and safe return.

The young woman at the center of this headline-making case, now known as Alexis Manigo, originally told police that she suspected something was wrong. How could she not when she had no birth certificate, no ID of any kind, including no driver’s license and no social security number? However, she has since declined to comment any further on her suspicions now that the woman, Gloria Williams, whom she knew all of her life – and still loves – as her mother, sits in jail, charged with child abduction. Several news accounts report the confusion she is experiencing as she tries to come to terms with her new reality.

Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work who has studied abduction cases, notes that child abductions by non-related strangers generally remain unsolved or end poorly with sexual abuse, as in the notorious cases of the four women held captive in Cleveland from their teens or early 20s and Elizabeth Smart, held captive for nine months. Other stranger abductions have ended with murder.

Dr. Greif notes that those few who are taken by strangers and raised well, as their own children – as well as those abducted by a non-custodial parent – still experience some common psychological effects when found and reunited with their parents:

“As you connect the dots over a period of time, it’s a pretty normal reaction to become upset with the abductor, and a child who was abducted may have trouble developing intimacy and trust with other people … We often see a degree of anger at the parents who were left behind, even if that’s not really justified, like ‘Why didn’t you look harder for me?’”

Shawn Hornbeck can relate. An abduction survivor, Shawn currently works to help other victims of abduction and abuse adjust after reunification. He tells them, “Don’t rush life. It will come natural to you.” They need to “take their time reintegrating into society “

There are others who can also identify with the feeling of having one’s whole sense of reality – and identity – turned upside down.

Adoption and Abduction: The Similarities

Adoption often legalizes a parent-child relationship that began with an abduction or kidnapping. In both the US and the UK, child protective services have been accused of overstepping their powers and committing “governmental abductions for adoption.

When adopting internationally, adopters many have no indication of illegalities, trusting the details to a reputable adoption agency. In other cases, desperation causes adopters to turn a blind eye to obvious red flags, as may be seen in the documentary Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy and in the book Finding Fernanda.

Demand for children to adopt remains high, while fewer and fewer children are being relinquished for adoption. As a result, fees are high and corruption is rampant. Worldwide, children are trafficked for adoption, and the lines between illegal and unethical are further blurred when you factor in the desperation of mothers and fathers in crisis, both here and abroad, who seek temporary help. They are often deceived, coerced, and pressured to sign papers they may or may not fully understand, as has been reported in the well-publicized adoptions by Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

The Netherlands is the latest to consider banning international child adoption (IA) due to concerns of trafficking and “laundering” children. Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia have all banned IA due to corruption. In Guatemala, for example, children were being snatched and reported as abandoned, then adopted for fees of tens of thousands of dollars. Unscrupulous baby brokers and child traffickers procured stand-ins for the mothers and consent-to-adopt documents were being forged. In the end, the children were considered to legally belong to their adopters, despite such irregularities.

Arun Swanand Dohe, of Against Child Trafficking (ACT), explains:

“The legal issue is ‘informed consent.’ I have yet to find a case, where really ‘informed consent’ was given. Often though in the field research I did, I accepted very low standards of consent, as all my research in the field has been done with the view of court cases. To contest in court a signed relinquishment document is very difficult, even. Bottom line? All adopted children from Ethiopia are abducted in a legal sense.”

This is true elsewhere as well, including adoptions within the US, where expectant mothers are often made to sign relinquishment papers in the hospital while recovering from childbirth, or under pressure and duress, and without fully understanding the permanency of such an action. Today “open adoption” is offered without a full comprehension of what that entails or whether such agreements are enforceable. Unlike adopting parents, relinquishing parents have no independent legal counsel to advise them, other than lawyers who are paid and provided by those with a stake in assuring that the adoption takes place.

The element of a crime having been committed on your behalf – whether by the person or persons raising you or unbeknownst to them – aside, many other factors bear similarity between adoption and child abduction. Most especially, there is in both cases the enormity of having another family, a “real” family, a family who may look or behave similarly to the child, or might even long to know them. Some children are adopted when they are old enough to have real memories of the family of origin and a prior life. Others share with abduction victims, such as Mobley, the fact of being removed as infants or very young babies. All share knowing, or a moment of realization, that those they thought to be their parents are not.

In both abduction and adoption, the children are given new identities, and their original legal and genetic identities are destroyed, erased, or hidden from them. In adoption, the law allows and facilities this deception, in some cases the records even change the individual’s date or place of birth, and all but 19 states deny adopted adults access to their accurate, true, original birth certificates.

For adoptees, perhaps nothing comes closer, psychologically, to the experience of those who were abducted than that of those who were never told that they were adopted, or were lied to about having been adopted. Those who do not learn their adoptive status until adulthood call themselves Late Discovery Adoptees or LDAs, and have formed a unique niche within the adoption community to support one another, as with LDA Facebook groups.

Like Mobley, LDAs live all their lives, unbeknownst to them, with non-related strangers they have called Mom and Dad. Some report having occasional feelings of not belonging or being different – lacking physical resemblance or traits or talents. Most dismiss their doubts. Some have even asked if they were adopted, and were assured not. Others never suspected a thing out of the ordinary until their lives and their whole world were suddenly turned upside down by the discovery – as adults – that the only mother and father they knew where not related to them by blood at all but had adopted them. Some report “anger towards those people who had known of the adoption,” which in some cases can be many extended family members, causing feelings of betrayal or even a sense of conspiracy. That it was all legal does not change the emotional upheaval.

“There is emerging evidence of a range of ethical implications lasting many years when a person finds out about their adoptive status as an adult, and that this information about their genetic origins was intentionally concealed from them.”
“I was stunned. Shocked. Speechless …
“I cried so much that weekend … I initially cried for the utter sense of loss I felt. I suddenly had no family, no genealogy, no medical history, and possibly a different religion, since I was Jewish through my mother. I cried over the idea that I’d spent years missing a father and not understanding how he could have abandoned me, when really he wasn’t my birth father after all. I cried for the pain that [her adopted siblings] had suffered, all that time feeling so different from me. I cried for the fact that my mother was so callous, both in the delivery of her news and in her lack of understanding about why I’d be upset. She refused to apologize or accept any blame for keeping my story a secret.”

In addition to the emotional toll, most who are adopted have a blank slate for medical history, presenting a challenge to their health care providers. Those who do not know that they are unrelated to those raising them, give false medical information, which is far more dangerous.

Victims of abduction experience various levels of attachment to their abductors, depending in large part upon the treatment they received. Many feel a sense of obligation, even affection and are grateful if they were treated well.


In China, a boy was kidnapped on his way to kindergarten and raised by a couple as their child. But he always remembered his original family and used the Internet to find them 23 years later. He described learning that his mother had been looking for him as being hit with a bucket of cold water. "But it's good. It's good."

It was a feeling that his mother and brother longed for him that stirred in Saroo Brierley – lost when he was 5 or 6 and adopted from India to Australia – whose search and reunion are the basis of the book, A Long Way Home and the film Lion.

Nineteen-year-old Julian Hernandez was abducted by his father and lived his life under a changed identity for thirteen years. When the ruse was uncovered, the young man said:

"Even if other people can't, I forgive him for what he's done … I love him and I want him to be a part of my life."

Desiree Smolin well understands the adoption/abduction connection, saying on Facebook:

“I've always thought that from the child's point of view there was no difference ... It's [adoption and abduction] the same thing.”

Desiree is the mother of eight by birth and adoption, including two who were – unbeknownst to the Smolins – stolen from their birth mother in India. When they were old enough, they told of having been stolen, and the Smolins tried to help locate their kin. As a result of unwittingly adopting two stolen children, Desiree’s husband, David Smolin, has become a preeminent expert on child trafficking for adoption.

Similar, Yet Different

Society, however, as Desiree notes, views abduction and adoption with totally opposite expectations.

An abducted child is expected to retain fond memories of, and long for reunification with, their “real” families of birth, and reject the abductor raising them, while adoptees are expected to bond unquestioningly to non-related strangers, and in some cases are expected or encouraged to abandon any thoughts or talk of seeking out their roots.

Society fails to see, says Desiree:

“…that they expect exactly opposite responses in what is essentially, to the child, the SAME situation. And so, because of societal bias, opposite responses are pathologies.
“Children know and care nothing [about] the adults' legalities and illegalities. They care nothing for the sophistication that puts twisted, convoluted justifications in place so that societal approval would morph the illegal into the legal and so that, in other cases, the illegal remains forever illegal.”

In a kidnapping without adoption, as in the case of Mobley, there is no question about reunifying the original family. However, once a legal adoption takes place, it seems to override the crime that preceded it. Adoption wipes the slate clean, and the children are very seldom if ever returned to their families of origin, even when they have been kidnapped. Guatemalan authorities have established that Karen Abigail Monahan, aka Anyelí Liseth Hernández Rodríguez, was kidnapped from her mother Loyda Rodriguez, yet she remains with the Monahans in Liberty, MO. Despite international treaties, the State Department has failed to require DNA testing to prove or disprove the kidnapping allegations.

Many adoption reform activists say that adoption is merely legal abduction, and in fact, in many cases it is quite literally the case.

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