The Dark Side of Adoption

In the midst of all the happily-ever-after media coverage of adoption, now that it's November, and National Adoption Month (NAM), it's incumbent upon us to look at adoption realistically and even critically. The fact is that most adoptions are not saintly acts of altruism but simply the fulfillment of the adopters' hopes and dreams. That means that adoption, adoptive parents, and adoptive families are as imperfect as any others among us. And sometimes more so.


Three days into NAM 2015, it was reported that Brian Patrick O'Callaghan was to enter a guilty plea in the beating death of his three-year-old adopted son Hyun-su. #‎JusticeforHyunsu‬‬.

O'Callaghan, 36, of Maryland, is a veteran and was a high-ranking NSA officer. Hyun-su was born in South Korea and died of a beating just four months after his adoption.

In reading about this very sad case, I found a poignant post on the blog, Lost Daughters, that reflected an adoptee's reaction to the beating death of an innocent toddler.

So, I am trying to wrap my mind around the death of 3-year-old Hyun-su, a Korean adoptee. Since hearing this case, I have felt achy. The trauma of this death picks my nerves. It is as though it has happened to my own child. Could it be I feel a connection to this boy as a Korean ... as an adoptee ... as the mother of a toddler who feared the bath?

My connection with adoptees is visceral. Our bodies know the loss, the feelings of insecurity, the fear of rejection. What affects one adoptee can have an effect on another. The Lost Daughters felt this in the news of Baby Veronica [an adoption contested by the child's father]; we felt physically ill. We also have felt the pain in Dylan Farrow's accusation of abuse at the hand of her adoptive parent [Woody Allen].

As a mother who lost a child to adoption [1], I too experience a sickening, visceral reaction to the abuse and murder of adopted children. Every abused adopted child could have been my child and it strikes a deep, painful and angry chord in me.

Soon after losing my child to adoption in 1968, I discovered adoptees were searching for their roots. This was the first crack in my veneer that had been so carefully constructed to make me believe that adoption was preferable to struggling to keep my daughter after my first husband and father to our then unborn our baby girl left me a widow at just 21.

In 1980, I co-founded the original Origins in NJ for mothers who lost children to adoption [2]. Through our local Origins meetings held in members' suburban homes, and through our national newsletter, and as a member of Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), I met a stream of mothers trying to cope with the pain of their quite literally unspeakable loss. Like them, I was trying desperately to hold onto the belief that adoption had been the wise, loving, unselfish choice social workers, clergy and many others believed it was.

Many of the mothers I met, like those in the book The Girls who Went Away, were told they were too young to marry and could not come home with their child. In a short time, many became capable women. Many went on to parent other children, as did I. Some married their first child's father. I met birth mothers who were social workers, bankers' wives, and attorneys, illustrating that adoption is so often a permanent solution for a temporary problem.

Long before social media, determined mothers began finding our teenage children, some in less than the "better" homes we had been promised. One member of our group found her son living in a car. Another mother's son had been left with a teen babysitter and died when the TV fell over on him. One member of our group wound up unknowingly babysitting her own surrendered daughter because they placed her child so close -makings us aware of the risk of adoptees committing incest unknowingly by meeting a sibling and falling in love.

Two mothers that I know personally searched for their relinquished children and found teens in need. Julie's son had been abandoned in boarding school, Felicia's daughter simply unwanted, Both were told: "If you want them you can have them" and both formally adopted their own children in order to provide and care for them.

The myths I had been told about adoption were totally shattered. I knew I had to leave no stone unturned to find my daughter. I also began collecting news clippings of adoption abuse and murder all over the country. My clipping collection overflowed my file cabinet and became the impetus for my first book, shedding light on...the Dark Side of Adoption which was published in 1988. With the passion of the founder of MADD, I felt duty-bound to expose these atrocities in the hope of sparing other mothers the pain of unnecessarily losing their child to "more deserving" would-be parents.


The Dark Side of Adoption is dedicated to little Lisa Launders, killed by Joel Steinberg in New York City in 1987. Steinberg was a NY attorney and his "wife" wrote children's books. That was their outward "on paper" persona that covered the truth of their depraved drug addicted lives.

The story of Lisa's brutal too short life made national - and international - headlines. I am from New York and have lived in Greenwhich Village, not far from where Lisa lived. I also "knew" with every ounce of my being that Lisa could have been the daughter I lost to adoption. All of it made this case far too close to home.

I organized a candle-light memorial vigil. We walked in silence from what the media dubbed the "house of horrors" Lisa lived in for six short years to the school she attended where no one noticed her bruises. Mothers - birth and adoptive - and adoptees marched side by side. NY news that night featured marchers explaining how Lisa's death had so deeply touched us and how we wanted other women considering adoption to know that adoption did not guarantee a better life, only a different one.

Just as the author of the Lost Daughters blog post thought about her own child when he was the age of Hyun-su, at the time of Lisa's death I had a daughter who was not much older than Lisa had been who walked with us, placing a stuffed animal on the makeshift street memorial for Lisa as I fought back tearful sobs.

The second child placed with Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum was found tethered to a table leg in a soiled diaper with a baby bottle of rancid milk nearby. I worked with the DAs office to find his family of birth and then spoke with the toddler's grandmother, GraceAnn Smigiel, most every day for a week or so. GraceAnn's daughter, Nicole, had hidden her pregnancy and GraceAnn did not find out until her daughter went into labor, giving mother and daughter no time to consider options and make a thought-out decision.

Long Island, NY OBGYN Dr. Peter Sarosi delivered Nicole's baby and told them he knew of a NY attorney and his wife who would love to have little boy. The whole "matter" could thus be swept away without anyone, including Grace's husband at the time, ever knowing.

When I first spoke with GraceAnn she was bent on keeping the secret. With persistence she relented and the little boy came home to open arms and Travis Smigiel is now a college grad! Dr. Sarosi got probation and returned to practicing medicine, specializing in infertility.

In the end, the entire case was chalked up as an "anomaly" - an "illegal adoption" because Steinberg never filed the paperwork. The implication was that this never could have happened had the adoption been legal. Yet Lisa's mother, Michelle Launders, just 19, had no way of knowing anything was wrong when she paid attorney Steinberg $500 to place her child. And there was nothing illegal about O'Callaghan's adoption of Hyun-su, nor any of the multitude of other adoption abuse cases, nor is there any way to prevent such a tragedy. Reputable, licensed adoption agencies have handed children over to pedophiles as in the case of Masha Allen and to a multitude of other abusers.

When Woody Allen married Soon-Yi Previn, we were told that first he was not her adoptive parent, and second, if he was, it's just adoption, not blood.

And yet to the siblings he was raising with Mia Farrow she was their sister. And we are told that adoption is the "same as if" the child was born into the family.

How can we not be family because of blood, but be family when it suits the argument?

Lost Daughters discusses those who question the rate of abuse in adoptive families compared to non-adopted and whether it matters. In my 1988 book I called for research into these very questions: Do more adopted children kill their adoptive parents than non-adopted? Is there a higher rate of sexual abuse - including between siblings - in adoptive homes because of the absence of the "incest taboo"? Parents who have abused and rehomed children have claimed lack of bonding. How much does lack of genetic attachment contribute to parents' difficulty in bonding with an adopted child?

In the nearly three decades since the release of The Dark Side of Adoption, nothing I suggested has been done and the number of adopted child victims of abuse of all kinds continues to climb. Adopted children are burnt, beaten, left outside in the cold barefoot and barely dressed, starved, caged, made to drink hot sauce, given ice cold showers, abandoned on airplanes back to Russia all alone, or rehomed as each year we "celebrate" adoption month and encourage more. The website Pound Puppy Legacy (PPL) documents reported cases of abuse in adoptive homes, categorizing them into physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and deprivation.

Yes, children are abused by their biological parents, and we try to catch it before it escalates and remove the children from harm's way. Does that excuse abuse at the hands of adopters? I think not.

My position has never wavered: Abuse of a child at the hands of an adopter is different and the difference matters. It matters because adoption is supposed to provide a child a "better" life, a better chance, a better opportunity. Adoption is supposed to be a safety net for children in need. Adoptive parents are assumed to be "highly motivated" - they didn't just "get pregnant" by accident. They sought out parenthood. They went to great lengths and jumped through many hoops and were allegedly carefully screened before being entrusted with another's child. Mothers are assured and trust that adopters are mature, stable, and more "deserving." If mothers didn't believe this, none would voluntarily sign away their rights.

Abuse by adoptive parents, ironically, does make adoption "the same as if" the child was born into their family. For those of us persuaded to sacrifice our children - and also for society - it is supposed to be "better," not the crap-shoot that it is.

Would it not make more sense to offer help to remediate problems in at-risk-families - here at home and overseas - rather than remove a child or children and leave the mother in the same situation, perhaps to bear more children into the same unresolved problems?

In the case of Hyunsu, many believe it is possible that he would be alive today if the wishes of his Korean foster mother had taken precedence over the agency making a larger fee by sending him overseas for adoption.Holt declined to comment on the matter.":

"Holt, one of the largest adoption agencies here, has also been under fire for sendingu overseas, even though it knew that his foster mom in Korea wanted to keep him.

"Holt simply ignored my request, saying it was illegal to adopt a foster child. But I later learned that was a lie," Hyunsu's foster mother said in a TV interview. Holt countered that she was not "willing" to adopt him and didn't go through the official procedures to adopt him."

How many more mothers will be told that adoption is a "loving choice" that will ensure their child a better life? How many more innocent children will die or survive unspeakable abuses while we sing adoption's praises and promote "permanency" with unrelated strangers instead of offering more assistance to help struggling families (including single parent families) remain intact? How many more such atrocities will be swept under the rug while we sing the praises of adoption and continue to promote more and more familial separations to meet a demand instead of working to preserve families?


[1, 2] Mothers who relinquished their parental rights voluntarily or had them terminated are known as birth, first or original mothers. (Biological or bio are offensive terms.) For those who live this experience it is a loss and thus we describe ourselves, and Origins described us, as "mothers who lost children to adoption."