Double standards of compassion

A short while ago there was a discussion on an international adoption list-serve I that I have been ruminating about ever since. The discussion began with these two horrific news stories of abuse committed by adoptive parents. An adoptive parent spoke up about the first case, in which the adoptive parent attempted to kill her two adopted Chinese daughters and then herself after what appears to be a long spiral into mental illness. I am especially sensitive to this story since I used to live quite near this family.

The adoptive parent on the list-serve in particular was disturbed that these two cases were posted in succession on the list-serve, as the adoptive parent believed that in the first case it was clear that the parent had been struggling with mental health issues, had reached out for support and never received the help she needed. In this parent's view, it was wrong to compare the first parent to the adoptive couple who sexually abused their adopted Chinese daughter. There was language about compassion for those who struggle with mental health problems. This led to a lengthy discussion about adoptive parents and mental health issues; the difficulties of a mental health system in this country that is inefficient and insufficient. The challenges of single parenthood. The difficulties of adopting an older child (one of the children had been an older child adoption). All of which I agree with.

Many adoptive parents described mental illnesses in great detail.  What struck me was that there was so much compassion for this struggling, single mother who, it is clear, was mentally ill and committed an act of abuse so horrific and terrible that I can't even fathom the trauma she imposed on her children. The discussion led to the difficulties adoptive parents have when they find themselves overwhelmed and without resources. What happens to an adoptive mother when she loses her job, finds herself financially devastated, begins to abuse alcohol, and spirals into the depths of mental illness?

Well, clearly, she deserves more compassion than birth parents who find themselves in the SAME situations yet do NOT attempt to kill their children.

At least, that was what I saw coming out of this discussion.

When I worked at the County, every single one of the youth on my caseload had a mother (most of them were single mothers) who battled substance abuse and the majority of them also had some mental illness. Yet, the majority of them did not abuse – sexually or physically – their children. The children came into the system because of neglect due to these substance abuse and mental health problems, but only two of the children on my caseloads initially came into the system because of sexual or physical abuse. In fact, of the children and youth, the ones who were sexually or physically abused were all abused AFTER they had been removed form their birth parents (and in fact, one sibling group came back into the system after it was found they were physically abused by their ADOPTIVE parent).

Lack of employment, the loss of a job, the stresses that go along with financial insecurity would naturally causes a lot of stress on a single parent. As would the struggle with mental illness. Using alcohol or other chemicals to cope is not uncommon. And yet, I just have to ask – if this woman had been Black, and had her children been her Black birth children, would they have been removed long before the mother decided to kill them and herself? Would child protection have stepped in when the mother was hospitalized for her mental health problems? Would the children have been returned to her so quickly after the hospitalization?

Not a single person on the list-serve mentioned the same or similar stressors that led to birth parents losing parental rights.

If this parent had been a single, Black, unemployed, mentally ill addict, would adoptive parents be rushing to ask for compassion?

Just wondering.

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7 thoughts on “Double standards of compassion

  1. Oh, is THAT a good question.
    Taking it out of the context of the particular people having the discussion, I can say without a doubt, having been privy to many AP discussions, in many different contexts, the answer is a big fat NO.

  2. “Well, clearly, she deserves more compassion than birth parents who find themselves in the SAME situations yet do NOT attempt to kill their children.”
    I wonder that too.
    In a completely ironic way, because society’s mindset is well-trained not feel too much compassion for the “birthmother.”

  3. Maybe it’s me but I don’t have much compassion for anyone who tries or does actually kill their children. All of this compassion comes out for the mother but what about the children? I felt the same thing when Andrea Yates killed her kids. My husband pronounced one of those children. I don’t care if she had postpartum depression, I don’t feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for the kids she drowned. I guess I have a cold black heart…or have seen one too many children suffer at the hands of their parents…biological, foster and adopted. It doesn’t matter to me

  4. For some unjustified reason, I think our society views adoptive parents as somehow better than/more qualified/ more stable (not sure what term to use) than other parents. Perhaps it is because of the homestudy process? People think we’ve already been checked out, and therefore we could be allowed to ‘slip through the cracks’, so to speak. Personally, I feel the homestudy process was woefully inadequate at uncovering any weaknesses my husband and I may have had in our life/ parenting skills. Our SW didn’t even interview our parents or siblings. All we needed were three friends to fill out nice questionnaires about us- and we got to choose the three friends! I am humbled at the gift we have been given in raising our sons. However, that gift does not deter me from the knowledge that it’s actually all about the money. Disappointingly so.

  5. Looking at this question the simplest way possible, the parents in question are obviously not going to have as much sympathy, because they find it easier to extend sympathy to people that are of a similar race and social class. And the international adoptive parents on the listserv I’m assuming are predominantly white and of a higher than average social class (non-white international adoptive parents tend to use separate specialized listservs… although it would be nice to get more specifics about the demographics of the listserv in question).
    So I don’t think those parents are any better or worse than any other group with strong ethnic ties that are always going to feel the urge to defend their own. They should feel obligated to be more reflective about that urge, though.
    I also don’t think adoptive parents have special moral responsibilities that biological parents don’t. The needs might be different but the responsibility to meet the needs should be the same.
    Adoptive or biological parent, abuse and neglect are equally bad… the difference is that with adoption the web of responsibility is more spread out. In a biological family you have parents, extended family, community, nation, and all have some degree of responsibility, primary or secondary. For an adoptive family you have to add many more actors… agencies and bureaus and social workers and so on, without which the family wouldn’t have been formed. When something goes horribly wrong in the adoptive family, it’s hard to see the many people that contributed to things going wrong, and easy to focus solely on the adoptive parent. Everyone else often gets off the hook. I don’t think the adoptive parents should have less responsibility, I just think the other actors should have more.
    For example, in the Roseville case, I wonder where the extended family was. A huge amount of potential tragedies are averted if a strong family member can just step up and say “The kids need to come live with me until you get yourself back together again”. I’m not automatically blaming them just raising a factor that often doesn’t get discussed.
    When it comes down to the individual level, though, stabbing your kids is just about as inexcusable as it gets, no matter what the factors were. Sometimes it’s hard to meet the needs of children without outside support, but NOT STABBING THEM is… well… not hard. Gah…

  6. I’m with Wendy. I feel no compassion towards anyone who hurts children for any reason. I realize mental illness can cause major problems but I can’t deal with stories about parents who hurt their kids. I don’t care how the family was formed, I am not defending that in any situation, and I don’t feel sorry for them.

  7. I’m a little lost in this post and not sure exactly what you are asking. I’m not completely clear on the connection to adoptive parents you are making here:
    This part, for example, is–at least to me–far broader than adoptive parents, really pointing to institutionalized racism that exerts its ugly reach into the child welfare system:
    “Lack of employment, the loss of a job, the stresses that go along with financial insecurity would naturally causes a lot of stress on a single parent. As would the struggle with mental illness. Using alcohol or other chemicals to cope is not uncommon. And yet, I just have to ask – if this woman had been Black, and had her children been her Black birth children, would they have been removed long before the mother decided to kill them and herself? Would child protection have stepped in when the mother was hospitalized for her mental health problems? Would the children have been returned to her so quickly after the hospitalization?”
    While, this thought seems to be directed much more pointedly toward adoptive parents, but I’m not sure why. Again, this seems like a question that’s about much broader issues of racism in our country:
    “If this parent had been a single, Black, unemployed, mentally ill addict, would adoptive parents be rushing to ask for compassion?”
    So, I’m scratching my head a bit. How do we get from larger questions of institutionalized racism and child welfare to adoptive parents’ alleged lack of compassion for birth parents?

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