Not A Celebration

One adoptee’s story –

I was 1 year old, when my mother was convinced to give up her rights to parent me. I was 2 years old, when I was ripped away from my father who asked everyone for help, even social services. After that, I spent 3 years as a medically complex ADHD autistic child (without even a diagnosis of autism until I was 30!) I was bounced between 6 foster care homes before I was adopted at age 5.

I didn’t want to bang that gavel but the judge, the social worker and the woman who raised me – all made it seem like such a party, a good thing, a reward even.

Fast forward 25 years.

My dad’s parents passed in 2020 and 2021. My parents have been gone for over a decade. The woman who raised me passed in May of this year.

I have never EVER felt more unloved, unwanted, and alone.

I’m not included in anyone’s end of life plans, not provided for, not even mentioned.

Because of adoption, my own and my birth mom’s, I will never know her side of the family. I’ve tried everything, Ancestry, Genome Link, I’ve tried it all. Even asked for assistance from angels in the search groups. There’s nothing.

I have two children, who I cling to for dear life. But I have no family outside of them.

Adoption is trauma. Now with the overturning of Roe v Wade, there will be many more generations of adoptees with trauma to come, maybe for decades.

No Self To Begin With

It is a long story in The New Yorker – The Price of Admission, published on April 4 2022. It is a long, sad story of abuse and gaslighting, beginning in locations involving St Louis Missouri (our urban center). It is the story of a former foster care youth and the agendas of higher education. Mackenzie Fierceton has been a brilliant student, once accepted for a Rhodes Scholarship, and is a committed activist.

I encourage you to read the entire article as I did this morning. Necessarily, I am only pulling out a few concepts I jotted down related to Mackenzie’s situation.

If trauma creates a kind of narrative void, Mackenzie seemed to respond by leaning into a narrative that made her life feel more coherent, fitting into boxes that people want to reward. Perhaps her access to privilege helped her understand, in a way that other disadvantaged students might not, the ways that élite institutions valorize certain kinds of identities. There is currency to a story about a person who comes from nothing and thrives in a prestigious setting. These stories attract attention, in part because they offer comfort that, at least on occasion, such things happen.

“. . . Mackenzie is being faulted for not having suffered enough. She was a foster child, but not for long enough. She is poor, but she has not been poor for long enough. She was abused, but there is not enough blood.”
~ Anne Norton, Political Science Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has provided a home for Mackenzie

Regarding the question about being a first generation student at a university – Mackenzie had e-mailed the associate director of admissions and recruitment at Penn’s social-work school to ask how former foster youth should answer the question. “I personally believe the education level (or/and financial status) of the biological parents would be irrelevant,” the associate director responded. “The youth should select into the option that provides them access to the most funding—which would be to indicate that they are a first-generation college student.”

“When we allow stereotype to be our stand-in for disadvantaged groups, we are actually doing them a disservice. That’s what scares me about this case. It’s, like, ‘You’re not giving us the right sob story of what it means to be poor.’ The university is so focused on what box she checked, and not the conditions—her lack of access to the material, emotional, and social resources of a family—that made her identify with that box. Colleges are in such a rush to celebrate their ‘first Black,’ their ‘first First Gen’ for achievements, but do they actually care about the student? Or the propaganda campaign that they can put behind her story?”
~ Anthony Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies low-income and first-generation college students

“There have been moments of almost panic where I am just cognitively questioning myself, like, ‘Did I misremember something?’ It’s easy to slide back into that state, because I want anything other than the reality—that it is my bio family who has caused so much harm—so I will do backflips to try to make it not true.”
~ Mackenzie Fierceton

It is a very real case of gaslighting – “You start to think that maybe you had it wrong and that maybe it actually did happen the way that they say it did,” Mackenzie wrote. “And then you just throw away the real memory, the true one, and replace it with the one that they have fed you a million times, until that is the only thing you can remember.”

As an addendum, Penn did release her Master’s Degree. From The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Some Thoughts On Trauma

I came across a discussion about trauma yesterday. About a year ago, I had a 6 yr old molar tooth pulled. The dentist even gave me 6 mos to get used to the idea. 6 mos after that yanking out of my tooth, in a follow-up with my dentist, I admitted that it traumatized me. I quickly added that I knew he was a sensitive and caring person and that there was nothing he could have done to prevent my feeling traumatized. I said, since I have been learning about adoption related trauma as I have learned more about both of my parents as adoptees, I think I was just more aware of it.

I knew nothing about Doris Brothers at the time nor did I know about ACE scores. What I learned about her is that Doris Brothers urges a return to a trauma-centered psychoanalysis. Making use of relational systems theory, she shows that experiences of uncertainty are continually transformed by the regulatory processes of everyday life such as feeling, knowing, forming categories, making decisions, using language, creating narratives, sensing time, remembering, forgetting, and fantasizing. Insofar as trauma destroys the certainties that organize psychological life, it plunges our relational systems into chaos and sets the stage for the emergence of rigid, life-constricting relational patterns. These trauma-generated patterns, which often involve denial of sameness and difference, the creation of complexity-reducing dualities, and the transformation of certainty into certitude, figure prominently in virtually all of the complaints for which patients seek analytic treatment.

Below this is what I read yesterday, that struck me as relevant, though the discussion was not about adoption.

“Yesterday I read an interesting article by Doris Brothers about traumatic attachment, dissociation, and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Part of what she conveyed was the idea that in a traumatized system dissociation operates to reduce complexity, which serves a salutary function insofar as it functions to eliminate from consciousness that which interferes with the reestablishment of order and predictability in needed relationships.”

“Dissociation may be understood, in part, as a means of simplifying experience through a radical reduction of experiential complexity. . . . To experience such complexity might well heighten what is already a level of uncertainty about psychological survival that is close to unbearable. As complexity is dissociatively reduced, a traumatized person’s relational world comes to be ruled by simple, rigid SECs [systemically emergent certainties] [a concept similar to organizing principles] that are clung to with desperate ferocity.”

“In the absence of trauma, SECs are subject to change according to the shifting needs of the constituents of the systems in which they arise; they are, in other words, context sensitive. Trauma-generated SECs are strikingly different. Emerging within systems dominated by the desperate need to halt the spread of chaos and tormenting uncertainty, they tend to be impervious to the changing environment.”

Moreover, Brothers observes that “traumatic attachments tend to be rigid, constricted and highly resistant to change,” and that “the more trauma, the more risk of inflexibility.”

Brothers also observes that “attachment patterns that form in the context of unbearable experiences of existential uncertainty in one generation may influence the attachment patterns that emerge in the next,” and that “dualities and dichotomies” often characterize traumatized systems.

~ Doris Brothers Ph.D. (2014) Traumatic Attachments: Intergenerational Trauma, Dissociation, and the Analytic Relationship, International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, 9:1, 3-15.

From the person raising the discussion – “All of which got me to thinking about those who promote dichotomous ideologies and Manichean worldviews. Ordinarily, I pull no punches when thinking or talking about these people (especially when they are jockeying for political positions that could affect my life and the lives of people I care about). But if I withdraw for a moment from the impulse to ridicule, I reflect that these may be people whose lives, whose organizing principles, are the product of trauma, maybe even trauma that didn’t happen to them directly, but to their parents. Seen in this light, the impoverished either/or thinking, the insufferably reductive and punitive moralities take on a different hue, that of involuntary affliction, sequelae of a prior generation’s trauma, and those saddled with such worldviews suddenly appear more understandable and less blameworthy.”

Manichaeism was a major religion founded in the 3rd century AD by the Parthian prophet Mani, in the Sasanian Empire. Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Clearly, humanity has not progressed very much in reality.

Many adoptees tell stories of a variety of degrees of abuse. An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems.

To Stop Transgenerational Trauma?

Another adoptee shared – a former therapist of mine was adopted (her and a twin brother went to the same family in a domestic infant adoption). She’s also a pastor’s wife. She threw ALL my adoption trauma out the window and basically gave me both this same speech about me getting to skip generational trauma from my biological dad’s family and also that it was all God’s plan. I saw her twice and ghosted her. She also told me I didn’t have Bi-Polar Disorder after I was diagnosed in an actual hospital setting, and after only speaking to me twice for about 40 minutes each time. I swear Christian therapists are insane.

Another one admitted about the therapist that she just said the quiet part out loud inappropriately. The kids that are removed for abuse and similar are adopted out because they’re trying to save the kid and stop the cycle. Honestly a lot of kids DO end up better off, BUT of course there’s the trauma. I feel like an orphan no matter my adoptive or biological connections in adulthood. But that pain had me vowing to give my son a better life. And while I wouldn’t say I’ve succeeded at that (married an abuser, we also had to escape) the hope is because I’ve tried to stop and break the generational cycle that he’ll do better than I ever was or could be able to.

Another one said – Separation trauma from adoption IS generational. We can pass to our kids and screw them up and all they did was have a parent that got adopted. So adoption continues generational trauma. Tell that idiot therapist to research epigenetics and then find a new one.

I do believe it IS passed down. Both of my parents were adopted. Myself and my sisters certainly had issues within our own parenting that I do believe is directly related. Thankfully, our children do seem to be breaking those trauma cycles in their own lives.

No Point To What If’s

I heard a snippet of a story about two women, who as babies, were switched at birth. Martha Miller was asked – Does the thought ever cross your mind, what if the switch hadn’t been made? What if the McDonalds had just taken me home and I’d grown up in the house with my biological parents and my biological brother, who would I be?

She answered, Oh, that’s a funny question. I really only thought about that one time. I only let myself think about it one time. It was actually right after I met them. And I was going back to my mother’s house. So I left Prairie du Chien and I was driving. And it was then that I started thinking, oh, my gosh, my life would have been so different. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized, you know, I can’t think about this, because it’ll drive me crazy if I do. And so I kind of made a promise to myself that I would just never go down that road again, that I was just not going to go there. And I really haven’t, because there’s no point.

The little bit of the story “Switched at Birth” replayed for This American Life that I heard had me reflecting on it as the child of two adoptees. They were switched but they were taken from their original mothers, who’s wombs they developed in, and given to literally “strangers” to be raised as those people’s own children. Since learning about who my original grandparents were and something about their stories, I also realize that the what if’s – what if life had unfolded differently ? – are honestly pointless because it did not.

If the trauma of breaking the mother/child bond formed in utero is real, and I do believe it is real, then whether the parents know (in adoption, the adoptive parents know they did not give birth to that child) or don’t know (because the mother did give birth but brought the wrong baby home from the hospital with her) would not change the experience of trauma in the infant.

Regarding nurture, the child may have been treated differently from an adoptee growing up because that knowledge isn’t there in the parents raising the child. Does that make a difference ? I think it might.

Back in 1994, back in the day when people still delivered big news to each other by mail, two women who barely knew each other, Martha Miller and Susan McDonald, got a letter from Martha’s mom. “Dear Martha and Sue, have you ever suspected or been told that we took home the baby that belonged to Kay and Bob McDonald and they later took home the baby that belonged to us?” It was 43 years after “the fact.”

Mrs Miller actually knew this, the day she got home from the hospital in 1951 – that she had the wrong baby, a baby born to a woman named Kay McDonald. But she kept it quiet all those years. She had noticed that when she weighed the baby, the weight was two and 1/2 pounds less than at birth. But then, she hemorrhaged and went into convulsions, landing her back to the hospital for several days. At that point, she simply dropped the “mixed-up baby” issue.

One thing that makes this whole switched thing even stranger is – the two couples knew each other. The Millers were at the McDonalds’ 50th anniversary party. They have mutual acquaintances. They lived a short drive from each other’s houses in Wauzeka and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

Martha did not look nor act like any of the other Miller children. She was a delight, so pretty, so photogenic, so full of life. The other Miller children were very serious. Martha excelled in music, was a great cheerleader at school, very popular, and a blonde. The other Miller children had dark hair and all needed glasses for nearsightedness. Martha did not need glasses.

All the kinds of differences adoptees growing up with other children who are biological to the adoptive parents are very familiar with – the feeling of not really belonging in the family you are growing up in. In fact, Martha’s mother actually told her later, “I really didn’t expect that much from you, because I knew that you weren’t our child.” For Martha, that was a hard thing to hear.

The older girls, who Martha was raised with as sisters, had “sort of” always known about the possibility that “Marti” wasn’t their biological sister. They had vague memories of their parents talking about it, after they brought Martha home from the hospital, about how this baby looked different from Mrs Miller’s other babies, and that maybe this baby had been switched.

Mrs Miller ended her revelatory letter with this – So now we are both aware of what happened 43 years ago. We love you, Martha Jane– I’m sorry. We love you, Martha Jane, as dearly as our other six children. I think you know that you will always be our daughter. But I thought each of you should know your biological and spiritual backgrounds. And know you have mixed feelings about this revelation. I have much anguish and many tears.

Learning truth like this, as a grown up with children of your own, it is disruptive. That is the kind of news nobody ever wants to hear. And when you get this kind of news as an adult, that your mom isn’t really your mom or your daughter isn’t really your daughter, and at the same time, you have a new mom or a new daughter, it is not so clear what you’re supposed to do with this new parent or new child who’s now in your life. What are you supposed to be with each other?

Sue McDonald was different from the rest of the family in certain ways. She was dark and tall and skinny in a family that was none of those. In a pretty lighthearted household, she was nervous, studious, serious. But that didn’t seem so strange. Even so, when Sue was in junior high, a friend said to her, “you must be adopted, because you do not look at all like your parents.” Sue answered, “I don’t know.” So she asked her mother, “Am I adopted?” And her mother said, “Oh, no, no. I definitely was pregnant and you are my child. I wanted a baby and you’re my baby. You were not adopted.” As to the physical differences, her mom just said – you just take after great-grandpa this or aunt so-and-so.

Now that they know, one of the toughest things both Marti and Sue have to deal with is logistical. Having two sets of parents and two full sets of siblings and cousins is kind of a practical headache. For myself as well. Now that I know my “real” cousins, I still have the adoptive ones and aunts and an uncle from my parents’ adoptions that have been there throughout my life to show concern about.

There is a LOT more to this story, so if you find it interesting, do read the transcript – Switched at Birth.

Your Trauma Is Not Mine

Came across this interesting discussion between two adoptees –

I am having to confront my own biological son about this very thing – how people dismiss your adoptee voice by telling you – you need healing. It is almost useless because he does not understand being adopted or that he is the first person in my life I am biologically related to. He keeps telling me to lose my EGO, when he has no idea I barely have one….He is on some spiritual trip about losing one’s EGO, which I was on in my 20’s and 30’s as I searched for my own biological mom at a time when adoption records were closed. I was on the street and reading and exploring every religion I could find to help me find her. I was channeling her through my art without knowing it and after finding her had a telepathic connection with her. I am, for once, fighting back at his total ignorance but worry I may lose him because he does not want to understand my traumas. He thinks his are worse than mine and that is just not true. I never thought this would happen to me. How in the world can he give me a choice like change or he will abandon me. I don’t get it…..

Here was the response from another adoptee –

I am sorry you are in strife with your son. The only thought I have around that is this….as his parent he has no obligation to understand your traumas, nor would he have the context to understand them. I would go a little more grey rock with him and try to take the emotionality out of it. Sometimes we just have to be a container for our kid’s emotions, even when they don’t feel good or seem to be directed at us. I try to look at it his way…when I was in my teens and 20s and had literally no idea what was up and what was down….what do I wish my parents had done for me? My adoptive mom got into push and pull with me and it was no good at all. My kids are all teens now and I need people that aren’t ME and therefore not in the experiencing of the thing to remind me ALL THE TIME about this. So I hope my unsolicited advice doesn’t offend ❤️. Just speaking from one adoptee mom to another. 

Trauma and Behavioral Responses

Psychophysiological reactions to traumatic stress have been known to occur since ancient times. Traumatized people may 1) re-experience the event through obsessive recollections, flashbacks, or nightmares; 2) exhibit avoidant reactions; and/or 3) be easily hyper-aroused and vigilant.

Children whose families and homes do not provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection may develop ways of coping that allow them to survive and function day to day. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to the moods of others, always watching to figure out what the adults around them are feeling and how they will behave. They may withhold their own emotions from others, never letting them see when they are afraid, sad, or angry. These kinds of learned adaptations make sense when physical and/or emotional threats are ever-present. As a child grows up and encounters situations and relationships that are safe, these adaptations are no longer helpful, and may in fact be counterproductive and interfere with the capacity to live, love, and be loved.

The importance of a child’s close relationship with a caregiver cannot be overestimated. Through relationships with important attachment figures, children learn to trust others, regulate their emotions, and interact with the world; they develop a sense of the world as safe or unsafe, and come to understand their own value as individuals. When those relationships are unstable or unpredictable, children learn that they cannot rely on others to help them. Children who do not have healthy attachments may have trouble controlling and expressing emotions, and may react violently or inappropriately to situations.

Children who have experienced complex trauma often internalize and/or externalize stress reactions. Their emotional responses may be unpredictable or explosive and they may react to a reminder of a traumatic event with anger. This person may have difficulty calming down when upset. Since the traumas are often of an interpersonal nature, even mildly stressful interactions with others may serve as trauma reminders and trigger intense emotional reactions. Defensive postures are protective when an individual is under attack but become problematic in situations that do not warrant such intense reactions. Adaptive responses exhibited when faced with a perceived threat may be out of proportion compared to most people’s reaction to a normal stress. These reactions are often perceived by others as overreacting or as unresponsive or detached. Often both kinds of responses can be seen in an individual who has been traumatized as a child.

After becoming highly involved in adoption communities, I have learned a lot more about the effects of adoption trauma that both of my parents may have experienced. Trauma is a constant theme in adoption related communities. The first trauma is separation from the mother who’s womb the baby grew in. When an infant is still preverbal, the body remembers what the brain did not have language to interpret. For adoptees placed with abusive adoptive parents the trauma multiplies. This happens more often than most people might believe, due to the parents’ own unresolved feelings related to infertility and their knowledge that this child is not the one who would have been in their life with their own genetics – but for.

Within the community, it is frequently suggested how necessary it is to find a trauma-informed therapist because a therapist without this specialized perspective could do more harm than good.

Many people continue to reflect on the slap known around the world. Having an understanding of the behavioral effects of trauma, really put “the slap known around the world” event into perspective for me.

In his autobiographical book, “Will,” Smith recounts that as a child he witnessed domestic violence in his home. “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”

“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”

Seeing the look on his wife Jada’s face, after she was targeted for having a shaved head due to suffering the disease of Alopecia by the comedian Chris Rock, it is quite likely Smith re-experienced that memory in the context of current events. In effect, however wrong, he could make up for his childhood inability to protect the woman he loved. His reaction that night had more to do with that 9 year old traumatized little boy, than the man he had become since then. That man unfortunately is now subject to public reinterpretation. I admit to being a fan of Will Smith movies in general and have loved his easy going personality in most of these.

All this to highlight the extreme importance of understanding the impact of an experienced trauma and the need to seek help in the form of trauma-informed therapy. Domestic violence is a devastating problem that affects individuals all over the world. I recently saw a video of Smith listening to his wife honestly describe her extra-marital affairs. His ability to listen and to take that knowledge in impassively, may have also been a trauma induced behavior from his childhood. The fear of losing the love of a manipulative person and at the same time needing the love of that person perhaps triggered the response the world witnessed.

Forcibly Removed

It’s hard to know what to say about the most recent news coming out of Ukraine. The Russian occupiers in the eastern part of the country appear to be moving people from there into Russia. The latest was that 2,389 children have been illegally removed from Donetsk and Luhanks oblasts to Russia. This follows news from yesterday of several thousand Mariupol residents having been deported to Russia.

It has been reported that after processing at “filtration camps”, some had been transported to the Russian city of Taganrog, about 60 miles (100km) from Mariupol, and from there sent by rail “to various economically depressed cities in Russia.” Ukraine’s human rights spokesperson, Lyudmyla Denisova, said Ukrainian citizens had been “issued papers that require them to be in a certain city. They have no right to leave it for at least two years with the obligation to work at the specified place of work. The fate of others remains unknown.”

Russian news agencies have reported that hundreds of people, that Moscow calls refugees, have been taken by bus from Mariupol to Russia. Denisova said the “abductions and forced displacements” violated the Geneva and European human rights conventions and called on the international community to “respond … and increase sanctions against the terrorist state of the Russian Federation”.

In a time of war, it is difficult to know what is true or not. I am reminded of how German Nazi’s removed Jews to concentration camps during WWII. Whether fate will be kinder to these people remains to be seen. I can only imagine what a difficult trade-off it is between constant bombardments, hiding in shelters without food, water and heat, and the relative “safety” of being removed as the onslaught continues.

Regardless, the developments cause a deep concern in my own heart.

Choosing To Take That Risk

An adoptee offers a word of warning – to any hopeful adoptive parent who now wants to adopt, even though they already have biological kids:

Biological and adopted kids *should not be mixed*. Period.

Even if *you* believe you can treat your biological and adopted child equally (which is pretty fu****g rare), you cannot control how your biological child will treat their adopted sibling.

As somebody who has been treated absolutely *horrifically* by my adoptive mom’s biological kids, this has actually been the worst trauma of all, when it comes to my adoption.

And if you’re about to say “that isn’t always the case,” just stop for a second and consider these 2 things:

1. I don’t need to hear your “not all” bs, when I’m discussing the outright abuse I have experienced at the hands of my siblings, acquired by having been adopted.

2. If there is even a *miniscule* chance that your adopted child could experience what I have, and you wanna go through with it anyways, then you are selfish and careless. Imagine knowing that there is a possibility that your biological child may abuse or mistreat your adopted child, and you still chose to take that risk with a child’s life ?

And just today, I learned this statistic – even among biological siblings, sibling abuse is 5 times more common than spousal or parental abuse – it is actually the most common form of domestic abuse. And yet, adoptees also have an added layer of mental/emotional trauma due to having been relinquished by their original parents. The obvious difference between having been actually born to and having been brought into a family from different parents and circumstances is real and should not be dismissed.

One of those biological kids admits – Even though I love love love my adopted siblings and dote on them as much as possible, it does not erase the resentment. I resent them for “taking” my parents away and they resent us for being born to the family. They will NEVER know I resent them and even my parents don’t, but mixing adopted kids with biological kids is brutal on both sides. Then, goes on to give some additional context – 1) my siblings are far too young to have any idea & 2) I don’t feel upset that I’m not adopted. I do have a completely normal jealousy, at times, that they take attention away from me, since they’re the center of attention for the whole family. And I recognize that there will be obvious friction between me and the younger siblings, though it is not there at this present moment. In the future? Absolutely. And tries to clarify this – the resentment is towards my parents, the jealousy is towards my adopted siblings. Very different feelings. I never said the suffering on both sides was equal. Mine is typical sibling jealousy. My adopted siblings have a deep rooted trauma and a robbing of their history. I am working through it. I was already 19, when my younger adopted siblings moved in. My work is understanding that my parents don’t love/care about them more. They are simply young and traumatized. They require more care than I do. I am learning to understand the truth that I don’t need my parents as much as I often feel I do. I have an anxious attachment style with rejection sensitivity, a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life, so I am learning how that affects the way I feel about my parents.

So, the honest truth is – a HUGE percentage of adoptive parents WILL show favoritism towards their biological child, over their adopted child, whether they mean to or not. And the extended family treats them differently as well.

This, from experience – I would go as far to say, even if the adoptive parents have grown biological children. I freely tell people that I was adopted from foster care. I don’t normally share that when my adoptive parents died, their will left me in the custody of their eldest son and his family. Truth is, none of their three adult children ever agreed their parents should adopt me. When they died, I was kicked out of their son’s house and was told “nice to know you, you’re on your own now.” Adoption has so many layers that no one thinks about. And every time a hopeful adoptive parent or adoptee still in “the fog” (believing in the feel good narratives about adoption) counters a trauma or negative experience with their own beliefs, it not only insults and minimizes the pain they are responding to, but also minimizes the INFINITE number of situations they couldn’t possibly know about. Please stop pushing back against people with the lived experience who are trying to prevent even more trauma, by sharing your own limited experiences.

Losing Mom to Domestic Femicide

Not my usual adoption related story but adoption does come in at the end. Definitely a “Missing Mom” story. It isn’t a blog I really feel good about writing and yet, I believe this cautionary tale is important. Andy Borowitz, who generally writes satire, brought my attention to this story his wife has been investigating – The Murderer’s Little Boy by Olivia Gentile. <– You can read the sad details at this link. As a woman (as I am sure is not unusual for many women), I have been afraid at times due to some response by my romantic partner or spouse (I’ve been married more than once). It is a dangerous world and very dangerous for women, who have been described as the “weaker” sex and not without reason. I grew up in Texas and I apologize for feeling at this point like I have to say – “because Texas”. The state seems to me today to hate women in general – to be very misogynistic.

Losing a mother to domestic femicide is “the most horrific trauma that children can experience,” said Peter Jaffe, the child psychologist. Afterward, they are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, dissociation, attachment difficulties, behavioral problems, and many other issues. To heal, Jaffe said, they need a caregiver who engages with them appropriately and truthfully about the murder, helps them mourn and honor their mother, and enrolls them in long-term trauma therapy. 

This is very much like the trauma and behavioral impacts that a lot of adoptees suffer from.

Far more children whose fathers kill their mothers are placed with maternal than with paternal kin, research suggests, though exact numbers aren’t known. No laws specify which side of the family is preferable, but in all custody cases, judges are supposed to address the child’s “best interest.” Paternal relatives must be carefully screened, Jaffe said. Since abuse is often intergenerational, the family’s entire history should be reviewed. Furthermore, anyone who enabled the killer’s abuse, remains aligned with him, intends to keep him in the child’s life, or “tries to wipe out the maternal family in the same way the perpetrator wiped out the mother” is presumptively unfit.

His maternal grandmother was forced to file a lawsuit to get visitation rights from the paternal side. Filed on March 15, 2017, she argued that as R.’s grandmother, she had standing to seek custody because the child’s present circumstances could “significantly impair” his emotional development. Her suit failed but she appealed.

Finally, in April 2018, 15 months after she last saw R., a panel from the First Court of Appeals convened a hearing on the maternal grandmother’s pleas. In their questions, the three judges seemed to convey concern for the boy’s welfare. Wasn’t it potentially harmful for R. to be raised by a man whose son had confessed to killing his mother? Wasn’t it worrisome that his father could see R. whenever the grandfather allowed him to? 

The judges ordered the parties into mediation, specifying that the mediator be from Houston, not Galveston County where the paternal kin were prominent. The resulting agreement, signed in July 2018, affirmed the maternal grandmother’s standing to pursue custody and gave her two mornings a month with R. as the case continued. Yet the deal stipulated that the visits be supervised by the paternal grandfather or by someone he chose, and it barred the grandmother from discussing R.’s mother or half-brother with him or showing him their pictures. 

Fearing an acquittal due to complicating circumstances, prosecutors made a deal with the murderer. At trial, he would have faced up to 99 years in prison for murder. Under his plea agreement, signed on November 25, 2019, he received 30 years for murder and 20 for tampering, with the sentences running concurrently. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2033.

The custody trial was scheduled for April 2020. But in a new twist to this story, in March, the paternal grandfather obtained another delay: he wanted to adopt R. and had obtained his murderer son’s willingness to cede his own parental rights. The maternal grandmother asked the court to stop the adoption. Her luck now was that there is a new Judge Kerri Foley. She appointed an attorney, Genevieve McGarvey, as a neutral assistant in the adoption case. Later, Foley added McGarvey to the custody case, too. For the first time in four years, an official was tasked with helping the court advance R.’s best interest. 

At a hearing in September 2020, McGarvey testified that R. wasn’t in trauma therapy and needed it “desperately.” She added, “[H]e’s got to talk about his mother more.” And he appeared to miss his half-brother profoundly. “The first thing he ever says when I see him is, ‘How’s J.?’ ‘Do you know J.?’”

Foley halted the adoption case until after the custody trial. But the trial has been repeatedly delayed and won’t happen until this summer at the earliest. Tired of waiting, his maternal grandmother filed a motion on February 2 demanding temporary joint custody in the meantime. A hearing is scheduled for March 21.

Judge Foley recently granted the grandmother longer visits with R., and she’s now allowed to bring his half-brother. But she wants the standard access granted to Texans who don’t reside with their kids: two to three weekends per month, alternating holidays and school breaks, and 30 days in summer.

Understandably the grandmother wants to protect R. She wants to get him into trauma therapy, and she wants to participate in decisions about his medical care and education. Recently, he has bounced from school to school and struggled. She wants to talk freely with him about his mother, whom he remembers and misses. And she wants to terminate his father’s rights and bar him from contacting R.—either from prison or upon his release. 

Even if the grandmother prevails at trial, her struggle won’t be over, since joint custody could be meaningless if the paternal grandfather’s adoption goes through. The grandmother is determined to continue to fight for her grandson.  “R. has never wavered in his desire to see us or just surrendered to the horror of circumstances,” she said. If he won’t give up, how could she? 

Some organizations with links also mentioned in the article –

National Safe Parents Coalition who advocates for evidence-based policies which put child safety and risks at the forefront of child custody decisions.

Kayden’s Law – requires an evidentiary hearing during child custody proceedings to vet allegations—new or old—of abuse. Though ACLU opposed it but it has now been included in the Federal Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act which President Joe Biden signed on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Respond Against Violence providing “The Strangulation Supplement,” a tool for first responders and investigators to better guide them in investigations and to help capture cases involving strangulation that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. These tools are available upon request to law enforcement, forensic nurses, and EMS, as well as tools for pediatric cases and bathtub fatality cases.