Three Things I Learned About Adoptees That Surprised Me

Casey and DadBefore I get into this subject I want to acknowledge one writer who lamented my use of phrases like “adoptive” father and “adopted” child to describe myself and Casey, as opposed to simply “father” and “child.” She made a very good point. I use the “adoptive” qualifier here merely as a way to use key words and phrases to drive like minded folks to this blog. That’s all.

Never once did Erika, I or any of our family or friends ever refer to ourselves or Casey, or even think of ourselves, as anything other than a family like anyone else. As I’m sure any other adoptive parent would attest, it wasn’t a conscious effort to hide anything, but simply a matter of how we saw ourselves. There was never any second-guessing at any time over, “Gee, I wonder what it would’ve been like if we’d had a biological child.” Well, actually there was second-guessing. If we’d had a biological child, we never would have had Casey in our lives, a very chilling thought. She would’ve found another family – an American couple, or maybe British, French, German or Australian – for surely no one would’ve let this Polish beauty languish much longer in an orphanage.

But that’s speaking for us, not Casey. Being an adoptive parent is entirely different from being an adopted child. I always knew that Casey’s life experience had to be different from mine, so I never pretended to lump myself in the same boat with her. I just didn’t realize HOW different our respective boats were until after her death.

41492ZKA1YL._SY346_Nancy Newton Verrier, a prominent San Francisco Bay Area adoption therapist, adoptive mother and author of The Primal Wound, considered by many an adoption bible, provided astoundingly good – and painful – insight into the mind of an adoptee. Many of my thoughts come from her work and my interview with her.

So here are three things about adoptees that really surprised me.

imagesHuman babies (like Casey) are separated from their mothers at birth, yet puppies and kittens are allowed to bond with their mothers for several weeks before they’re allowed to be adopted from an animal shelter. In retrospect, this is so obvious, and yet it’s never discussed. Human babies are routinely separated from their mothers at birth, either heading to an adoptive family or an institution. How is it possible that we treat pets with more sensitivity than humans??


Being loved by your adoptive parents is nothing compared to being abandoned by your birth parents. This too makes sense in retrospect. It’s that primal bond or attachment broken at birth that is not easily substituted by a replacement parent, no matter how loving and attuned they may be to the child’s needs. This leads to my third thing.


It’s almost impossible for an adoptee to NOT think about their birth parents, at least on some level. I’ll explain by example. Despite our repeated prompts, Casey claimed never to have the slightest interest in knowing anything about her birth mother. Perhaps she thought of her as some kind of low-life loser. I’d heard this from other adoptees as well. We took Casey at her word. When I spoke to Dr. Ray Kinney, an adoptive father and therapist featured in the PBS series, This Emotional Life, about this, he asked, “Did you believe her?” It never occurred to me to even challenge her.


In his book, Being Adopted, Dr. David Brodzinsky writes at length about the adoptee’s thoughts about the birth parents. In short, it’s almost impossible to have gone through such a traumatic separation and NOT think about the key people who brought life to you yet couldn’t keep you. Why not? After all, even homeless people cling to their children. And what if (like Casey) the birth mother had other children? Even if Casey had a charmed life in California, wouldn’t she wonder why it was her that her mother in rural Giżycko parted with and not the others? What was wrong with her? And sadly, I think that had to feed into her self-loathing, even in a way that Casey couldn’t understand.


Unfortunately, for me this is now all speculation. 

Assessment! Assessment!

Write this on a blackboard 100 times.

Before I get into this subject, I need to acknowledge something personal. Today is May 3rd. My daughter Casey would’ve been 23 today. It’s one of the two toughest days of the year for me. I went to her memorial bench with her dog Igor to lay some tulips and a can of Diet Dr. Pepper, her favorite drink. Casey is the inspiration for this blog.


Now back to assessment, and remember I speak as a layperson. This is the starting point for proper care. You can’t address the problem until you know what the problem is, whether it’s attachment, abuse, drugs, bipolar or any of the other hosts of disorders. So many times they all look alike, and often times confused with “normal” behavior.

Not one of the professionals we talked to about Casey suggested any kind of psychological assessment. It had to be a behavioral thing dealt with by discipline.


Ray_Kinney_2The importance of assessment struck me when I interviewed Dr. Ray Kinney, a Director and Staff Psychologist of Cornerstone Counseling in Wisconsin. I stumbled upon him while watching a PBS series called This Emotional Life where he was featured working with a teenage boy adopted from Russia. I was so moved by the program that I reached out to him online and he actually called me! We had a great hour-long conversation.

I learned that he and his wife were both therapists and parents of two adopted Russian children. As they tried to unravel their children’s unusual behaviors as professionals, it became their life work – helping others. This was a common theme I picked up from many of my interviewees – they were almost all adoptive parents or adoptees.

Dr. Kinney had spent over thirty-five years in clinical practice working with a wide range of abused and deprived children in the protective service and foster care systems. His cases numbered in the hundreds. He spoke to me not only about the importance of an accurate assessment but the ability to diagnose children who’d lived in orphanages beyond just attachment issues, a crucial prerequisite to determining an appropriate intervention strategy.

In addition to the effects of institutional deprivation, he claimed that these children might have also suffered abuse, malnutrition or in utero exposure to alcohol or drugs, any of which could have a profound impact on their ability to attach and trust. But an accurate diagnosis was too often compromised by the lack of training among mental health professionals. To the untrained eye, all of these disorders could look the same, resulting in inappropriate treatment.

He said: “All these things come together when you hold in your professional mind that you’re sitting with a child who has loss, deprivations, possible abuse, malnutrition, possible in utero exposure to alcohol or drugs, and how does that affect the child’s ability to attach and trust these parents?”