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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Adoption, Trust, Complacency, and the Barahona Case

While most of the nation was intensely involved with the trial of Casey Anthony in Florida, another case in the same state got much less attention in spite of its seriously disturbing nature. In that case, a grand jury investigated the death of Nubia Barahona and the serious injury of her twin, Victor, apparently at the hands of their adoptive parents, Carmen and Jorge Barahona. The death and injury followed a series of reports of child abuse, including complaints from Nubia’s teachers that she seemed to be very hungry and that she was nervous and afraid to go home. Other complaints stated that the twins were bound with duct tape, locked in the bathroom, left to sleep in the bathtub, and fed on bread and milk once a day. The Barahonas took the children out of school and said they were homeschooling them. Following the pattern of the all-too-familiar-story, caseworkers had not succeeded in seeing the children, but had accepted Carmen Barahona’s statement that they were fine. Then, on Feb. 14, 2011, Nubia was discovered dead and rolled up in a carpet in Mr. Barahona’s truck; her brother was there too, badly hurt.

The Miami-Dade County grand jury that indicted Carmen and Jorge Barahona filed a final report that is of great interest (http://media.miamiherald.com/smedia/2011/07/25/14/27/1aTHrq.So.56.pdf). In this report, while acknowledging all the many problems of caseworkers, including poor training and heavy caseloads, the jury members emphasized a problem that is prevalent but rarely mentioned. They referred to it as a bias of trust and complacency.

The bias of trust stressed by the grand jury report is the assumption on the part of the social work profession that adoptive parents are by definition good people, and that they cannot be the source of harm to the children in their care. Without wishing to accuse an entire professional group, I must agree strongly that this belief characterizes many adoption caseworkers and the staffs of adoption agencies. All adoptive homes are described as loving and nurturing, as if adoption were synonymous with excellent child-rearing. Adoption-oriented web sites describe adoptive parents as “awesome moms”. When adoptive families are functioning poorly, there is haste to say that someone, somewhere, did not tell the truth about the children, who are considered the causes of any trouble. These common beliefs may be the basis for the caseworkers’ bias of trust in adoptive parents which the grand jury report points to so explicitly.

Come, let us reason together about this. Why should adoptive parents be uniformly “awesome”, wholly loving and nurturing, and worthy of the unquestioning trust of society, when birth parents as a group do not meet these standards? Some would assume that adoptive parents must be excellent because they must have wanted the children; these people attribute child abuse to being saddled with unwanted offspring and resenting them. But, in fact, birth parents too may abuse children whom they wanted and even planned. (Shockingly, the grand jury report suggested that the investigation of the Barahona case would have been more careful if the children had been with their birth parents.)

Others who think adoptive parents are always good rely on screening and evaluation of adoptive parents to mean that only those who can do a good job are allowed to adopt. It’s true that screening makes it much less likely that people who are physically ill will be allowed to adopt, or that those living in poverty or substandard housing will become adoptive parents. Those with florid mental illnesses are also likely to be screened out. But in actuality there is no screening that will allow us to know exactly how a person will behave toward a particular child, and that is why post-adoption monitoring by an independent observer should be an essential part of the adoption process.

It would be a grave mistake to attribute cruelty and abuse to all adoptive parents, most of whom manage their families’ relationships in such a way that their children grow up as healthy, competent, successful contributors to society. It is an equally grave mistake, however, to assume that adoptive parents must not be the cause of evident problems in their children-- problems as serious as constant hunger, bruising, and fearfulness of going home. Adoptive parents are human beings; human beings can do wrong. If we are to do right by vulnerable children, we cannot let this be forgotten.

Is it too difficult for caseworkers who have known adoptive and foster parents for years, who may have been involved in the placement of children with them, to approach these families without bias? Is it too important to some caseworkers to be the friends of adoptive parents and to feel their approval? We can hardly blame the caseworkers if these things are true. Human beings trust people they have known for a long time, and human beings don’t enjoy being disliked by the people they work with. So, can we trust caseworkers to avoid that “bias of trust” when they have been involved with screening parents or placing children? It may well be that we cannot, and that the solution is to change the system so that strangers do the monitoring.

The Miami-Dade County grand jury report is a remarkable document. I congratulate the grand jury members for their ability to cut through the bureaucracy and to suppress temporarily the distress they must have experienced at the details of the Barahona story. By homing in on the trust issue, they have pointed out an essential flaw in our efforts to prevent abuse of adopted children in the United States. I would hope that this report will become required reading for all social work students and social services staff.

9 comments:

  1. This is a great post. I hope you don"t mind my linking and passing it on.

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  2. Far from minding, I'm flattered!

    I feel as if this awful case and the conclusions to be drawn from it were eclipsed by the great media hunt for Casey Anthony.

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  3. Great post Jean. Thanks to Sunday for bring attention to it. I will be sharing also. I believe objective monitoring is so essential.

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  4. Fantastic post....eye -opening and necessary to bring to light. As a former social worker in school and adoption, I agree....it can't hurt to make this issue much more open in assessing situations professionally. I wish this had been a topic focused on in grad school for my SW degree. Thank you for sharing this perspective!

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  5. Thanks, Fiddlehead-- how about helping to bring this to the attention of NASW? If you're no longer active in SW, maybe you have friends who are current NASW members?

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  6. I will share it with the Florida NASW. Not yet a member, but an MSW student.

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  7. I have seen a number of reports by groups investigating the lack of appropriate follow through by CPS after the death of a child. This is the first case that I can recall that didn't mainly recommend throwing money after the problem.

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  8. Great post and wise assessment of the unrealistic view of adoption and adoptive parents that leaves some children in danger.
    Adoptive parents, like natural parents, want children for both good and bad reasons, and are as prone to emotional illness, substance abuse, and other problems as the rest of humanity. They do not get a free pass for altruism because their motives are not purely altruistic, and may be very twisted.

    Of course most adoptive parents like most natural parents are good people and do a decent job of raising their kids. But it should never be assumed that they are "awesome" or saintly or perfect or even adequate just because they adopted, and allegations of abuse in adoptive homes should be taken as seriously and investigated as impartially as any other abuse cases, with the well being of the children always being the first priority.

    My opinion is that social workers should be especially wary of child hoarders who take in large numbers of special needs kids, or others who get a free pass on scrutiny because they are willing to take kids nobody else wants. Agencies are greatly at fault in this area, so eager to unload their "bargain basement" kids that they do not look too closely at those willing to take them.

    A lot of the worst abuse involves internationally adopted children from Eastern Europe, and domestically adopted "hard to place" children with special needs. Many of them also seem to have some fanatical religious beliefs going on as well. Some children would be better off and safer in group homes where there is professional supervision than adopted by someone/anyone who will take them, or in the case of international adoption, can pay for them.

    This is an area of abuse that needs to be looked at and adoption fairytales thrown out. Thanks for highlighting this sad case.

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  9. I like this article, and your article writing style is great. thanks for it.

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