Thursday, July 5, 2012
Abusive Adoptive Megafamilies and Child Hoarding: A HIGHLY Speculative Post
Periodically, newspaper reports emerge of adoptive “megafamilies” who neglect and abuse their children and who isolate themselves or move from location to location in order to avoid detection. One example is the Schmitz family, reported to authorities in Tennessee, who had 11 children, some with special needs; the parents had children “dig their own graves” for punishment, and took away needed spectacles and walkers as discipline of some special needs children. Another such family was the Gravelles of Ohio, also adoptive parents of 11 children, who used cages as disciplinary techniques. (The USA Today reporter Wendy Koch gave details of these cases at www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-01-18-swapping-children_x.htm and www.caica.org/NEWS%20Enclosed%20beds.htm.)
It seems unlikely that having a lot of adopted children is in itself the cause of the parental abuse and neglect, although these megafamilies are actually larger than most that research has investigated so far. It seems more likely that pre-existing characteristics of the adoptive parents led both to adopting many children and to abusive and neglectful treatment. If that’s the case, it would be very advantageous for adoption agencies to be aware of those characteristics.
But how to find out the characteristics? Most parents of large families, special needs or otherwise, adoptive or otherwise, do an adequate job of caring for their children. Although it happens too often that megafamilies are abusive, it’s nevertheless actually quite infrequent when you consider all such families. Here’s where the speculation comes in: what if we could find a similar kind of behavior that would be more frequent and easier to study?
It turns out that there is such a similar behavior, and I’d like to propose it as potentially comparable to megafamily child abuse, and as a possible window into that kind of abusive treatment. I refer to the behavior often called animal hoarding—possession of dozens, even hundreds, of cats and dogs, none of which are properly fed or cared for. These animal hoarding cases crop up often in the news, generally when revolted neighbors have demanded that the authorities at last do something about a house that turns out to have its floors six inches deep in garbage and animal feces. Animal rescue personnel carry out dead and dying animals, some of which have been partially eaten by others, and take away the living, often to be euthanized. The owner is heartbroken, denies that there was any problem, and just wants the pets back. The animals’ suffering, so obvious to anyone else, seems invisible to the animal hoarder.
Many people have a lot of pets, but until those pets are neglected, nobody would call them animal hoarders. When they become animal hoarders, however, it appears that elements of mental illness are as important as their love for their pets. Animal hoarders have been compared to people who hoard objects and go beyond a nice collection to the point where their homes and lives deteriorate because of their hoarding (see Frost, R.O., Patronek, G., & Rosenfield, E. . Comparison of object and animal hoarding. Depression and Anxiety, 28(10), 885-891). Hoarding disorder has actually been proposed as a syndrome to be included in DSM-5, and it has been discussed as related to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
One student of animal hoarding, Gary Patronek, has discussed ways in which animal hoarders might be grouped in terms of their behavior and motivations (Veterinary Medicine, 101(8), 520-530). It’s interesting to think how these categories might apply to abusive megafamilies (although it wasn’t clear to me exactly how the types were arrived at).
Patronek began with an “overwhelmed” group. These were people who did not seek out more animals and who were somewhat concerned about their pets’ conditions, but because of factors like their own age or illness the owners had become less and less capable of caring for the animals. This does not seem very parallel to megafamilies, who have generally made some effort to collect a large number of children, and who if abusive may need to work to avoid attracting attention to their homes. Patronek’s other two categories seem much more relevant to abusive megafamilies, though.
He identified one group of animal hoarders as “rescuers”. These people were afraid of death and so worried about euthanasia that their pets’ present suffering seemed irrelevant or invisible to them. They felt that only they could provide the needed care, and thus avoided authorities or prevented their access to the home. They worked with a “network of enablers” who protected each other and passed pets along. These animal hoarders felt they had a mission to save the animals, and that mission led them to a compulsive need to acquire and control pets.
The second group Patronek referred to as “exploiters”. These people denied any harm to the animals from the time they were acquired and were indifferent to suffering. Their interest was in achieving control, and the hoarded animals were tools for this purpose. They rejected authority, and behaved toward others in manipulative, exploitive, and charming ways. They felt no guilt about what they were doing and had little empathy for people or animals. (Remember, these are not people who have directly harmed the animals--- no torture or dog-fighting is involved.)
Although typologies always raise some questions, I find these categories of animal hoarders strikingly similar to the abusive parents of adoptive megafamilies like the Schmitz and Gravelle couples. The compulsive missions, the drive for control, the network of enablers-- some of these factors do seem to characterize such people.
Are abusive parents of adoptive megafamilies actually what we might call child hoarders? Do they play out their own anxieties by collecting and controlling children-- an easy thing to do when there is popular admiration and nostalgia for the “old-fashioned” big family? (And might it even be that abusive adoptive parents in general are following some version of this scenario?)
Once again, I am speculating freely here. However, I think it’s time we considered more of the background of abuse of adopted children. Yes, certainly, those abusive parents are bad guys-- but why? Is there anything about them that we might detect beforehand, so that we could screen them out of the adoption process? They don’t seem bad to other adults, or they would never have been able to adopt, so it’s background material that’s needed. We need to go much farther than blah-bah-blah, they were abused as children, blah-blah. And adoption agencies need to drop the assumption that if adults are “nice people” they will make good parents. Screening out potential “child hoarders” -- if there are such, and I can’t prove that there are--- may seem unfair to the adoption candidates-- but it would certainly be more than fair to the children.