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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 and

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. [2011]. 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.    


  1. Yeah, good luck with that.
    I completely agree with your main idea that there is a syndrome there to identify, but I'm feeling the need to grind my usual axe:
    Abuse is all to often indistinguishable from "normal" punishment. Because punishment generally is so nearly universally accepted, no-one calls the cops just because they hear kids crying and/or screaming. In extreme cases, because it's so normal to punish and physically control children, anyone can walk into a park, grab a kid and carry it away, screaming and crying, and no-one notices. When a certain amount of some negative behaviour is accepted, it becomes very problematic to sort out the stuff that goes too far.
    As for them looking normal, I've noticed many people seem nice and normal until you witness them around their kids. Then they suddenly appear somewhere between grumpy and psychotic.

  2. Isn't that axe sharp enough yet?

    I think you and I probably agree with Mammy Yokum, that good is better than evil, because it's nicer. But perhaps we don't agree about how many kinds of evil there are, or how many different ways they're caused.

    In the families I'm talking about, a lot of the abuse is not the kind that causes screaming. If you were a handicapped child and somebody took your walker away as punishment, would you scream? If someone told you to dig your own grave and that nobody would care when you were buried there, would you stand there screaming? I think not, and we can't explain the persistence of this kind of abuse by saying the neighbors are just too used to hearing kids screaming when coerced in some way. Nor do I think that we can consider own-grave-digging as just an exaggerated form of saying "I'll kill you if you get those shoes muddy!"

    There is something unusual about this group of people. They aren't just excessive punishers. I offered my thoughts about them out of concern for this specific problem, not because of child abuse and/or inappropriate punishment in general. Because these are adoptive parents, we should be able to keep them away from children to some extent by screening them when they are candidates for adoption-- if we could figure out how to identify them. I offered some possible ways to pursue the problem of identification.

    1. Fair enough. I think I never made it to the point I was working toward, that being that differentiating between those sorts of adults and the regular sort sounds far more difficult than differentiating those behaviours. Unless we think these people are full-blown psychopaths.
      Is there a test for hoarding?

    2. Yes, certainly it would be hard to differentiate them, before the fact. There are standards for what is pathological hoarding of objects, and people are just starting to try to apply those to animal hoarding. I'm way out on a theoretical limb in suggesting that there's child hoarding-- that's why I said the post was HIGHLY speculative.

  3. I wonder if states ever put limits put on the number of adopted/foster children in a single family.

    And when does a megafamily of adoptees/foster children become an institution, i.e. a business such as an orphanage?

  4. I think it would be hard to set limits with foster children, as in theory they move in and out of foster placements. It would be easier with adoption, unless the parents moved from state to state as the Schmitz couple did. Also, it would make a big difference to the acceptable size if the children were all very young, as opposed to if some were in their late teens-- a larger group might be all right if the ages varied, and if only a few had special needs.

    Family day care providers are not supposed to have too many little ones in a group, but often explain that they didn't know that. There's really no way that any of these things are carefully supervised.

    Because adoption is always framed as a personal relationship, and fostering usually is, I don't think there would be any point at which they would legally morph into businesses-- even though in actuality that's what some of them are. But if my hoarding hypothesis is right, a straightforward business relationship might be an excellent alternative to the big "family".

  5. This is a comparison I have been making for years, between animal hoarders and mega families of adopted special needs kids. I think there are many parallels and a similar pathology at work.

    When does a "family" become an unsupervised group home or institution? I am deeply suspicious of any family that keeps taking in more and more kids, but often agencies encourage this to unload the unwanted special needs foster children and up their numbers of adoptions out of foster care. I knew someone years ago who had one of these megafamilies, and agencies were always contacting her to "take one more" who had a handicap similar to a kid she already had. This woman was very religious and had many bio kids as well, but seemed unable to say no to just one more. I often wondered what really went on in that much praised family.

    Not all of these homes are abusive, of course, but at some point they really are no longer a family, but an institution, and once kids are adopted there is no supervision as there would be in a licensed group home. These people "own" the kids and can do whatever they can get away with to them. Homeschooling and isolation add further suspicion about the care these children receive and if anyone is looking out for their welfare.

    There is often a religious component to taking in large numbers of children; they feel that God is calling them to do this, but the brand of religion is extremely Fundamentalist and punitive. I am suspicious of huge bio families in today's world as well; even when there is not outright abuse the older children are often the main caregivers for the younger ones which does not make for much of a childhood.

    Society glorifies and sanctifies these megafamilies as being wonderful self-sacrificing rescuers, but sometimes they are just like the people who have too many ill, suffering pets in a filthy house that they hide from the outside world because in their minds they "love" animals, when in reality they are the cause of much animal suffering. Megafamilies and pet hoarders are both groups that need to be looked at more closely, and regulated, rather than praised.

    Thanks for writing about this subject, it is one that needs to be brought to light.

  6. I think your point about the bio families is very well taken-- but the challenge of dealing with that is so enormous. With the adoptive families, there's at least a chance that screening and suitable limits on adoption or fostering could help with the problem.

    As for the religious or other ideological component, I think we need to consider the adoption caseworkers' positions and background as well as the parents'. The Barahona grand jury statement addressed this. In addition, the Times this morning (7/8/12) described serious problems of child abuse on the Spirit Lake reservation in North Dakota, and pointed out that a caseworker hired by the tribal group had a conviction for felony child abuse before her hiring.

    While this stuff is personal and individual, it's also horribly systemic. Who will watch the watchmen? If we don't all care about it and do it, it won't get done.

  7. Oh yes, I agree there is little that can be done about giant bio families, unless abuse is seen, but there needs to be much more regulation of adoptive familes, including limits on how many children are placed in any family, and perhaps continuing outside supervision of special needs and large numbers that resemble group homes.

    I would like to see religious agencies eliminated, and strict guidelines applied by state agencies that have nothing to do with the religious affiliation of the parents and everything to do with the welfare of children.A non-sectarian agency could still have a policy of placing children within the religion the birthparents request without being compromised by the beliefs of fringe groups that condone things that border on child abuse.

  8. "When does a "family" become an unsupervised group home or institution? I am deeply suspicious of any family that keeps taking in more and more kids, but often agencies encourage this to unload the unwanted special needs foster children and up their numbers of adoptions out of foster care. I knew someone years ago who had one of these megafamilies, and agencies were always contacting her to "take one more" who had a handicap similar to a kid she already had. This woman was very religious and had many bio kids as well, but seemed unable to say no to just one more. I often wondered what really went on in that much praised families" agreed!

  9. The folks who adopt via ethically-challenged adoption "ministry" absolutely have child-hoarding tendencies!

    Exhibit A: Amanda and Brent Unroe, who have 22 (!) kids, 21 of whom are adopted and have high-needs, special needs -- and are unlikely to ever be able to live independently, eg severe CP, Down syndrome, etc. The kids were adopted from grim orphanages and mental hospitals in Ukraine and Bulgaria, as you can see from their blog:

    Exhibit B: Michelle Reed, who has 17 (!) kids, all but 2-3 were adopted with high needs special needs and are unlikely to ever live independently (FASD, autism, etc) and were also adopted from overseas:

    Exhibit C: Meredith Cornish, who has 10 mostly adopted from overseas with high needs SN kids.

    The saddest thing? Amanda and Michelle's kids probably got more individual attention when they lived in bad Ukrainian/Bulgarian institutions -- where caregiver to kid ratios are closer to 1:12 or 1:15 vs the 1:17 or 1:22 they've got in "forever families" where mom homeschools and dad works out if town during the week!

    1. It's obvious that no one can do a good job with such a large group, especially when some (or most) have serious special needs. Yet somehow these mega-families have a romantic appeal for the public, and those who create them are seen as saintly rather than narcissistic. Did this attitude get picked up from old TV shows,or what?!

    2. Susan is a troll. She goes by many different names. She attacks adoption blogs often by writing negative comments on them. She also follows newsgroups so she can keep on bashing various adoption agencies, families, and such.
      I have followed the Cornish, Unroe, and Reed families for many years. They don't seem to be abusive. I know that the Reed family does send some of their kids to school. The Unroes are very sweet people who have helped many other families bring orphans home (few are very large families).

    3. I don't know who's right about these cases, and I'm not sure how Anon could have followed three families for many years unless he or she is professionally involved with them. As a general rule, however, the outcomes of mega-families are problematic.

  10. This man also teacher of a mega family reported for abuse of a special ed student and his own child. On February 11, 2003, Mr. Unroe received a letter from Lloyd Evans citing certain charges against him and setting a date for a Board hearing on those charges (Id.). Also on February 11, 2003, Lloyd Evans contacted the Lawrence County, Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (hereinafter "LDJFS") and reported Mr. Unroe for child abuse (Id.). A representative of LDJFS, Karen Martin, reported that Lloyd Evans indicated that Mr. Unroe "grabbed ACV [i.e., alleged child victim] with both arms, carried him across the room, [and] slammed him into a chair" (Id.). Subsequent to Lloyd Evans' report, the LDJFS initiated an investigation into the allegations (Id.). David Carey (hereinafter "Carey") was assigned by LDJFS as the investigator (Id.).

    Lloyd Evans acknowledged in deposition testimony that he did not inform the Board of the ongoing investigation by the LDJFS nor did he delay the Board's own disciplinary hearing until after the LDFJS had concluded its investigation (Id.). Plaintiffs aver that Lloyd Evans made the call to LDJFS with full knowledge that Mr. Unroe could ultimately be charged criminally and lose custody of his children pursuant to any investigation conducted by LDJFS (Id.). Furthermore, Plaintiffs maintain that Lloyd Evans knew that a report of child abuse or neglect must be made in good faith (Id.). **AND THIS FAMILY HAS 22 CHILDREN.**** HE ABUSES HIS STUDENT AND IS ARREST AND HIS OWN CHILDREN.. YET THIS FAMILY IS SUPPOSE TO BE SWEET

    1. This is complicated and confusing. Maybe you could provide a link to the material you're quoting?

      There is obviously more than one problem here, but let me mention two things that this report makes me think of. The first is the tendency in the U.S. to believe that large families are by definition good, and that parents who have or adopt many children are thus demonstrated to be good people. I believe this belief has emerged from presentations by the entertainment industry-- people remember the Brady Bunch and "I Remember Mama" and their romantic views of large families --although, N.B., these were only moderately large and bear little resemblance to the 20+ children in current megafamilies.

      The other issue here which I think needs discussion is the practice of removing all children from a family when one has been ill-treated. It's well-known that one child in a group may be scapegoated, or as in this case a child outside the family may be treated abusively. This situation is harmful to the well-treated children too, but is it necessarily in their best interests to be removed from the family? It's my guess that this is in most cases done to punish the abusive parent, not out of concern for the children. I am thinking of a case in Texas some years ago where a child was being maltreated by her stepmother, who believed that the treatment she was using would cause the girl to become attached to her. The authorities appropriately removed the abused girl from the home, but they also took a well-cared-for nursing infant a year of age. The baby could have been left in the home and carefully monitored, if it were not for the understandable wish to punish the woman.