Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are Adopted Children at Risk for Abuse?

Evidence indicates that adoption protects rather than endangers children.

Another week, another mass shooting in America—or at least that’s how it might seem. But an important detail about a shooting on February 25, 2016, in Washington State makes it stand out from run-of-the-mill crimes: Two of the victims were teenage boys whose mother, also a victim of the shooting, had adopted them from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Thus, a domestic crime that may seem sadly routine—an enraged man with a criminal record shoots his wife and stepchildren—can take on international implications even as its headline fades into obscurity in America.

Incidents like this shooting reinforce anti-American stereotypes and can undermine the rationale for international adoption, with the end result of limiting children’s chances to escape damaging institutions.

In its child welfare policies and politics, Kazakhstan follows the pattern of other former Soviet countries, most notably Russia. Kazakhstan and Russia both maintain large orphanage systems that are ill-suited for raising children, while at the same time resisting efforts to send children abroad for adoption.

Kazakhstan halted adoption by Americans in 2010, purportedly in order to enact new adoption legislation. Kazakhstani officials, echoing their counterparts in Russia, have questioned whether children from Kazakhstan can be safely raised in America.

In Russia, the rhetoric against American adoption reached a fever pitch in recent years, as politicians questioned, “Why should we send our children to a certain death in America?” and banned American adoption of Russian-born children in 2012. The stated reason for Russia’s adoption ban was the alleged murder of a toddler adopted from Russia, but most observers agree that the ban was politically motivated.

Meanwhile, throughout Russia, Kazakhstan, and other parts of the former Soviet world, hundreds of thousands of children without parents to care for them remain trapped in institutions that have been condemned by Human Rights Watch for their damaging effects on children’s minds and bodies.

Low risk of violence in adopted homes

Rebecca Compton
Scene from an orphanage in Kazakhstan.
Source: Rebecca Compton

Are internationally adopted children at risk of violence in their adopted homes? Data overwhelmingly contradict the accusation that American adoptive parents are likely to abuse their children. According to the Christian Science Monitor, out of approximately 60,000 adoptions from Russia to the U.S. over a period of about 20 years, there have been 19 confirmed cases of death due to abuse or neglect. While clearly, any child’s death is terrible, especially when due to abuse, these statistics indicate a death-by-abuse rate of 0.03% among Russian children adopted by Americans. Meanwhile, the same source reports 1,220 deaths due to abuse among the 170,000 adoptions of Russian children by Russian parents, a rate of 0.72%. According to these statistics, although abuse rates are low for both groups, an adopted Russian child is almost 25 times more likely to die at the hands of an adoptive Russian family than an adoptive American family.

Adoptive parents are less likely to mistreat children

A study in the Netherlands found that adoptive parents are actually less likely to mistreat children than other kinds of parents. The researchers examined records from Dutch child protective services documenting all cases of certified child maltreatment each year. The researchers compared the rates of abuse for different family types to the prevalence of those family types in the general Dutch population. Results showed that while stepparent families were over-represented among the child-maltreatment cases, adoptive families were significantly under-represented. (The Washington State crime fits this pattern, as the teenage victims were shot not by their adoptive father, but by their stepfather, who married their adoptive mother years after the adoption.)

The risk for maltreatment among adoptive families was eight times lower than would be expected based on the frequency of adoptive families in the general population. Notably, adoptive parents typically must pass numerous background checks, including child-abuse clearances, before being approved to adopt. No other parents are vetted by such rigorous screening.

A balanced consideration of evidence is needed

A focus on high-profile media stories of the tragic death (or abuse) of international adoptees may serve political ends and escalate rhetoric about adoption, but it ignores what systematic evidence tells us. A balanced consideration of evidence, however, is often lost in discussions of the fate of children who often have no one to speak for them.

It is heartbreaking that the lives of these two Kazakh-American boys, Timur Tory Carlson and Damir Quinn Carlson, both began and ended with unimaginable loss. But the answer is not to further restrict opportunities for their brothers and sisters in the post-Soviet world to find a home outside the walls of an orphanage.

More from Psychology Today
4 Min Read
Certain elements of temperament, including shyness, can be detected as early as 4 months of age, suggesting it's largely inborn.

More from Rebecca Compton Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today