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Adopted Child Syndrome

Over the last fifteen years I have been hired as an expert witness on cases of adoptee parricide where the Adopted Child Syndrome was considered a defense. All have been very disturbing cases, sad and perhaps avoidable. Signs of adoption psychopathology were evident in childhood, however early intervention with an adoption competent therapist was neglected in each of the cases. 

The psychopathology underlying adoptee parricide has been well documented. Law enforcement records show that adoptees are 15 times more likely to commit parricide than biologically raised children. While only 2-3% of the population in the U.S., roughly 5-10 million people, are adopted, adoptees are overrepresented in the juvenile criminal system, prison system, psychiatric institutions and substance abuse rehabilitation settings. They are disproportionately represented with learning disabilities and organic brain syndromes and are more likely to have difficulties with drugs and alcohol, eating disorders and suicides.

Adoption psychopathology was first studied in 1953 by Jean Paton, an adult adoptee and social worker. Later in 1975 Betty Jean Lifton, an adult adoptee, writer and psychologist, studied the detrimental effects of sealing adoption records that cut adoptees off from their biological past and caused undue psychological stress, grief and aberrant behavior. In 2003 Nancy Verrier, an adoptive mother and therapist revolutionized the way we understand the complex trauma experienced by the adopted individual. With the identification of the primal loss and the resultant lifelong primal wound she gave

adoptees whose pain had long been unacknowledged, validation for their feelings and explanations for their behaviors.

While the majority of adoptees resolve, to one degree or another, the issues surrounding being adopted, there are those at the far end of the spectrum who present with sever psychopathology. It was psychologist David Kirschner in 1995 who coined the term, Adopted Child Syndrome (ACS) and saw it as an underlying dissociative disorder. He found that there was a small clinical subgroup of adoptees on the far end of the spectrum who react to the traumatic effects of adoption with identified anti-social behaviors. These adoptees harbor repressed thoughts of grief and loss, problems with identity and belonging and the experience of feeling left and abandoned, unwanted and unloved. Ultimately leaving the individual with an inability to form secure, intimate relationships with others, they become vulnerable to cataclysmic acts of violent rage as the underlying and repressed thoughts get triggered by perceived or real abandonment.

ACS often strikes those who secretly struggle with a type of genealogical bewilderment and in particularly it affects adoptees whose families treat adoption as a secret or who do not talk openly. With no outlet, the feelings become dissociated, resulting in a fragile ego and a hypervigilance to further rejection. Once an individual has learned to dissociate parts of themselves, it becomes second nature. As emotions begin to build within, the feelings are sequestered until something ignites them.

Although not endorsed by the American Psychological Association, Adopted Child Syndrome has been a successful defense used in capital murder cases where the accused has been adopted. ACS describes a set of behaviors that has been used to explain problems in bonding, attachment, lying, stealing, defiance of authority, and acts of violence often directed at those to whom they are closest.

The theory of the Adopted Child Syndrome is supported by psychologists who specialize in adoption. Unfortunately, the psychopathology of adoption has historically been overlooked in forensic mental health evaluations. Excerpted from National Criminal Justice System, NCJS Journal Abstract, “Adoption & Murder” report that although adopted children commit murders more often than commonly believed, there is resistance to making an issue of this fact. This may be because of the secrecy associated with many adoptions. It is also the failure of criminal justice agencies to record or acknowledge the nature of an offender’s family background. From a legal posture, an adopted child is simply the child of his adoptive parents.

The most extreme cases of sociopathic behavior are seen in acts of mass murder and serial killing. Excerpted from “Adoption Forensics: The Connection Between Adoption and Murder,” reports that of the 500 estimated serial killers in U.S. history, 16 percent were adopted as children. These adoptees have been profiled in terms of having suffered intolerable childhood emotional abuse, sever neglect, multiple placements and unresolved, conflicted mother hunger. While a troubled childhood is no excuse for committing heinous crimes, these are the most troubled children of adoption. They are the ones who need the most attention as symptoms of ACS begin to be seen in childhood oppositional defiant behaviors. If these behaviors are not treated by an adoption competent therapist, they can and often do develop into antisocial behaviors.