Later in July, Warner Brothers will release a movie that is already eliciting serious concern among adoption groups and other child advocates. “Orphan” presents the story of an adopted child who is “damaged goods” and is dangerous to her adoptive family while appearing sweet and innocent to others. Superficially charming and friendly, she secretly menaces those who love her.

This movie is a regrettable homage to the myth that adopted children are emotionally disturbed. The myth of the antisocial adoptee dates back to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and its belief that criminal or antisocial behavior was hereditary. Adopted children in those days had in many cases been born to unmarried mothers and given (or taken) for adoption for a variety of reasons--  because of  enormous social stigma for mother and child, because the mother could not earn her living and care for the child, or simply as punishment for immorality. The mother’s sexual activity and pregnancy were seen as evidence of her “weak moral fiber”, which was thought to be inherited by her child. A famous report describing the “Kallikak” family encouraged this view by describing two families said to be descended from the same male ancestor, but one side through the legitimate wife and the other through a girlfriend. (Are you thinking that the guy was the immoral one and the ancestor of all the kids? What a thought; after all, only women could be immoral!)      I recently heard an interesting comment on this point. Modern work on genetics has shown some links between emotional disturbance and genetic make-up. Referring to this, someone suggested that the genetic factors that contribute to mental illness or antisocial behavior could have a special connection to adoption. For example, a mother with genetic characteristics influencing emotional stability could pass those characteristics on to her baby, and the mother’s own instability could make it more likely that her baby went into foster care or was adopted. A father with similar genetic make-up would also give his genetic material to the baby, and because of his violent or irresponsible behavior might also make it more likely that the child was reared by a different family. Thus, the probability of genetically-influenced mental illness could be greater among adopted than among non-adopted children.

The person who suggested this concluded that such events would explain the phenomenon shown in the movie “Orphan”, and indeed it is a plausible explanation. However, the essential question remains: Is there such a phenomenon as a significantly higher level of  antisocial behavior among adopted children? Particularly, is there a pattern like that shown in the movie, where pleasant social behavior prevails outside the adoptive family, but terrifying antisocial behavior is directed toward familiar caregivers? If there is no phenomenon, it is irrelevant to discuss a plausible explanation we could give for such a phenomenon, if it existed. However, it does not seem to exist in the real world, as we are shown by current information about the development of both early-adopted and late-adopted children  from the extensive work of Michael Rutter  and his large research group. These investigators began their work more than 10 years ago, when adoption to the West from Romanian orphanages was first permitted. The children from these orphanages were notoriously neglected in the institutions. Their parentage was no less likely than any other group’s to include genetic factors influencing mental illness or antisocial behavior. Many had been exposed prenatally to alcohol, drugs, and disease. We can hardly imagine a group with more initial strikes against them. Many of them were developmentally delayed in physical and cognitive ways. Yet, the research group concluded, most did very well and caught up developmentally within a few years after they were adopted. (For more information, see Rutter, M. [2002]. Nature, nurture, and development: From evangelism through science toward policy and practice. Child Development, Vol. 73, pp. 1-21; also, Sharma, A., McGue, M., & Benson, P. [1998]. The psychological adjustment of United States adoptive adolescents and their non-adopted siblings. Child Development, Vol. 69, pp. 791-802.) Is there other systematic research evidence that supports my statement that these beliefs about the problems of orphans are myths? Yes, there is. An excellent short article summarizing some of that work appeared in 2007 in the “Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter” (Demick, K. “Challenging the common myths about adoption”. Vol. 23 (4), p. 8).

Adoption seems to be a very effective developmental intervention for children who have gotten off to a bad start. This makes sense with respect to the effect of genetic factors, as the phenotype or developed characteristics of the individual are generally shaped by the interaction of genetic and environmental causes, and very rarely by genetic influences alone. All right, it seems that adopted children generally do well even though they have had troubled beginnings. But when they are bad, how bad are they? Is there such a thing as the pattern of behavior shown in “Orphan”---- a pattern in which desirable social behavior toward outsiders contrasts with viciously antisocial behavior with the adoptive family? There does seem to be something faintly familiar about this if it occurs at a very mild level; most parents have probably noticed that their children “behave better” with neighbor adults or more distant relatives and save their tantrums for Mom and Dad. But that common occurrence should not seduce us into thinking that there is necessarily a similar phenomenon at a more intense level. In fact, no accepted diagnostic approach describes a category in which the child is sociable and well-behaved outside the family and dangerously antisocial within it. (However, there are popularized materials that claim to recognize such a pattern as a kind of “attachment disorder” not known or understood by conventional psychologists.)

In spite of these facts—general good development among adopted children, and the absence of the behavior pattern shown in “Orphan”-- the old myth about genetic flaws in adopted children has been reinforced by a more current myth. Promulgated by practitioners of unconventional and potentially dangerous child mental health treatments, this myth about adopted children states that such children invariably suffer from “attachment disorders” even if adopted on the day of birth. (I have published two books that tell more about this: “Attachment Therapy On Trial”, 2003 [with Larry Sarner and Linda Rosa], and “Understanding Attachment”, 2006.) Practitioners of various “attachment therapies” tell adoptive parents that a failure to treat their children with these unconventional methods will result in their developing into serial killers; Jeffrey Dahmer is suggested as an example of what can happen if a child goes without the suggested treatment.

The more recent myth is steadily repeated in newspaper articles, made-for-TV movies, and now in a “summer movie” appealing to the general public. What are the facts about issues like attachment and their impacts on adopted children? Can the adoption experience itself cause serious mental illness? There are several experiential factors that are related to developmental outcomes following adoption. Probably the most important one is age at the time of adoption. Babies adopted within the first few months after birth are very similar to non-adopted babies in their development. Babies who are adopted toward the end of the first year are likely to show some unusual attachment behaviors at the time, but if well cared for do not show long-term effects. Later-adopted children are more likely to show mood or behavioral disorders that require professional help than non-adopted children--- however, it is hard to tell whether some of their parents are prone to seek professional help because they already believe the myths about adopted children.

The development of adopted children is also influenced by the circumstances of their adoption, which in turn can be related to the age at which they are adopted. Babies adopted at birth have little or no experience other than that with their adoptive parents, but older babies and children may have experienced neglect and abuse. In fact, it is possible that their experiences were so severe that the birth parents’ parental rights were legally terminated, the children placed in foster care, and then (whether sooner or later) placed in an adoptive home. Depending on the child’s experiences, the number of changes of custody, and the child’s own resilience or vulnerability, children adopted under those circumstances may (or may not) be more inclined to develop emotional and behavioral disorders than the average non-adopted child. Finally, the developmental outcome for adopted children can depend on the care they receive in their adoptive family. Neither birth parents nor adoptive parents necessarily provide a “good fit” for a specific child, for one thing. In addition, adoptive parents are actually somewhat more likely to behave abusively than birth parents are. Children adopted in toddlerhood or later may be difficult for their adoptive parents to “read”, and their communications about wanting to be near their caregivers may not be very clear; parents who do not receive any guidance in dealing with this issue may not do a very good job.

So, is it completely impossible that a story like the one told in “Orphan” could really happen?  It is not likely that a seriously disturbed child would seem angelic to some, demonic to others. However, there are a very small number of children, both adopted and non-adopted, who show very early signs of severe emotional disorder. One well-known example was Malcolm Shabazz, the (non-adopted)  grandson of Malcolm X, who showed signs of early onset schizophrenia and violent behavior toward his schizophrenic mother at age 3  and who at 12 set a fire that killed his grandmother. These few incidents of serious mental illness may also occur in adopted children, but they do not necessarily occur as a result of the adoption, as the myth would hold.

It is really a pity that Warner Brothers did not seek to improve public understanding of adoption issues by countering the existing mistaken beliefs. Instead, they seem to have worked further to entrench the popular myth  that adopted children are likely to be “crazy” and even dangerous. As I discussed in my book “Child Development: Myths & Misunderstandings” (Sage, 2009), there is little scientific support for these beliefs.“Orphan” may make an excellent scary movie for summer customers. I have no problem with it as such. My concern is that this presentation, like certain made-for-TV movies, will convince viewers that a myth is true, and prejudice them in many ways against adopted children and grown-up adoptees. Curiously, when I was writing “Child Development: Myths & Misunderstandings”, I almost left out the essay on beliefs about adopted children--  saying to myself, “Surely nobody thinks that any more!” But it seems they do think that, and with the release of “Orphan” they may be reinforced in their errors.

Jean Mercer - Richard Stockton College