When Adoption Stories Don’t Have Happy Endings

A man raised in the United States has been deported to South Korea, a country he left at age 3.

Adam Crapser
In this March 19, 2015, file photo, Adam Crapser poses with his daughter Christal in the family’s living room in Vancouver, Washington.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP Images

In 1978, 3-year-old Shin Song-hyuk flew from South Korea along with his sister, and probably many other adoptees, bound for a new life and family in the United States. He left behind his mother, other siblings, language, and heritage.

On Nov. 8 of this year, 41-year-old Shin, now known as Adam Crapser, was put on a plane and flown back to South Korea, likely never to return to America. He left behind his wife, children, friends, and the country that was supposed to be forever his.

As a global community, we agree that adoption is a legal process by which a child goes from a bad situation to a better one. The child becomes a full-fledged, legal son or daughter. A new, forever, happy family is created.

Often that’s true. It’s also incomplete. For many adoptees, that transition affects their entire lives, sense of trust, and sense of identity.

At first glance, the change seems all for the good. The myth is that the adoptive family will be better than the old one—better off financially almost certainly, but also “better” because they are giving the child a new start, providing for needs the first family could not meet, offering the child opportunities he wouldn’t have had if he had stayed in his homeland. That’s also often true.

It wasn’t for Adam Crapser. Adam scuffled through his childhood and adolescence, surviving, falling between the cracks, and getting in and out of serious trouble as a way of life. A 2015 New York Times article says his first adoptive family “fought viciously and punished the children repeatedly.” When Adam was 9, the parents decided they no longer wanted the children, and placed him in a foster home, separating him from his sister. Adam eventually ended up in Oregon, with new adoptive parents Thomas and Dolly Crapser.

According to Adam, Dolly Crapser “slammed the children’s heads against door frames and once hit him in the back of the head with a two-by-four after he woke her up from a nap.” Adam said his adoptive father duct-taped the children’s mouths shut, burned Adam’s hands, and once broke his nose when Adam couldn’t find the father’s car keys. According to the Times:

[T]he state ultimately did charge the couple with dozens of counts of child abuse, including rape, sexual abuse and criminal mistreatment; they were convicted in 1992 on several counts of criminal mistreatment and assault, and (the father) was convicted on one count of sexual abuse, though he served just 90 days in prison.

Adam continued living with the Crapsers until he was thrown out at 16. When he later broke into the Crapsers’ house to get items that he’d brought from South Korea, he was arrested. He spent more than two years in jail. He then got in more trouble over the years: misdemeanors, assault, unlawful firearms possession, and others. He served his time and began to stay on a healthy track, eventually marrying and holding down jobs.

But there was one problem he couldn’t bootstrap his way out of. For work purposes, Adam needed to prove he was a U.S. citizen—and among the many sins of Adam’s adopters was their failure to get him U.S. citizenship. It was not automatic for international adoptees until 2001, and then only applied to adoptees born after Feb. 27, 1983. Because Adam was not a U.S. citizen, the crimes he committed and served time for meant that he could be deported. In 2012, when Adam applied for a green card through the Department of Homeland Security, his criminal record set the process to deport him in motion.

He is not the first to be deported. Adoptees from Brazil, India, Mexico, Germany, and elsewhere have been returned to their countries having lived their lives as the children of U.S. citizens and thinking they were Americans. According to the Adoptee Rights Campaign, some 35,000 international adoptees, adopted before 2001, are thought to be without citizenship. Whether due to oversight, ignorance, laziness, or paperwork snafus, many international adoptees have been shocked to learn they are not U.S. citizens. The ramifications have been tragic.

Adam’s kids lost their father while he served time in prison and, more recently, for almost nine months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. They may lose him permanently, now that he’s in South Korea. The pain Adam has endured—being ripped from his country, growing up with parents who abused him, and then being deported—now spreads to them.

Therapists are increasingly aware that children who experience significant trauma—like being ripped from your culture and family and placed in an abusive environment—often become parents who pass the impact of that damage on to their children. According to social worker Susan Coyle, untreated trauma in a parent can affect “the messaging about self and the world, safety, and danger” that a child receives, creating lasting damage.

Even when the story ends happily, trauma is at the root of adoption. Acknowledging that can be difficult for adoptive parents—something I know well, as the parent of two sons adopted from the United States as babies and twin daughters adopted from Ethiopia at 6 years old. Adoption, when done right, is a lifetime of work. Before bringing a child home, parents need to be thoroughly screened through the home study process and then prepared to help their child cope and thrive. Parents should be aware of the impact of institutionalization on child development, of how adopted children process loss and grief, of how to handle behaviors like hoarding food, toileting problems, eating issues, and sleeping difficulties. Many parents use life books to help children process their individual stories. Some parents make sure the child has racial mirrors (people who look like him) and mentors (older adoptees and people from the child’s cultural background).

There is no evidence Adam’s adoptive parents did any of these things for him during his childhood, never mind get him counseling for the additional trauma caused by their apparent abuse. Adam’s adoptive parents should never have been parents, but those who placed him in the foster and adoptive homes, and then failed to help him, are also to blame.

In adoption, intergenerational trauma does not just flow from the child to his descendants. According to a recent New York Times article published the day Adam flew out of the United States:

When Adam arrives in Korea, his mother will reunite with him. … Years ago, she was abused by Adam’s Korean father, who abandoned her and two of Adam’s siblings, and faced extreme poverty. Now, at 61, she will reunite with Adam, whom she last saw when she left her three children in an orphanage in 1978. “I missed them, especially when it rained or snowed or when the sky was overcast,” she said. “But the belief they were having a better life somewhere sustained me.” She now knows that was not the case. Many international first parents never hear the fate of their children; most never receive any post-adoption news or support.

As his mother left him at the orphanage, Adam now leaves his children and returns to his mother. Adam’s children, and the children of other deported adoptees, experience a poignant trauma and loss due to adoption, though they are not adopted.

It’s tempting to say that Adam and other adoptees in his situation brought deportation on themselves and their families by committing crimes—certainly many in Congress take that position. But it misses the point. International adoptees were brought to America with the permission and oversight of the United States government. The deal was that they would be welcomed here, to have a brighter future as Americans for the rest of their lives. My Ethiopian daughters are now 28. It’s not always been an easy journey for them. As American citizens, they also cherish and honor their Ethiopian roots, with all the attendant complexity.

If we believe adoptees to be genuine members of American families, they do not deserve deportation. If we don’t believe they are genuine family members, then adoption loses its meaning and integrity. What’s more, the U.S. loses its honor and breaks its promise to these legal immigrants adopted by U.S. citizens. A bill, the Adoptee Citizenship Act, is designed to provide retroactive citizenship to international adoptees, but it has made slow progress through Congress. Recently, more sponsors have signed on, but this session of Congress will soon end. Thousands of international adoptees and their families are affected, and our current anti-immigrant culture doesn’t bode well for the bill’s passage. And that is shameful.

When people read heartwarming stories about overseas adoption, they often forget something critical: These children grow up. We need to reframe the way we view adoption to acknowledge the reality of trauma and its intergenerational impact. That doesn’t mean we need to end adoption. Instead, we need to create policies that recognize the harsher side of adoption and provide better support for adopted children, for the parents who place their children for adoption and for adoptive parents. State and federal governments failed to keep Adam Crapser safe as a child. They and his parents failed to provide him with U.S. citizenship, despite the inherent promise made to all international adoptees and their homelands that the children deserve the rights and responsibilities of all Americans.