Adoption and Parenticide: Seeking Truth and Justice

Parenticide, the killing of one or both parents, (i.e. parricide, matricide), is the subject of Greek tragedies and myths around the world. But it also happens in real life.

Tucker Cipriano, 19, of Farmington Hills suburb of Detroit, has been charged with the murder of his parents. Robbery to support drug addiction is alleged to have played a role in motivating Cipriano to beat his adoptive father to death with a baseball bat and critically wound his adoptive mother and a brother. He may have been under the influence of drugs at the time of the attack.

No sooner did this case hit the press than outcries resounded from the adoption community because Cipriano was identified as having been adopted. Articles questioned: Does adoption detail belong in a murder story? Why was the fact that the alleged perpetrator was adopted mentioned in the media reports of this crime? Is it necessary and doesn’t it risk casting a net of suspicion on all who are adopted?

The debate over how much fact the media reveals is not about protecting adoptees, despite some adoptees buying into that excuse. It is just one more example using “protection” of those whose lives are touched by adoption as a ploy to justify lies and secrecy, just as is done to keep adoption records sealed from the parties to the adoption. At issue is eliminating bad publicity about adoption that might reduce profits of the mega-billion dollar adoption industry.

The relationship between victim and perpetrator of any crime, or alleged crime, is important, however, because it often goes directly to motivation and is thus a vital and integral piece of the puzzle. Whether perpetrator and victim were dating, married, engaged, separated, divorced all matter. Whether they were siblings, step-siblings or half-siblings makes a difference and should not be omitted in accurate reporting. Whether parent and child were in a guardianship, foster, or adoptive or step parent-child relationship are all germane to the facts of a case.  It matters. And it matters whichever one was the victim and whichever the alleged perpetrator.

An adoptee murdering his parents is not an anomaly so rare as to make the adoption aspect of it negligible. Cirpirano’s crime should not be viewed in isolation because it cannot be properly understood on its own. It must be seen as part of a pattern because the fact is that Cirpriano is not the first or only adoptee charged with killing a parent or parents. In fact, he is not the only one so far this year — 2012.

Moses Kamin, 25, of Oakland, CA was also charged this year as an adult in the strangling murders of both of his adoptive parents (also identified as his foster parents). He was allegedly fighting with his father, a PhD psychologist and his mother, a medical professional, over the time he was spending at the Occupy Oakland camp.

The following list of eleven additional adoptee parenticide cases were found through public records:

  • 2006. Brandon Christopher Menard, 26, of California was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life in prison without parole, plus a term of 25 years to life for shooting his father, shooting and stabbing his mother, and stabbing his 16-year-old sister all to death.
  • 2008. Heather D’Aoust, 14, was charged as an adult after her adoptive mother, Rebecca, died as the result of being hit in the head with a hammer or other blunt object in her home. Heather was reported to have “a history of emotional problems and mental illness.”   She reportedly planned to kill everyone in the house, including her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. She was sentenced to 16 years to life.
  • 2007. Aaron Howard, 19, of Ottawa, Canada pleaded guilty in the murder of his adoptive mother who was battered in the head with a lead pipe. He was sentenced to life in prison.
  • 2007. Graham Beange, 20, of Toronto, Canada was charged with the attempted murder after his adoptive father died having been bludgeoned with a hammer.
  • 1997. Patrick Niiranen, from Oregon, beat his adoptive parents to death with a hammer. He was reported as seeking to find his natural mother who he fantasized about. Both physical abuse and cocaine use were also cited as motivation.
  • 1991. Patrick Campbell, 39, from Connecticut. bludgeoned both parents to death. He was sentenced to death.
  • 1991.  Matthew Heikklia, 20, Bernards Twp., NJ, used a sawed-off shotgun to kill his adoptive parents. About the time his adoption was finalized, Mrs. Heikkila became pregnant. On the day she was murdered, she had started a letter to her son Joshua in which she complained about Matthew. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
  • 1990. Larry Swartz, 17, from Baltimore, MD. was the subject of the book Sudden Fury, A True Story of Adoption and Murder by Leslie Walker. Larry was sentenced to life in prison for the stabbing deaths of both adoptive parents. It has been reported that when the time came to sentence Swartz, even the judge struggled to fight back the tears.
  • 1987. Daniel Kasten, 19, of New York was charged with shooting his adoptive parents in the head during his sophomore year at the state university in Stony Brook College studying physics and mathematics. His attorneys pleaded he had psychosis and schizophrenia. He had allegedly planned to kill his siblings and grandparents as well.
  • 1985. Jeremy Bamber, 24, from the UK killed his adoptive parents, sister, and her two six-year-old sons. Money was thought to be the motive for this killing spree.
  • 1984.  Patrick DeGelleke, 14, of New York was found guilty of setting the fire that killed both of his adoptive parents when he was just 14-years-old.

And then there are adoptees who direct their murderous rage at strangers. The two most recent such cases, of which there are far too many to list, are:

  • 2012. Gabriel Hall, 18, of College Station, Texas is currently facing charges for attacking and killing total strangers. Hall – a straight-A student who attended classes the day after the murder – said it wasn’t rage but rather a “killer instinct” that drove him to it. Gabriel had been adopted from the Philippines at 11 years of age with 3 siblings by a family who had about a dozen adopted kids. His adopters – who were not present at his court appearance – had allegedly “kicked out” three of their adopted children. It is unknown whether any of those sent away were Hall’s siblings by birth.
  • 2007. Joshua Komisarjevsky, 31, of New Haven, CT was sentenced to death for the headline grabbing slaughter of a mother and her two daughters, who were also raped, and the torching of their home with them in it. His lawyer attributed the Connecticut massacre that made headlines around the world in part to personal troubles, including learning disabilities, childhood sexual abuse and the revelation at age 14 that he had been adopted as a baby.

The Pain of Separation

We need to remove the rose-colored view of adoption and recognize that every adoption – no matter how necessary and life-saving – begins with a trauma. Whether a child is removed by the state to protect him from danger, or placed by a mother devoid of the resources to properly care for her child, or sold by child traffickers’ falsified documents. Whether a mother is coerced, lied to, defrauded, pressured or “voluntarily” and lovingly believes she is doing what is best for her child, or is being promised an education for her child or an open adoption, it is still a tragedy and a traumatic separation of mother and child.

This separation – even at or very after shortly birth – can leave a wound and a permanent scar. Every adoptee – no matter how loving his adoptive family – wonders why he was placed for adoption and can be left feeling rejected and abandoned to different degrees at different times in their lives. For some their hurt may remain, lessen or intensify.  It may get suppressed, ignored, denied or turned into anger. Anger and loss are universally reported feelings that adopted persons deal with in myriad ways depending upon many other factors not the least of which is the person’s coping capabilities and physiological mental health.

B.J. Lifton, adoptee, adoption counselor, author and lecturer, theorized that the adopted child, feeling the deep-seated original rejection, will either increase efforts to please or, as Dr. Marshall Schecter found, may exhibit “testing” behavior. In some cases it is believed adoptee acting out behavior is driven by the belief of having been given away by their first family because they were not “good enough” and a desire to prove them right or have it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Others attribute acting out behaviors by adoptees to an unconscious desire to emulate what they know or guessed or surmised about their original parents.

Judith and Martin Land, Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child (2011), identify the following, specifically adopted related symptoms: genealogical bewilderment, oppositional defiant disorder, selective mutism, anti-social behavior, primal wound, and other potential effects of adoption on children who are orphaned, fostered, or adopted.

Some adoptees are articulate and self-aware enough write about their feelings, using blogs or forums such as “I am an Angry Adoptee” at Experienceproject.com to vent their feelings in healthy and acceptable ways. Others act upon them in behavior such as substance abuse, suicide or other acts of violence to themselves or others. Adoption is recognized as a risk factor for suicide and adopted teens and adults are more likely to attempt or succeed than non adopted.

Malinda, blogging at AdoptTalk, expresses it like this:

[A]doptees have reason to be angry, and it is unrelated to how good or bad their adoptive parents parented. It has to do with loss of control, loss of identity, loss of culture, loss of heritage, loss of language, loss of first families, loss, loss, loss. And you can gain, gain, gain — a permanent family, a different culture, a different language, a different heritage, more material goods than you can shake a stick at! — and still feel loss.

The ability to verbalize one’s justifiable anger is healthy. However, often adoptee anger is exacerbated by being told they have no right to feel anything but gratitude. Nina, an adoptee in Northern California, for instance, blogs:

I’m angry about my adoption, but not an angry person in general….. There you are, a bona-fide SOCIAL EXPERIMENT…the subject of books written by experts, the topic of radio call-in shows and newspaper articles and morning television show segments. But nobody ever wants to hear what it’s like to live life as an adoptee. Not if the script doesn’t include the words, ‘happy’ or ‘grateful’.

A New York Times OpEd by self described “functioning” adult says: “Many adoptees have valid reasons for being angry…. It would be a lie for me to say I’m not still angry. I am” but she notes “[t]here is a difference between anger and all-encompassing, blind rage” and explains that she writes about her “painful, anger-inducing experiences.”

Because coping mechanisms and basic genetic emotional strengths and weaknesses vary widely, as well as other heredity factors that might effect mental health, for some adoptees feelings of loss, confusion and anger are basically a non-issue, while others struggle with them in a variety of ways, and a small percent act out, sometimes violently.

David Kirschner, PhD who testifies and consults in many – but not all – trials or sentencings in which an adoptee is charged with murder has done so in three cases of adoptee parenticide in the past twelve months: two in California and one in Oregon.

Recognizing the existence of the extremity to which some take their hurt and anger in order to assist in a criminal defense is not to suggest adoptees are any more likely to commit horrific violent crimes, murder or parenticide than non-adopted persons. Kirschner who uses Adopted Child Syndrome (see below) as a legal defense, is clear that most adoptees are not disturbed and that the syndrome only applies to “a small clinical subgroup.”

Recognizing Adopted Child Syndrome – and adoptee parenticide – is necessary to help not to cast dispersions on any adopted person or to cause any adopted person to be viewed with caution or suspicion of being potentially dangerous, no more so than allowing a defense of battered wife syndrome points a finger at every spouse as an abuser or potential killer.

The negative effects of adoption loss and separation need exposure to truth in an order to help juries understand when adoptees are charged with these crimes. The same transparency is also important to alleviate as much of the pain of adoption as possible by formulating adoption policies and practices to make adoption necessary, humane, honest, open and as child-centered as possible. Adoption practices change over time and have gone from recommendations of secrecy to understanding that adopted children who live with secrets and lies feel that “they” are a dirty little secret.  Thus, today, adoptive parents – as well as those who use reproductive assistance – are advised to be honest and open as early as possible, and that it is not just one “telling” but allowing for ongoing conversations and creating an atmosphere that provides for the child to feel comfortable to ask questions as he grows through adolescence and young adulthood. The more we learn from adoptee hindsight, the better we can make the future for children in need of extra-familial placement.

Adopted Child Syndrome

Adopted Child Syndrome is a term coined by Dr. David Kirschner and described in Directions in Child and Adolescent Therapy, 2(6) (1995) and in Dr. Kirschner’s book, Adoption: Uncharted Waters, describes a pattern of maladaptive behavior that may be mistaken for other disorders. The diagnosis is not without controversy, which may be the reason it is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association‘s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), 4th edition.

Adopted Child Syndrome is not the only diagnosis, however, to describe behavior particular to adopted children. Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) or Oppositional Defiant Disorder are both recognized in the DSM, though once controversial as well. These diagnoses are usually given to children who have been institutionalized or in multiple placements. They are often the result of unrealistic expectations on the part of adopters and help them terminate the adoption and/or receive financial assistance with medical and boarding costs.

As for those adopted as infants, there is no lack of studies concluding that children who were adopted before the age of six-months fare very well or are unremarkably no differently than children raised with their biological parents. These findings, however, are criticized as being funded by the very industry whose practitioners’ livelihoods depend upon the redistribution of children via adoption.

The recognition of traumatic mental health issues among those who are adopted – at any age – is not new. As early as 1943, Dr. F. Clothier wrote in Mental Hygiene:

Every adopted child at some point in his development, has been deprived of this primitive relationship with his mother. This trauma and the severing of the individual from his racial antecedents lie at the core of what is peculiar to the psychology of the adopted child….[who]is called upon to compensate for the wound left by the loss of the biological mother.

….every child…has a recourse to phantasy when he finds himself frustrated, threatened or incapable of dominating his environment. For the adopted child it is not a phantasy that these parents with whom he lives with are not his parents, it is reality.

For the adopted child, the [fantasy] parents are obviously the unknown lost real parents. His normal ambivalence will make use of this reality situation to focus his love impulses on one set of parents and his hate impulses on another. He finds an easy escape from the frustrations inherent in his home education by assuming the attitude that these, his adoptive parents, are his bad and wicked persecutors, whereas his dimly remembered own or foster parents, from whom he was ‘stolen’ are represented in his phantasy as the good parents to whom he owes his love and allegiance.

Dr. Marshall Schecter is among many child psychologists and those who work with troubled youth in various types of educational institutions and facilities who report the huge over-representation of adopted youth among their clientele – as much as a third of the clinical population in some instances.

Many factors may contribute to this increase in adopted youth in treatment and special education classes. One factor is possible genetic roots or dispositions. Another contributing issue could be as simple as a miss-match in behavior, temperament, coping and attitudinal styles between the child and the family he has been placed with, such as a quiet, introspective child in a family of cheering sports enthusiasts, or a very athletic child in a more intellectual, cerebral family.

What some families might accept as “normal” teen acting out, is sometimes cause for alarm for adoptive parents who might be concerned that the child “inherited” tendencies toward criminality or a predisposition to substance abuse. In blood-families even a trait uncommon to that of the immediate family members may be one that they recognize in the extended family. Along with seeing a child as having Aunt Gertie’s nose, a family might recognize that if Cousin Mike survived getting terrible grades or getting into scrapes with the law, or had great difficulty finding and holding down a job, so too will our child.

Adoptive parents have no such yardstick to measure their child’s behavior by – only fear of the unknown worst-case scenario possibilities. Thus, a teenage girl dressing provocatively may strike more fear in the heart of adoptive parents who either know or assume that the child’s biological mother was promiscuous. It has also been suggested that adoptive families are more comfortable with — and used to seeking the help of — social workers and other professionals and so will more readily seek it again when behaviors arise that others might overlook.

Yet Schecter’s observations mirror those of Clothier. In many of his case studies of adopted children, symptoms related to fantasies and “acting out” regarding the real parents, especially toward their real mother. He also observed outbursts toward the adoptive parents such as defiance based on them not being the child’s “real parents.” Schechter found adopted children to suffer symptoms of depression, feelings of incompleteness, phobic fear of abandonment, anxiety, aloofness and distancing of themselves which made close relationships impossible, and lying and stealing among boys while some girls acted out more seductively.

While we cannot pinpoint one factor as a cause, and the reasons may vary or may be multiple, the result is an over-representation of adoptees in youth facilities which seems to reflect that adoption in one way or another contributes to troubled youth or youth identified as troubled. Either way it points to a problem.

Conclusion

At issue is whether or not there is a correlation or causal factor between adoption and parenticide. Is there a disproportionate number of such acts committed by adopted persons as there is in serial killings, and if so, why?  And what, if anything, can be done to lessen the issues that might precipitate such acts of violence? We will never know unless we openly assess the cases.

We do know that adoption is not a win-win for children who loose their roots, heritage, and genealogical connections.  Rather it is a trade of one set off that often leaves children growing up with loss and anger. To think of it as win for the child is to whitewash and ignore the unique challenges non-adopted persons do not have to deal with. Because most adopted persons manage to deal with these additional issues and are fine emotionally and behaviorally, we cannot ignore these very real issues of loss, hurt, rejection and anger as contributing factors when an adopted person commits murder, in particular the murder of an adoptive parent. To do so would be a horrific disservice to the over-represented populations of adopted youth and adults in mental health and penal facilities and especially those charged with murder. It is also unfair to all who adopt or are adopted as well as to mothers considering placing a child for adoption.

Is adoption a causal factor in some parenticides? Do adoptees commit more partenticdes than non-adoptees? Paul Mones, an expert on children who kill “puts this statistic at 15 or 20 to 1, adoptees over non-adoptees who commit parenticide. He has represented twelve cases of adoptees who killed one or both parents.” (Journey of the Adopted Self, pg. 103).  Kirschner suggests that 15 or 20 to 1, is an understatement, a minimal estimate.

Do we as a nation silence and censor these alarming figures, ignoring the life and death facts because it might offend some who are adopted or do we proceed with intelligent inquiry, analyzing data as we pursue the reasons for racial disparity in crimes and punishment? Do we bury our heads in the sand to “protect” adoptees from the stigma of possibly being wrongly cast as dangerous, or do we recognize the effects of adoption to help families and health care providers to identify youths who are at risk in order to intervene before a tragedy occurs.

We need to face the truth and work to curb it and support its victims – both those injured and killed as well as those facing jail time or the death penalty, as many of the perpetrators are adolescents, some as young as 14.

Mirah Riben is an activist/author/lecturer. Read other articles by Mirah, or visit Mirah's website.