Adoptees Who Kill: Examining the Psychological, Societal and Criminal Justice Ramifications of Adopted Child Syndrome

Apr 7, 2014 - by Mirah Riben - 0 Comments

Although only a small percentage of adoptees commit violent acts, adoptees are far more likely to commit suicide, kill one or both adoptive parents, or become serial killers than people raised by their birth parents. A theory known as “Adopted Child Syndrome” is frequently used by defense lawyers representing adoptees in capital cases.

by Mirah Riben

Adopted Child Syndrome has been presented as a defense in cases of an adopted person murdering a parent or parents – parenticide. Proponents advocate for the recognition of ACS by child psychologists, parents, the criminal justice system, and adoption policy-makers. But, it raises many questions.

What is ACS and is it a valid defense? Are adoptees are at higher risk of harming themselves or others? Is adoption a causal factor in some murders? Is there a disproportionate number of parenticides committed by adopted persons as there is in serial killings?

Is the adopted status of a perpetrator a valid part of a defense in trying someone accused of murdering his or her parent or parents?  Should adoptive status even be mentioned in the media when a crime is reported? Is it an integral part of the motivation?  Do labels such as ACS risk painting all adopted persons as suspect?

Examining these issues does not imply that adoption turns people into killers or possessed creatures portrayed in Greek tragedies and horror movies. Dr. David Kirschner, author of Directions in Child and Adolescent Therapy and Adoption: Uncharted Waters, is in fact clear to point out that most adoptees are not disturbed and that the syndrome only applies to "a small clinical subgroup." Rather than casting aspersions on adoption, those who adopt or those who are adopted, the goal is to recognize that preceding every adoption is loss, which can create deeply seated feelings of rejection, abandonment, depression or anger that may be contributing factors in the legal defense of adoptees who murder.

Statistics and Case Histories

Adoptees are over-represented among serial killers. Claims have been made that as many as 16 percent of serial killers are adopted and are10-25 times more likely to kill their parents than non-adopted persons, according to Dr. Kirschner. The number of serial killers who are adopted, however, no more reflects on adopted person in general than does the fact that the vast majority of serial killers are Caucasian males say anything about white males.

The 16 percent figure, I suspect, may include stepparent adoptions. Eliminating all but legal non-related stranger adoptions, and eliminating murderers and multiple murders (but not serial) the list whittles down to these six adopted persons who are classified convicted as U.S. serial killers:

Berkowitz, David (“Son of Sam” & “The 44-Caliber Killer”) adopted son of Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz. Pled guilty to killing 6 people.

Bianchi, Kenneth, “the Hillside Strangler.”  Adopted at three months by Frances Scioliono and her husband Nicholas Bianchi in Rochester, N.Y. Pled guilty to 10 murders.

Munro, James, 18. Adopted by the Munros when he was about a year old. Accomplice in 44 murders.

Rifkin, Joel, 34. Adopted by Ben and Jeanne Rifkin at three weeks of age. Confessed to killing at least 17 women.

Stano, Gerald Eugene, 27. Adopted. Killed an estimated 80 women.

Wuornos, Aileen Carol Pittman. Legally adopted by Keith and Aileen on March 18, 1960. Five death sentences

If we use the figure of 115 U.S. serial killers rather than the 500 worldwide, these six adopted serial killers represent approximately twice the percent of adoptees in the U.S. population and cause us to take notice and concern. 

Public or Private?

Anthony Bluml, 18, and his biological mother, Kisha Schaberg, 35, were two of the four people charged in November 2013 with first-degree murder in the death of Bluml’s adopted mother, 53-year-old Melissa Bluml, as well as attempted first-degree murder of Roger Bluml, who survived a gunshot to the head. The involvement of a natural mother in such a crime is quite unusual, but, sadly, an adoptee killing one or both adoptive parents is not as rare.

Each time such a case, in which a murder suspect is identified as being adopted, it sets off outcries from some in the adoption community who oppose the media reporting the fact that the victim and perpetrator are related legally via adoption. Some adoptees, adoptive parents and adoption practitioners (attorneys, adoption facilitators and adoption agencies) argue that revealing the adoptive status of perpetrators in such crimes unduly casts a net of suspicion on adoptees, stigmatizing them, and also might deter people from adopting.

When an unnamed 13-year-old girl adopted from Mexico was charged with poisoning her adoptive mother, in 2010 blogger Jeanne Sager wrote a post entitled “What Does Adoption Have to Do with Poisoning Your Mom?” By 2010 Sager expected society would have been more enlightened to the fact that “families can be made in a number of ways: sperm donation, surrogacy, re-marriage and, yes, adoption.” What Sager and others really seek is not awareness of different family formations, but ignoring the differences and a return to the days of pretending that adoption is “the same as if” born into the family.

Psychiatrist Dr. Herbert Weider notes that: "Although society, and to some extent adoptive parents, would like to pretend that [adoption] is exactly like a traditional family, it is the differences that are extremely significant in each member's life” [emphasis added].

When it comes to reporting a crime, the private becomes public and the relationship between victim and perpetrator of any crime or alleged crime is important because it often goes directly to motive and is thus a vital and integral piece of the puzzle. Whether perpetrator and victim were dating, married, engaged, separated, or 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, adoptive or step parent-child relationship are all germane to the facts of a case. It matters. And it matters in cases where the adopted party is the victim as well as the alleged perpetrator.

Likewise, when an adopted person is charged with murder, in particular the murder of his adoptive parent or parents, it cannot be fully understood in isolation as a singular event. An adoptee charged with murdering his parents is not an anomaly so rare as to make the adoption aspect negligible. It must be seen as part of a pattern of adoptees who have been charged with killing a parent or parents.

Public records reveal the following 13 cases in addition to the aforementioned 13-year-old:

2012. Moses Kamin, 25, of Oakland, California is facing life in prison having been charged as an adult for the 2012 strangling murders of both of his adoptive parents (also identified as his foster parents). He was allegedly fighting with his father, a Ph.D. psychologist and his mother, a medical professional, over the time he was spending at the Occupy Oakland camp. 

2012. Tucker Cipriano, 19, of Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the murder of his adoptive father. Robbery to support drug addiction was 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. The crime was reportedly committed while Cipriano and another young man were under the influence of marijuana.

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 after his adoptive father died from being bludgeoned with a hammer.

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 murdering both his adoptive parents and his 16-year-old sister.

1997. Patrick Niiranen, from Oregon,beat his adoptive parents to death with a hammer. He was reported as seeking to find his natural mother whom he fantasized about. Both physical abuse and cocaine use were also cited as motivation.

1991, Patrick Campbell, 39, from Connecticut. Bludgeoned both adoptive parents to death. He was sentenced to death.

1991. Matthew Heikklia, 20, Bernards Township, New Jersey, 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, Maryland, 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 fatally shooting his adoptive parents in the head during his sophomore year at the state university in Stony Brook College. He was 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 6-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.

And then there are adoptees who directed their rage at strangers, killing them. The two most recent of 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 three siblings by a family who had about a dozen adopted kids. His adopters – who were not present at his sentencing – 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, Connecticut, 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.

Adopted Child Syndrome

Adopted Child Syndrome is a term coined by Dr. Kirschner. Itdescribes a pattern of maladaptive behavior that may be mistaken for other disorders. The diagnosis is not without controversy, which is perhaps why it is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition.

Dr. Kirschner often testifies and consults at trials and at sentencings in which an adoptee is charged with murder and the defendant uses ACS as a legal defense. Other diagnoses that describe behavior particular to adopted children include Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). RAD is now recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, though once controversial as well. These diagnoses are often given to children who have been institutionalized or in multiple placements and are used to “classify” the children as special needs for financial funding, and also to explain and justify terminated adoptions, as we saw in the case of Tori Hansen who put her adopted son a plane alone to Russia.

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.

Various types of educational institutions and facilities for “troubled youth” report a dramatic over-representation of adopted youth among their clientele. Dr. Marshall Schecter is among many child psychologists who work with troubled youth and report as much as a third of the clinical population in some instances are adopted.

Some psychological disorders have a genetic component or predisposition and may play a part in some cases. Others suggest such an over-representation could be attributed to adoptive parents being accustomed to working with social serves and seeking help more quickly than other families. Another factor is miss-match in temperament, coping and attitudinal styles between the child and the family he has been placed with. What some families might accept as “normal” teen acting out, can be alarming for adoptive parents who might be concerned that the child “inherited” tendencies toward criminality, or a predisposition to substance abuse or sexual promiscuity. Blood-related families are able to recognize that along with inheriting Aunt Gertie’s nose, a child may have inherited Cousin Mike’s wild side, poor grades or getting into scrapes with the law. Adoptive parents have no such yardstick to measure their child’s behavior by – only fear of the unknown.

Schecter’s observations mirror those of Clothier. Many of his case studies of adopted children reveal symptomology related to fantasies and "acting out" regarding the real parents, especially toward their real mother. Schector also observed outbursts toward the adoptive parents such as defiance based on them not being the child’s “real parents.” He 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.

A disproportionate number of attempted and completed suicides among adoptees is also notable and relevant. Slap, Goodman and Huang reporting in Pediatrics, August 2001 note that attempted suicide is more common among adopted than non-adopted adolescents. They stress the prevalence of impulsivity and aggression:

The association persists after adjusting for depression and aggression and is not explained by impulsivity as measured by a self-reported tendency to make decisions quickly. Depression, impulsivity, and aggression during adolescence have been associated with both adoption and suicidal behavior. Studies of adopted adults suggest that impulsivity, even more than depression, may be an inherited factor that mediates suicidal behavior.”

In 2013 Margaret Keyes, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis again found that adoptees – in particular adopted teens – were at higher risk for committing suicide, confirming research in Sweden. Keyes examined a study of 692 adopted children and 540 nonadopted siblings. Over the three years of the study, 56 children attempted suicide at least once, according to the family members' reports. Of those kids, 47 were adopted and nine were not adopted.

When previous self-harm behavior was taken into account, researchers calculated that adopted teens were 3.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than the other teens.

When the researchers adjusted for other factors often linked with suicidal thinking or behavior, including drug use, depression, academic struggles and personality traits like alienation and impulsivity, the increased risk for adopted kids remained.

The Root of ACS, Adoptee Depression and Rage

B.J. Lifton, in The Journey of the Adopted Self, states, "…adoptive sons are more likely than natural ones to murder their parents." 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 12 cases of adoptees who killed one or both parents." Dr. Kirschner suggests that 15 or 20 to 1, is an understatement, a minimal estimate.

Criminologist and author of Serial Killers, Joel Norris, says, "many serial murderers were raised by adoptive parents or caretakers both within and outside of their biological families . . .” James Fox, another top criminologist, has also written about this, and Dr. Sarnoff Mednick has done extensive research in Denmark, documenting the correlation between adoption and criminality, not necessarily murder.

B.J. Lifton, adoptee, adoption counselor and well renowned 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 to write about their feelings, using blogs or forums such as “I am an Angry Adoptee” at to vent their feelings in healthy and acceptable ways. 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 hurt and anger is healthy. However, often adoptee anger is exacerbated by societal messages that they are “bitter” or “disgruntled” and adoptees should feel nothing but gratitude. Nina, an adoptee in Northern California, for instance, blogs:

I'm angry about my adoption, but am 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 Op-Ed by a self described “functioning” adult adoptee 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.” She is able to write about her “painful, anger-inducing experiences.”

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. Coping mechanisms and basic genetic emotional strengths and weaknesses vary widely, as well as other heredity factors that might affect mental health. Thus 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.


Do we as a nation silence studies, censor facts, and sanitize media coverage pretending adoption is not a factor? Or do we proceed with intelligent inquiry, analyzing data as we similarly pursue the reasons for racial disparity in crimes and punishment? Do we bury our heads 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 at-risk youth in order to intervene before a tragedy occurs?

We can only prevent adoptees – as young as 13 – hurting themselves and others by facing the truth. While parents may feel no difference in their love for their adopted and non-adopted children, being adopted is not the same as being born to those who are raising you.  Adoption is not a win-win for children who loose their roots, heritage, and genealogical connections.  Rather it is a trade off that leaves children growing up with loss, confusion and anger. To think of it as win for the child is to whitewash and ignore the unique challenges adopted persons face.

Beyond the romanticized view of adoption is the reality that every adoption – no matter how necessary and life saving – begins with a trauma of separation from the sounds and rhythm a neonate became accustomed to in utero. Described as a “primal wound” this early trauma occurs whether the child languishes in an orphanages prior to being adopted or is taken directly from the delivery room and it can leave a permanent scar that no amount of love can eradicate.

In addition, every adoptee – no matter how loving his adoptive family – reaches an age where he or she wonders why his original family did not find a way to keep him or her. Feelings of rejection – conscious and overt, subconscious, or actively denied can affect adoptees to different degrees at different times in their lives. These feelings may remain, lessen or intensify and can manifest in depression, substance abuse, acting out, anger, and in a small number of cases, violence. The lifelong effects of adoption loss and separation cannot be ignored, especially when understanding an adopted person charged with a capital crime.

To do so would be a terrible 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 as well as to mothers considering placing a child for adoption.

The fact that very few abused spouse resort to murdering his or her abusers does not negate the existence of battered wife syndrome. Likewise, because most adopted persons deal with these very real issues of loss, hurt, rejection and anger, and are fine emotionally and behaviorally, we cannot ignore their existence as contributing factors when an adopted person commits murder, in particular the murder of an adoptive parent. Recognizing Adopted Child Syndrome and that adoptees kill themselves or others no more paints all adoptees as dangerous than allowing a defense of battered wife syndrome points a finger at every spouse as an abuser or potential killer.

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