The Corner

Return to Sender

The case of the Russian adoptee got my attention. This is the seven-year-old Russian orphan, adopted by a Tennessee woman and her mother last September, but sent back to Russia a few days ago because of severe behavioral problems. There’s good coverage here.

The story gets my interest in a number of ways. Some friends of mine had a similar experience with an adopted boy, though they stuck with it until the lad left home. Then there’s the nature/nurture angle always present in adoption. Of course not all children up for adoption come from dysfunctional parents, and not all dysfunction has a heritable component; but you’re working against some tough percentages.

And then there’s the strange business of psychopathy, which does seem to be considerably heritable. (Steven Pinker has a good summary in Chapter 14 of The Blank Slate). Can there be such a thing as a psychopathic child? Would such a condition be treatable? Would the child “grow out of it”? My own reading, and some personal experience, suggest answers yes, no, and mostly no, but of course I’m no expert.

There’s also a National Question angle. Yesterday I had lunch with one of the principals of the Russian Children’s Welfare Society, which does terrific work for orphaned and homeless children in Russia. The RCWS does not do out-of-country adoption, and never has. My dinner companion expressed a strong prejudice against it. I have heard similar opinions from Chinese friends in regard to the adoption of Chinese children. As they say: “It’s kind of insulting. The message is: Oh, your country is so hopeless, you can’t even raise your own children.”

And yet, of course, there are thousands of childless couples in the U.S.A. desperate to adopt, and domestic supply doesn’t correspond to demand. Why not match willing parents with needy children, to their mutual advantage? But it would help if prospective adopters had some understanding of those percentages.

Here, as elsewhere, human-nature romanticism is an obstacle to sensible decision-making. Love does not necessarily conquer all. You may adopt a little psychopath, give him all the love and care you are capable of, and find that at the end of it, he’s still a psychopath. The Tennessee ladies only had little Artyom for a few months, which seems to me too short a time for judgment. Psychopathy is real, though, even in kids, and very scary. I’d be loath to second-guess the case.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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