Honoring the Life and Death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan

Though there have been many posts on other blogs already about the death of little Hyunsu O’Callaghan, I felt that I too needed to process the events of this past week through writing. Hyunsu was adopted in October, beaten in January, and his adoptive father was charged with his murder in February. Hyunsu O’Callaghan had been in the United States for just four months before he was, according to Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Fenton, “basically beaten to death from head to toe.” Hyunsu died just two days later. Brian O’Callaghan, his adoptive father, has now been charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. What made this father so angry that he would kill this child? Hyunsu was afraid of the bath and threw a fit.

This story saddens me as a caring human being concerned about the welfare of children, more specifically as an adoptee. Like Hyunsu, I was three years old when I was adopted, and I also had a strong dislike for baths. While I was discussing this horrifying case with my mother she told me, “We asked if you had baths when we were in China and were told ‘yes.’ But we soon discovered that you were very afraid to be put in even minimal water, so we think you just must have been sponge bathed. It was no big deal to us. We just washed you with a wash cloth and slowly let you get comfortable with the bath tub. Problem solved.”

Why wasn’t that the reaction Brian O’Callaghan had to his son’s fear? Why was someone with this type of anger allowed to adopt? The economics of adoption must be considered when reflecting on these questions. According to the Washington Post, “the family went through Catholic Charities to qualify to adopt a child with special needs – which is how they adopted Hyunsu from Korea in October.” The reality of international adoption is that it is an industry, driven by supply and demand. Since children with special needs can be likened to “damaged goods,” there needs to be additional incentive to adopt them. This results in looser regulations, lower adoption costs, and the mindset that these children should be especially grateful to have even been adopted. But was Hyunsu really lucky to be adopted into this family? I think we can all agree that the answer is no.

The reactions and denial that has come from this terrible tragedy are shocking to me. I understand why it may be hard for O’Callaghan’s family to accept the events, but why are outside attitudes so dismissive to this boy’s short life and the grief especially those in the adoptee community have felt?

The Korean sector of Holt Adoption Agency has been active in trying to question the validity of this case. Many in Korea have been distraught over Hyunsu’s death, but those at Holt haven’t been quite as empathetic. “Holt Children’s Services also said, ‘It might be possible for the investigators to misinterpret the Mongolian spot – which he had since birth – as a kind of wound. Also, Hyun-su has always suffered from hydrocephalus and cerebral atrophy, which means it’s possible that this wasn’t a homicide.’” I would first like to point out that while hydrocephalus does cause a swelling of the brain, so does repeated beating of a child. Secondly, Mongolian spots are benign, flat, congenital birthmarks and usually only in distinctive regions (i.e. buttocks), not all over the body. Hyunsu’s autopsy report “confirmed injuries consistent with being beaten . . . Among them: a fracture at the base of skull, bruises to the forehead, swelling of the brain and wounds to other parts of the body. There was also “blunt impact to the back from a linear and triangular shaped object” (Washington Post). Holt’s incentive to create speculation about Hyunsu’s murder lies in not being responsible for his death by placing him with this family. The truth is clear, and Holt’s defensive state further displays the brokenness of the international adoption system. Can Holt really claim they have children’s best interests in mind when the organization shows they’re more interested in protecting themselves?

For some reason, the general public has been relatively supportive of O’Callaghan, citing his military service as proof of O’Callaghan’s worthiness. One NBC Washington article discusses O’Callaghan’s military involvement and achievements for over 1/3 of the entire article. This article’s focus should have been on the boy who is dead at the hands of this marine. O’Callaghan’s Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, National Defense Service Medal, or Global War on Terrorism Service Medal are indicative of his dedication to protecting our country but obviously didn’t drive him to protect little Hyunsu. O’Callaghan’s military service should not be used to distract from the case and the brutality of the situation that he murdered his own son.

Whenever there is an outpouring of outspoken voices in the adoptee community, dismissive comments from observers are sure to follow. These are some of the common thoughts that seem to be in question:

  • “Doesn’t it make you glad you didn’t get up in a home like that one?” – No, it doesn’t make me glad or extra grateful. Because my family came together in an alternative way, I shouldn’t have to feel appreciative my parents didn’t murder me. It should be my right, not a privilege to be in a safe home.
  • “Biological parents abuse/neglect/murder their kids, too.” – That’s a correct statement, but that fact shouldn’t allow us to ignore the severity of the same problems in adoptive homes.
  • “Adoptive homes actually have a staggeringly low rate of abuse … I mean crazy low…when compared to biological families.” – There is actually a long history of abuse and filicide in adoptee’s homes. However low you claim statistics to be, no child should be subject to abuse in their home. The fact that it’s happening at all means that it’s an issue.
  • “This is NOT an adoption issue.” – Hyunsu had no agency in what happened to him. He was placed for adoption in Korea. The agency matched Hyunsu with the O’Callaghans. Adoptive parent screening and home studies are not extensive enough. Adoption is what placed him in the hands of a murderer. This is most definitely an adoption issue.

It’s sickening to me that when a tragedy like this ensues and explicitly shows the brokenness of the international adoption system, people continue arguing the ways in which adoption is a miracle, a blessing, a glorious, romantic practice when it obviously had deadly consequences for this boy. It seems that many would rather spend their time justifying the adoption system and their way of parenthood than acknowledging the atrocities that could allow us to move forward with real reform to the system. A child who “loved his dogs, his big brother Aidan, and anything his parents made for him to eat” is dead because of the defective international adoption system. “He wasn’t dealt the simplest hand in life, but he found something to love in it every day,” the obituary said. Hyunsu’s short life should be honored, and sticking to the status quo by promoting an idealized culture around adoption certainly won’t do that.

Margie Perscheid says it most succinctly on her blog: “It is time for us to stop portraying adoption as an infertile’s right, a response to God’s call to save the orphans or a silver bullet against abortion. When adoption is done wrong, it kills. We need to accept this fact and dramatically overhaul this thing or end it. There must be #JusticeforHyunsu, and every other adoptee who has died at the hands of this flawed system.”

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12 responses to “Honoring the Life and Death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan

  1. Pingback: Adoption and Tragedy: Requiem for Hyunsu | Light of Day Stories·

    • Rest in peace, Hyunsu. While the adoption industry is severely flawed, I have to remain more optimistic and believe that change can happen. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fast, but I’m hopeful.

  2. I think to sit here and say that this is an adoption issue or a background check issue is covering the situation with a band-aid. I’m not even quite sure what this article is trying to convey. Are we blaming the adoption process? If so, how can any agency be 100% sure that the prospective adoptive parents are ‘fit’. Have they seen the parents at their worst? Of course not. I think that adoption agencies such as Holt International always put the best interests of the child above anything else. Unfortunately, this happens. Not just adoptive children but biological children suffer at the hands of those supposed to care for those. Far too often when hearing of such horrific crimes, it always followed by, “He was such a nice person. He would never do anything like that.” You just never really know. We live in the great United States of America where kids freely walk into school and kill other kids/teachers. Where a former police officer kills a man in a movie theater over texting. Recently a man fires a gun into a car full of teens because of loud music. Our trusted religious figures have been molesting boys for centuries. School teachers are sexually abusing our children. There’s just no way to really tell who a person is. This isn’t an adoption issue, it’s a mental health issue.

    • it is so dismissive and disrespectful to Hyunsu to continue to tout the idea that “this is not only an adoption issue.” The adoption system, which already has very loose regulations and minimal education offered, has even looser rules regarding who can adopt special needs children like Hyunsu. This is an adoption issue. Because of the minimal vetting out process, children end up in homes like the O’Callaghan’s or in ones where their abandonment and trauma is furthered by rehoming. This is an adoption issue. In his short life, Hyunsu had no control over which country he would live or which family would become his. Perhaps his only source of agency was throwing a fit about the bath he feared, which Brian O’Callaghan didn’t understand. This is an adoption issue. Hyunsu was used to his mother, and many adoptees initially prefer women because their primary caregivers have been women. Brian O’Callaghan hadn’t yet bonded with his son after four months. This is an adoption issue. The fact that adult adoptees’ voices are constantly overshadowed by agencies, adoptive parents, and a biased media: this is an adoption issue.

      You’re right that agencies can’t be 100% sure when approving parents, but if we are entrusting kids’ lives to these adoptive parents, the agencies should be pretty damn sure. Stronger regulations absolutely need to be enacted so that fewer children will be placed in homes where abuse is present, so that fewer children will be placed in homes where the parents give up on them and give them to eager hands via the internet, so that fewer children will need to leave their home countries and everything they know. While some times symptoms of mental health issues can be more easily hidden, the background checks, home studies, and follow up interviews are currently not nearly extensive enough, which could certainly aid in identifying red flags of uncontrollable temper and abusive tendencies before children, like Hyunsu, end up dead. The United States is a great country in many respects, but horrifically violent at the same time. The severity of Hyunsu’s murder as an adoption issue should not be undermined simply because there is so much other violence on a daily basis, too.

      • What would you put in place to prevent this from happening? You can put in all the background checks and regulations you want and this will still happen. I’m not trying to make light of Hyunsu’s death because I believe it to be very sad and tragic. But seriously, what would you have done differently? And what would your response be if you tried everything to stop this and it happened on your watch? No one knows what kind are parent they are going to be until they have children. We can try and do our best at preventing this from happening but the devil works in mysterious ways.

        I was adopted from Holt and while my experience hasn’t been the greatest with my adoptive parents, in no way would I ever blame Holt or anyone else.

  3. Wow. You are making a lot of assumptions, not the least of which is that Brian is guilty. What happened to innocent until proven guilty. The reason why his friends and family support him is because we know him. He doesn’t have anger issues. He’s never had anger issues. He’s been a great dad to the older son. Let the evidence come out before you castigate him. You’ve only heard one partial side of the story. In honor of baby Madoc, don’t vilify his father until you know all the facts. As you said, they are clear. But they really aren’t. That’s why we have trials in this country.

    • @Erica Chatfield: You are correct. We have “innocent until proven guilty” in the US. We also have brains in our heads that allow us to draw conclusions about situations from the facts that are known at the time, and the facts that have been made publicly available indicate that Hyunsu was beaten from top to bottom – hardly the result of an accidental fall as Brian O’Callaghan has suggested.

      Brian O’Callaghan will get his day in court. Hyunsu has an ill-tended grave. In my opinion, Hyunsu deserves the benefit of the doubt until Mr. O’Callaghan can prove without a shadow of a doubt that the facts of the post-mortem are wrong.

  4. Citing Margie Perscheid it’s the worst thing this article could have done. The remarks she made is totally disrespectul towards the hard work of some many adoptive parents around the globe.

    • I think Margie Persheid is right on. The remarks made by the global media industry are “totally disrespectful” towards adoptees and their first parents. The defiance and unwillingness of many adoptive parents to see the flaws and corruption in the system is “totally disrespectful” to adoptees and first parents. And so, Margie Persheid, with her words is just trying to be an adoptive parent ally to adoptees.

    • @Sorin: Your comment suggests that because a minority of adoptive parents are doing good work” of some sort or another (and statistically it is a minority that engage at all in issues of adoption justice) that the apathy of the rest should be given a pass.

      No, they should not. Too many adoptive parents are utterly silent on issues that have resulted from the status quo we have created. The broken laws, the bad practices are ours to fix, if we open our eyes and acknowledge our accountability. Suggesting that Hyunsu’s death had nothing to do with adoption, or that adoptive parent silence around it is appropriate is, in my opinion, just another example of adoptive parent entitlement and blindness to reality.

  5. Pingback: Precious Little Justice for Hyun-su | elle cuardaigh·

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