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.”