Should yellers and screamers adopt?

They're hoping to raise a child from China -- but I don't think they're suitable.

Published July 26, 2005 7:15PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm acquainted with a couple in their 50s who are going to adopt a child from China. They have been married for about five years and don't have any children. I'm not their friend but I know their story through a close friend of mine who rents part of their house. My problem is this: These people fight constantly. My friend (who would have no reason to make all this up) tells me that the neighbors have even complained about and to the couple because of all the yelling that comes from their house. The wife is the loud one. She constantly criticizes and belittles the husband in screaming tones. He is apparently quite passive, and puts up with all this verbal aggression from his wife. I don't believe these people have any business adopting an innocent baby. From what I have gathered they are going to adopt an orphan and have told many people. The wife tells everyone that her motive is to rescue a child from its underprivileged situation.

I feel strongly that they shouldn't be allowed to have a child. I know enough about people to feel sure that the woman will emotionally abuse the child the way she does her husband. My friend has talked to the man about this and he says that he will be the "buffer" for the child against his wife's anger. This sounds ludicrous to me but he has no intention of calling off the plan. He never stands up to his wife -- just does what she wants (usually after she screams at him for a while.) The man's sister, neighbors and other acquaintances are all talking about this adoption behind the couple's back. No one wants to talk to them directly because they don't want to be the target of this woman's hostility.

I think the situation is crazy and someone should put a stop to it! I'd love to see a person from their immediate circle confront both of them, not just the husband, and say in no uncertain terms that they will be putting the child in a very bad situation, and should immediately cancel all plans to adopt. By the way, there is no question of the wife or couple going into counseling. She says there's nothing wrong with her and refuses to go to marital counseling with him even though he has told her he wants to.

Cary, what would you do in my place? I know It's not my job to confront these people, yet I hate to see an innocent being moved into a house of abuse and dysfunction. Everything in me cries out that it will be wrong and all these "good" people are sitting around and doing nothing. Is there anything that a reasonable person can do to make a difference here?


Dear S,

I grow exceedingly cautious whenever anyone asks how to intervene in the lives of other people, especially people they don't know well, especially in matters generally conceded to be private. This caution is compounded by the fact that we don't know for sure what's best for this hypothetical child. If adopted, he or she may grow up with parents who yell at each other. If not adopted, the same child may starve in a remote village, or be sold into sexual slavery, or never get an education, or die of easily treatable disease. We don't know.

Children can be innocent pawns in crazy adult schemes. They do need advocates. But I don't know enough to take a side. So I'm just going to try to help you think through your options.

I wrote to you and asked what state you live in. You told me California. The Weblocator's Guide to California Law says that, apart from a requirement that the adopted person be at least 10 years younger than the adoptive parent, the law is "quite flexible with regard to other qualifications. There is no particular age, housing situation, social background, or income level that makes certain people more qualified than others to be adoptive parents." It does say, however, that "some people may be required to provide additional information to an agency considering their application."

This last bit may provide an opening, should you choose to take it. You say neighbors have complained about the couple's fighting. If they complained to the police, then those complaints would be part of the public record, and presumably relevant to the decision of the agency charged with approving the adoption.

Those complaints might raise related questions of fitness. For instance, sometimes when people scream at each other it's because they're blind drunk, or coming down off amphetamines. Then again, sometimes it's just a bad bowling score.

There's nothing wrong with screaming per se, if you ask me. It's what we're screaming that counts. What if we were to scream that it rather perturbs us to watch the treasury of a once-great nation looted by war profiteering? What if we were to scream that it's indeed a little troubling to have a stupid-ass dumb fuck liar as a president? That sort of screaming would be nice to hear as you walk down the street of your neighborhood. I would rather like that.

But the kind of screaming people do when they're screaming at a spouse is often neither entertaining nor enlightening. A lot of times it's hard to tell what they're screaming about. And it can indeed be traumatic for children.

Another thing you might do is encourage the husband to see a marital counselor, whether his wife is willing to go or not. Any intervention at all from a professional at this time might have positive results. The husband might learn useful techniques for coping with the wife's anger. That could defuse situations in which she becomes abusive. He might learn how truly destructive their fights could be to the emotional growth of an adoptive child. He also might learn that he actually wants to get out of the marriage.

So that's two things: Look into whether there are complaints about domestic disturbances at that house in the public record, and see about getting the husband to see a marriage counselor. And then the third, more long-term idea is that if they should adopt, you can spend more time at your friend's place and get to know the adopted child. I don't know where I picked this up -- probably from the author Alice Miller, who calls such a person an "enlightened witness" -- but my impression is that caring and supportive people outside the family can be of immense and sometimes life-changing significance for children in chaotic households.

Let me repeat: I'm not encouraging you to meddle. I'm just trying to help you think through your options. There's a reason that there is not an automatic neighborhood comment period for a planned adoption the way there is for a planned second story on a house. We think of such things as private. Perhaps, though, that's not always to the best, as abuse thrives in secrecy. So good luck with whatever you decide to do.

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