Adoption BE-AWARENESS and Remembrance

Mirah Riben, author and activist
13 min readNov 9, 2021


Thirteen reported cases of adoption abuse in 13 months

Once a year, in November, the nation dons rose-colored glasses for the annul November Adopt-a-Thon, known as National Adoption Month (aka National Adoption Awareness Month), to exalt the blessings of adoption with a proliferation of happily-ever-stories intended to encourage more adoptions.

But infant adoption needs no such encouragement, inasmuch as the number of those seeking newborn babies for adoption far surpasses the number being relinquished. To meet this demand, expectant unmarried moms in crisis are persuaded to let their children be adopted by more “deserving” couples, and singles in order to provide them a “better life.”

Unbeknownst to the public, behind the joyous, shimmering curtain, are some different realities of adoption that belie the image of adopters as hero saviors above reproach. We know that child abuse and neglect exist — and are in fact part of the reason adoption is necessary. Parents are often young, inexperienced, stressed, incapable, and may have had children unintentionally.

On the other hand, we count on adopters as a safety net for children in need and believe them to be highly motivated, very intentional, stable, mature, capable and carefully vetted. The realization that adopters can and do abuse children they are entrusted with is thus extremely shocking.

The following are a small sampling of cases that were reported to authorities and made it to the courts and were reported in the media that I happened to see, in the past 12 months:

  1. Nov. 5, 2020: Michael Anthony Gray Sr., 63; his wife, Shirley Gray, 60; and their son, Michael Anthony Gray Jr., 40, were charged with starving and abusing several adopted children until two of them died. The body of couple’s adopted son, Johnathan Gray, no more than eight, was found buried in the backyard of their home in East Tennessee. The Grays each face two counts of felony murder, one count of abuse of a corpse, seven counts of aggravated child abuse and seven counts of aggravated child neglect. The trio allegedly abused four young children, including by feeding them a starvation diet and keeping them in cages. The couple is also is charged with keeping the children’s deaths secret, and continued to collect between $15,000 and $61,000 in benefits from the state, according to court records.
  2. Jan. 27, 2021: Deidre Matthews, 50, and her husband, who received the 2006 DHS Adoptive Parent of the Year award pleaded no contest in Delaware County District Court to 12 counts of child abuse, child neglect and child endangerment. The couple reportedly lived with nine children, ages 4 through 17, in an animal feces-infested mobile home in Jay, Oklahoma. The oldest teen was forced to kill her pet kitten by bashing its head into a tree; another child was handcuffed and placed in a dog cage; children were made to stand outside or walk around the house naked; and children were kept home from school to avoid detection of bruises, welts and wounds. Matthews was also accused of beating the children, allowing pet monkeys to bite the two teen daughters, and withholding food and water as punishment.

Matthews received a life sentence, all but four years of which was suspended. She will have to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence. The Matthews received the award after finalizing the adoption of some the children they were raising and before any allegations of abuse were made.

3. Aug, 17, 2021: Donald Haynes agreed to a plea deal for the rape of Crista Johnstan, adopted at 3 weeks old and sexually assaulted “hundreds of times.” Christi ran away at 13 to save her sister being likewise raped.

4. Sept. 23, 2021: Barbara Barrett, of Greenville, TX was found guilty of abusing her adoptedchildren and forcing them to work in a puppy mill, as well as continuous trafficking of persons. She was sentenced to 99 years. The felony indictment alleged the Barretts “did knowingly traffic [the children] through force, fraud or coercion … to engage in forced labor or services,” resulting in a financial benefit to themselves.

5. Oct. 22, 2021: Stephanie Duncan, 43, of Annville Township, PA, faces up to 288 years in prison. Duncan’s husband Robert has already been jailed for between six and 30 years for abusing their five adopted children. The 5-year-old was denied him water for periods of time and forced him to sleep in only a diaper on a cold basement floor. All of their adopted children were victims of “graphic punishments, restrictions, and the denial of basic, necessary sustenance” at the hands of the couple. UPDATE: Duncan was sentenced to 17 to 47 years.

6. Nov. 10, 2021: Mary Eileen Diehl, 62 of PA was charged with criminal homocide in the poisoning death of her adopted son, Najir Diehl 11, described as handicapped and not ambulatory on his own. The criminal complaint states that Diehl “did on our about September 5, 2021, with malice, premeditation and the specific intent to kill, did have the care dependent victim ingest poison for the purposes of causing his death.”

The Duncans’ 11-year-old adopted son was taken Jan. 13 to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center after he was found unresponsive and hypothermic in the family’s basement, in which he lived full-time with two other siblings. The Duncans punched, smacked and strangled children aged between six and 15. The children were hit for doing chores slowly or for ‘stealing’ water from kitchen to drink.

Prosecutors said the boy had unusually low blood pressure and bruises on his neck, shoulders, back, abdomen, hip and genitals. Investigators said doctors told them he did not have a pre-existing condition and the injuries didn’t appear to be accidental. The boy also showed signs of “serious bodily injury” resulting from exposure to cold, significant fluid restriction, possible ingestion of a sodium-containing liquid such as diluted bleach, and physical abuse, according to prosecutors. He would have died if he had not received emergency medical care, doctors reportedly told investigators.

7. OCT. 23, 2021: Kala Blakely, nurse practitioner in Trussville, AL, is accused of severe neglect and abuse of a 12-year-old girl she adopted. A joint investigation involving police, DHR, and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office determined the child showed signs of physical abuse as well as neglect and the adoptive mother refused to follow doctor’s orders when they child was released from the hospital.

8. OCT 25, 2021: Rafael and Maribel Loera are facing murder charges in Phoenix AZ in conjunction with the remains of their adopted daughter Ana Loera were found in the attic of her adoptive parents’ home after it was reportedly set it on fire last year. Before that, little Ana, once known as Charisma Marquez, met with a social worker from the Arizona Department of Child Safety in February of 2013. The child had a broken blood vessel in her eye and bad bruising on her face.

9. Oct 27, 2021: Raymond Jackson, 50, and his wife, Vanessa, 48, who adopted four boys were arrested Friday, two weeks after the police found that the children, ages 9 to 19, had been starved to the point that none of them weighed more than 50 pounds, according to the Camden County prosecutor. Medical examinations of the boys ruled out any natural cause for their small stature. One boy, a 14-year-old identified only by his initials, K. J., weighed 38 pounds when the Jacksons adopted him in 1996. When he was removed from their home on Oct. 10, he was 4 feet tall and weighed just 40 pounds. After 13 days in a hospital, K. J. had gained seven pounds, he said.

10. Oct 28, 2021: Kimberly Monique Smith, 37, of Rural Hall, NC was indicted on a charges of murder and intentional child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury to her adopted 5-year-old son, leaving him with bruises all over his body. According to search warrants, she told police that she had taped the child’s mouth to keep him from screaming and had beaten him with a yardstick and a charger cord. A 6-year-old child was also found in the home and EMS identified signs of trauma and injury. The child was taken into protective custody. Police reported that Smith he has been their guardian for two years, describing g the situation as the worst case of abuse he’s seen in 16 years.

11. Nov. 11, 2021. Lehua Kalua, 45, and her husband Isaac Sonny Kalua, 52, were a charged with killing their adopted daughter Isabella ‘Ariel.’ She was adopted from foster care two years and suffered a broken finger and a broken leg. The 6-year-old was reportedly kept her in a dog cage in their home in Hawaii with duct gtape on her nose and mouth. The adopters appeared to try to cover up her death, the girl’s sister told police.

12. Michele Rothgeb was ordered to serve 18 years in prison, which was the maximum sentence after pleading no contest to a manslaughter charge in the death of 9-year-old Zhanae Rothgeb, who had cerebral palsy and was found unresponsive in their bathtub after being left alone for hours. Her body temperature was just 87 degrees when she arrived at the hospital, according to prosecutors.

13. Dennis Bowman, 72, pleaded no contest in an Allegan County courtroom to second-degree in the 1989 killing of his 14-year-old adopted daughter, Aundria Bowman whose body was found buried in his backyard. Bowman told police he pushed the teen down stairs, killing her, in March 1989 after she threatened to report that he had molested her. The same day, Bowman called police to report that his daughter had stolen $100 from the couple and run away from home. After Aundria’s death, Bowman used an axe to cut off her legs so her body would fit in a barrel, he told police. Bowman said he buried that barrel at he and his wife’s Holland-area home and later reburied it at their new home in Hamilton after they moved.

Bowman is already serving two life sentences for the 1980 rape and murder of a 25-year-old woman — Kathleen Doyle, who was the wife of a U.S. Navy pilot — in Norfolk, Virginia.

Thirteen reported cases of adoption abuse in 13 months are not as rare as we’d like to think. Caging children has been reported in several cases or installing locks on the outside of bedroom doors, bedrooms bare of anything except maybe a blanket or a mattress on the floor. Burning children with cigarettes, forcing them to take ice cold showers, or drink hot sauce. Most of these cases only come to light after the children have endured years of unconscionable horrors and are able to somehow escape, seek help and report what happened to them. More cases of abuse in adoptive homes can be found on Pound Puppy Legacy.

Yet, how many more, we must wonder suffer in silence or are not able to escape their prisons of terror and torture? Many adoptees live seemingly normal lives, attending school, while suffering emotional abuse. In homes with multiple children, often one is singled out, made to watch others eat and allowed only leftover scraps or given their food on the floor like a dog. Some families make their other children beat or otherwise abuse the one who is singled out.

Expectant Mothers Need to be Aware

There are no guarantees that adoption will provide a better life. Adoption almost always improves a child’s socio-economic status and affords them more privileges and “things.” But be aware that adoptive parents are human and no amount of vetting is a crystal ball. Adopters die and divorce often leaving children to be raised by a single parent. And adoptive parents abuse: emotionally, sexually and physically. And if they do, you have no recourse, and worse, neither do the children once an adoption is finalized. If social workers or teachers ask them, they are too terrified with threats to tell the truth. Just helpless victims of whatever sick maltreatment is foisted on their tiny bodies. The only guarantee is getting the support you need to care for your child, or perhaps find a family member to do so until you are back on your feet.

Masha Allen who came to America at the age of five from Russia, speaking no English. She was “chosen” by Matthew Mancusco, a divorced retired engineer from Plum, PA. who found his victim through videos provided to him by an adoption agency in Cherry Hill, NJ. Mancusco requested a five- or six year-old blonde, blue-eyes girls and did not have a separate bedroom, or even bed for her. She was expected to share a bed with a 46-year-old man who fondled and raped at will, and sold explicit photos of her to an online circuit of pedophiles. When not being raped or photographed, Mancuso chained Masha in the basement, starving her of food and water so her body would not mature. Masha said she had waited and prayed for the social worker lady to come and check on her. It never happened. There is no follow-up on adoptions once finalized, giving disturbed people free reign with helpless victims.

Jeannene Smith handled Masha’s adoption through an Indiana-based agency called Families Thru International Adoption (FTIA). Fired by FTIA midway through the process, Smith went to New Jersey and founded another agency, Reaching Out Thru International Adoption (ROTIA), which finished the adoption and was supposed to do post-placement checks as required by Russian law. No one associated with the agencies in either Indiana, or New Jersey conducted a home study. A home study would have revealed no room awaiting the child he planned to adopt. Nor did anyone at either agency, interview Mancuso’s former wife, or his daughter, who alleges that he molested her. Smith has since co-founded a lobbying group called Focus on Adoption, which lobbies on behalf of agencies that facilitate international adoptions. She has not commented on the case publicly, citing confidentiality laws.

Masha is not the only child to be trafficked and sold to a pedophile through a US adoption agency. William (Bill) D. Peckenpaugh, from Marion County, Oregon, traveled to Romania to adopt a nine-year-old boy in 2001 through Tree of Life Adoption Center of Portland, Oregon. Peckenpaugh, who claimed to be a Catholic bishop, was a member of the American Association for Nude Recreation. He is also the author of “Familial and Societal Attitudes toward Nudity, and the Effects on Children’s Development,” an article quoted by nudists and naturists alleging that naturist children are less sexually active and more emotionally healthy than non-naturist children. Peckenpaugh pleaded guilty to a total of thirty-three charges, including first-degree sodomy, two counts of sex abuse, and one count of using a child for the purpose of sexual display, and was sentenced in 2005 to thirty years in prison. See the writings of David Smolin on Child Trafficking for Adoption, and E. J. Graffand many others.

Masha was rescued — not by an adoption case workers but in an FBI porn sting, that had followed pictures of her on the Internet for years. At thirteen years of age she had the courage to go public, in an effort to urge abused children to tell someone. Masha worked with lawmakers to forge a bill known as “Masha’s Law” introduced by John F. Kerry (D-MA).

We can only wonder how many other adoptees still suffer.

How many adoptees are abandoned like 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev sent back to Russia, alone, on a plane by Torry Ann Hansen who had adopted the child? How many are abandoned via a process known as rehoming? We don’t know how many, because it’s an underground trade and no one is following-up on adoptions, or even tracking how many children are adopted from what sources each year. A Reuters investigation uncovered cases of pedophiles using rehoming as a prime source of obtaining victims no one was looking for or cared about.

Sadness and Remembrance

Every November we celebrate and encourage, more and more unregulated adoptions, with no follow-up. Adoption agency businesses operate with zero oversight, many conducting slipshod home studies paid for by the prospective adopters. Adoption businesses are held to no regulations and not even a code of ethics.

Some ethical guidelines for adoption have been set by the American Bar Association (ABA), Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), and organizations such as the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute (EBDAI). But they are not enforced and are often ignored, creating dangers for relinquishing parents, adopters, and the child whose custody is being change. The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded in 1987 that lawyers might not ethically represent both adopting and relinquishing parties. Dual representation violates the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct [Rule 1.7(a)].

Even the best most caring, loving adoption begins with trauma that has been documented to shape the brains and neurologic systems of adoptees for their entire life. Instead of promoting more traumatic separations are we not focusing on preventing as many as possible by providing living wages for struggling families and adequate affordable day care?

Children need to stop being treated as merchandise to fill a demand, instead of finding ways to care for them that is safer and more humane, such as shoring up Family Preservation, and simple adoption, or permanent legal guardianship that does not eradicate a child’s past and medical history. Adopted children, even when loved, and well cared for, should not be forced to play a game of pretense or ignore their parentage and genealogy. Only then would adoption be something to celebrate.

We need to recognize the abused, abandoned, and those all who suffer from the trauma of maternal-child separation. Adoption Remberance Day, Oct 30, exists:

. . . to raises publi awareness of crimes against adoptees by adoptive parents, an action that current media does not recognize. It also allows us to publicly mourn and honor the lives of our brothers and sisters who we have lost who might otherwise be forgotten. It raises awareness about adoptee suicide, shining a light on a difficult topic. Through these actions, we express love and respect for the adoptee community. Adoptee Remembrance Day reminds others that we are their sons, daughters, parents, friends, and lovers. Adoptee Remembrance Day gives our allies a chance to step forward with us, memorializing those who have died too soon, and it also recognizing the loss all adopted people experience, before they’re actually adopted.



Mirah Riben, author and activist