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Why call a son 'adopted'?

March 3, 2010 |  4:31 pm

The opening paragraph of last week’s article reporting the arrest of Claude Edward Foulk, the top official at Napa State Hospital, read:

The executive director of Napa State Hospital, a Northern California mental institution that houses mentally ill criminals, was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of molesting his adopted son for more than a decade, authorities said.

Why distinguish that the alleged victim was adopted? That's what one reader wondered when she called The Times:

"I notice that you refer to his son as being adopted.  That he molested his adopted son.  I don’t understand why you put the word ‘adopted’ in there.  He is legally his son.  If that were his biological son, would you say he molested his biological son?" 

Obviously the answer to her question is no. But the reporters’ decision to use the term "adopted" to describe the accuser was not reached as easily.

Richard Winton, one of three reporters on the first article and the author of a second one Saturday, pointed out that there are as many as 13 suspected victims in the case, many of whom were foster children in Foulk's care. The son also was placed in Foulk's home as a foster child and was later adopted. Thus far, Foulk is charged only in the molestation of his son because the statute of limitations had expired in at least four other cases.

To differentiate from the other foster children, Winton and his editors opted to refer to this man as Foulk's "adopted son."

"I suggested 'foster son who was adopted,' " Winton said, but editors thought it was too wordy.

However, a description along those lines would have been more helpful to readers. A headline and story that said the hospital director was accused of molesting a foster child he later adopted makes clear why the adoption is relevant. This wasn't the case of a boy who was adopted in infancy and raised just as a biological son would be. This was a household where foster children were coming and going for decades. As Winton wrote, court records allege that Foulk molested a foster child in his care from 1973 to 1985, and authorities are investigating cases that date to 1965.

Henry Fuhrmann, the assistant managing editor who oversees The Times' copy desks, says he agrees with the reader and affirms that the newsroom's stylebook listing on "adopt" is still in force. It reads:

Unless it is germane to the story, there is no reason to refer to children as "adopted" or parents as "adoptive." When adoption is a relevant issue and it is necessary to distinguish non-adopted children, "biological" is the preferred term. Do not use "natural" or "normal."

"Here," Fuhrmann said, "we didn’t do enough to question the use of 'adoption.' It’s good to have this further background about the case of Foulk's son. Working with the reporters and their editors, we’ll try to be more diligent in future stories."

--Deirdre Edgar

Twitter: @LATreadersrep