From Russia With Love -- Dealing With Difficult Adoptions

Adoptive Parents Say They've Struggled to Integrate Foreign-Born Children


Nov. 28, 2008— ABC News 

After years of failed fertility treatments, Tanya and Mike Mulligan warmed to the idea of foreign adoption after seeing an ad in the newspaper touting a Russian program.

The couple wanted to adopt older children who wouldn't require the late-night feedings, teething and potty training of an infant or toddler, and in July 2004 they traveled to a remote Russian orphanage to adopt two sisters, Margarita, then 11, and Elena, 8.

The adoption agency appeared to have found a perfect match for the couple, right down to the blond hair that the sisters had, just like the Mulligans.

"What we were told prior to the adoption was that they came from a loving family," said Tanya Mulligan, a nurse in Tampa, Fla., who was then in her early 40s.

Once in the United States, Elena quickly embraced her adopted country and culture, watching "Finding Nemo" dozens of times to learn English. But Margarita was a study in contrasts.

Less than a week after leaving Russia, the 11-year-old began to show troubling behaviors, losing herself in fits of rage for hours.

"She started having a meltdown and crying, and we couldn't figure out what was going on," Tanya Mulligan said. "She was running around the house and wailing."

Her adoptive parents didn't speak Russian and Margarita understood very little English. She was crying, out of control and because of the language barrier, there was little her parents could do, they said.

Eventually, Mike Mulligan picked up a video camera and began filming Margarita's behavior, wanting to show Margarita's therapist and other family members how chaotic their lives at home had become.

Foreign Adoption: Family Struggles

As the Mulligans learned more about their daughters' pasts, they say they learned the girls' upbringing was far from the description of a loving family.

The Mulligans said the sisters' biological mother was an alcoholic and a prostitute who left the girls and their baby brother with their grandmother, who, they say, routinely abused them.

"Elena apparently got the brunt of it," Tanya Mulligan said. "[The grandmother] used to take her and swing her around the room and smash her face into the wall."

Tanya Mulligan said the girls told her about one night when their grandmother kept hitting their baby brother with her cane until he stopped crying. The police came the next day and the girls were sent to the orphanage. They never saw their baby brother again and seemed traumatized by his disappearance.

Wanting to give their daughters a new brother like the one they missed so much, the Mulligans -- who always wanted a son -- adopted a 4-year-old Russian boy named Sasha shortly after adopting their girls.

Margarita and the boy, whom the Mulligans renamed Slater, were eventually diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, a common diagnosis for many children adopted from foreign orphanages where they were sometimes neglected and abused. Children with RAD have difficulty bonding with their new families and often act out.

Over time, the Mulligans said, Slater was also diagnosed with the eating disorder pica, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, low IQ, Tourette's syndrome and dyslexia. Today, he's a third-grader only capable of doing kindergarten-level work.

"One of these diagnoses on their own would be a lot for a parent to handle," Tanya Mulligan said.

Tanya and Mike Mulligan are now suing the adoption agency for damages, because they say they weren't told of their children's psychological conditions.

But in court records obtained by "20/20," the adoption agency argues the Mulligans agreed to assume the risk that their adopted children "could arrive with undiagnosed physical, emotional, mental and /or developmental problems."

The Mulligans' lawsuit is pending.

The Unthinkable: Disrupting an Adoption

Eventually, after life became unbearable, the Mulligans sent their daughter to a boarding school specializing in behavioral issues. But after two years, they realized they could no longer afford the $40,000-per-year tuition. In June, Margarita returned to her home in Tampa.

"We are doing everything in our power not to return them," Mike Mulligan said. "We didn't set out to do this [adoption] to just, you know, simply exchange them or give them back."

"I didn't want perfect children," his wife said. "But I didn't want a child that was going to hurt me. I didn't want a child that was going to disrupt my family and disrupt my marriage and make my relatives turn against me. I didn't want children that would make us feel like outcasts in our own neighborhood, isolate us and make us feel humiliated." In the last 20 years, foreign adoption has become more popular; Americans now adopt about 19,000 children per year from overseas. While the vast majority adjust successfully, surveys suggest anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of foreign adoptions end in disruption.

Disruption refers to the ending or "disrupting" of an adoption. The majority of these children are from eastern Europe and have spent their formulative years either in institutionalized state-run care or with family members ill-equipped to care for them.

In some cases, the biological mothers of these children suffer from alcoholism, leading children to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. Many of these children also have bonding and attachment issues.

Like the Mulligans, many adoptive families deplete their savings and cash in retirement funds to pay for the doctors, tutors, psychologists and therapists that their kids need.

The Department of Health and Human Services says that 81 children adopted from overseas were put into foster care in 14 states in 2006. For kids who are 16 and older, JobCorps -- which helps students learn a trade, earn a high school diploma or GED and get help finding a job -- is an option as a sort of aging-out program.

But an undocumented number of children are simply lost, part of an underground, undisclosed network of children who are transferred between families, adoption experts say.

When the Worst Happens

At its most desperate, the situation between adoptive children and parents can turn deadly. Since the early 1990s, the murders of 15 Russian children by their adoptive parents have been documented.

"People don't understand. These kids come at you every day & many times a day," Tanya Mulligan said. "It's like a battering ram and they just keep at you and keep at you and keep at you. And finally, they'll do something that endangers either a pet, or you or another child in the family and you snap."

Peggy Hilt, 36, was one of those adoptive parents who snapped. She's serving 17 years in a maximum security prison in Virginia for the 2005 murder of her adopted daughter, Nina, 2.

Hilt and her husband adopted Nina from Russia in 2004. Nina was the second child they'd adopted from Europe and Hilt said from the beginning she was withdrawn and often impossible to handle.

"She would bang her head on the wall, she would pull her hair out if something frustrated her," she told "20/20."

A stay-at-home mom, Hilt says she began drinking heavily in secret, downing close to a 12 pack of beer each day. The alcohol made her even more impatient with her children, as it did on the day when she finally lost patience with Nina.

"Nina picked up a fork off the table and went towards [her sister] with it, and I saw red," Hilt said. "I grabbed her and I snapped. I hurt her. I didn't mean to hurt her. Then I kicked her with the side of my foot and told her to get up and then I put her up in her bed and struck her repeatedly."

Two days later, Nina died from internal bleeding. Hilt admitted that what she did was inexcusable, but says she had never heard of RAD and didn't know that help was available to her. She said she's sharing her story hoping that no other woman has to walk in her shoes.

The Adoption Whisperer

Across the country, at the edge of Glacier National Park in Montana, Joyce Sterkel understands the despair that many adoptive parents and children feel. She raised three Russian-born teens, one of them a boy who had tried to poison his first adoptive mother.

She has dedicated her life to preventing American parents from disrupting their adoptions.

"It's like a divorce, with all the ramifications of a divorce," she said. "Legal, spiritual, emotional, financial -- it's a divorce. I think these parents are just hurt people that are afraid for their lives. I am the last person to judge them because I have seen children that, for lack of a better word, truly are sociopaths."

In 1999, Sterkel opened the Ranch for Kids, a last stop for parents who can no longer handle their adoptees and are considering giving them up. It can house 40 kids at a time and is at capacity with a long waiting list.

"It's really sad because many times the parents are at the end of their rope and they're crying on the other end of the phone, 'Please help!'" Sterkel said.

Though she's a nurse and not a trained psychologist, Sterkel has an uncanny ability to reach these emotionally damaged children.

"I'm very honest with them," she said. "And I'm straightforward and sometimes very blunt."

The Mulligans, seeking help to avoid disrupting their adoption, spent several months consulting with Sterkel on how to deal with Margarita and Slater.

"I still feel that there's a soul in there that can be salvaged, a heart that can be saved," Tanya Mulligan said.

Rebuilding Families, One Step at a Time

Sterkel suggested that all three Mulligan children -- even the seemingly unaffected Elena -- should visit the ranch. So this summer "20/20" flew them to Montana to stay at the ranch for a week.

The Ranch for Kids is all about structure and obeying the rules. Every morning, the kids line up for a bare-bones breakfast and then head to their chores and classes. Some kids are on laundry duty while others muck-out horse stalls. A school on campus allows the kids to keep up with their studies.

Sterkel is no-nonsense when it comes to disciplining both the parents and the kids.

"It's the No. 1 sin of adoptive parents, is the overindulgence of commercial and material benefits," she said. "We're not here to entertain children. We're here to give you a work ethic and teach you how to work and how to be responsible. And how important the family is, your connections with people."

Child psychologists say Sterkel is on to something, but it can take years to teach respect, set limits and build self-esteem.

In the week that the Mulligan children spent at the camp, some progress was made. For Tanya and Mike Mulligan, there's a sense of camaraderie with other parents.

"We're not alone," Mike Mulligan said. "We thought for the longest time -- other children are experiencing the same behaviors. The parents are at different breaking points. And the camp is really kind of a catch-all."

Margarita had a breakthrough at camp, telling "20/20" that in Russia, she had been the favored daughter, but in America she feels like she plays second fiddle to Elena.

"She's an extremely hurt kid," Sterkel said. "She has a lot of pain inside of her and she doesn't want you to see it."

Margarita says she thinks her parents wanted to buy her love.

"They always take us shopping. And, if they buy us things, they think that we like them because they're buying things for us," she said.

At the end of the week, she had a surprise for her mother -- a hug.

"I almost didn't know how to react," Tanya Mulligan said. "She actually reached for me and I was very, very surprised. I was very happy that for once she was reaching for me. Just once, it felt very good."

The Mulligans are understandably afraid to put too much stock in such a moment, but say they're "cautiously optimistic."

"There are millions of children out there that need parents," Mike Mulligan said. "Every child deserves to have a loving home. I think the message really that we're trying to send is 'be prepared.'"

Copyright © 2008 ABC News Internet Ventures

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Praise for angry AP's

The more I read about the behind-the-scenes activities taking place in foster-care and orphanages, the more I have trouble accepting the good noble nature of the adoption industry.

I have grown to believe AP's just might have the strongest voice against malpractice within adoption services, but it seems few take real formal legal action against it.  

I applaud the AP's who file law suits against misleading adoption agencies.  What is being done to parents and children because of the greed of certain people within certain affiliations within the adoption industry is a moral disgrace, and it's time parents pay attention to the lies being sold by and through adoption services.

Perhaps I'm a bit naive, but I'd like to believe the more misleading adoption agencies get sued and removed, the less workers will be willing to make costly mistakes/omissions within the child placement system.

You buy a kid from another

You buy a kid from another country that doesn't speak English, and then find it surprising the kid has psychological problems in America? Who are these idiots, and why do they find it so shocking adoption agencies are not so honest and forthcoming with the information they do have? These agencies are taking money for children who may or may not have been abandoned and abused, and these people are getting away with it because you have idiots thinking they are saving orphan children from poverty and abuse. There should be an idiot's guide to adoption that clearly states on the front-cover "Warning: buying a child means you're feeding into the belief that money can buy happiness". Unfortunately, this happiness belongs to the people making tons of money from the scams pushed on gullible parents. My favorite part in this whole story is how you get other people insisting all adopted children require specialized therapy. Why? Because that can bring in more thousands of dollars a month! What a freaken money making racket this "saving lives through adoption" has all become! I never knew how selfish adoption was until I saw how many people are making money from kids, and it's really disgusting.
Want to know why most people outside of the USA think Americans are selfish idiots? Because more and more Americans think money can solve most problems. Money can solve infertility, and it can solve hunger problems; it can cure boredom, it can build a better body with nicer buns and breasts and it can buy a new car that doesn't kill the environment like older gas-guzzling cars do. That seems to be the limit to the wealth of the average American's human concerns. Americans don't follow history, they follow their desire to be the biggest and the best, and it's making America look really shallow and stupid. The average stupid idiot American thinks money will buy happiness when in fact it buys more corruption and greed! Americans with a good salary and a hunger for kids to complete a family-picture are the worst of all desperate idiot fools with money. They will pay thousands and thousands of dollars to an agency that works with a poor country that throws children from poor families into poorly run institutions, then these same people will turn around with this poor child and pay even more money to have these kids sent to ranches where they can learn how to follow rules and adjust to simple living. Meanwhile, they won't help pay for foster-care services because they don't want to reward welfare mothers who have too many babies. (Welfare mothers are stupid idiots for getting pregnant over and over again.) It's really sad. If simple living is so bad, why are so many Americans trying to out-do one another with the best of everything? What good is social status if your family really sucks and life at home is really miserable? Maybe America should close down foster care, open modest sized orphanages on big farms and ranches and treat kids like decent human beings and see what happens. I for one would like to see less people making lots of money from the misery had by kids. If that orphanage on a ranch-farm plan doesn't work, the older kids can always be put into the military and the younger ones could always be sold through adoption agencies that work only with people from other countries. I'm sure there are lots of entrepreneurs around the world who could use a few young apprentices.

OOOOO I like this person!

OOOOO I like this person! You should become a member here. Something tells me you have some good input.


Well run orphanages

I agee whole heartedly with the idea of good orphanages that treat kids like decent human beings. But not the selling of younger kids! I am not sure where you are from, but I think America needs to put an end to Americans adopting kids overseas and put resources into taking care of mothers, children and families here in America. It seems to me that a lot of kids stay at school for most of the day anyway. Parents drop them off for before school care and pick them up after getting off work from after school care. During the week these kids are at school from 7 am until 6 pm. Orphanages could be an extension of the school day for kids in the community that were parentless (for whatever reason); these kids would go to a home atmosphere building, shared bedrooms, play and study areas, eating area that are staffed with young teachers from their school and other child care professionals that slept there on a rotating basis. Some young student teachers from local universities could live there and be given a stipend. There are ways we can take care of all kids in a community atmosphere. Weekends and vacation periods could have planned activities and excurisions in the community and the children could have their school friends visit them too. I think kids need a safe environment with stability in the same community rather than being shuffled around from foster home to foster home.

"Home" for children

I have a very dear friend who lives in the UK and years ago he told me about the Children's Home he lived in for several years before he was adopted and beaten/abused by his step-father.  In his mind, the only safe home he ever lived in was this Children's Home.  He did not have his mother or his father, but he had friends and care-takers who did their best to make the lives of these children as good as they could be.

It should be no surprise a person like him spent years/decades wishing he could have stayed in a small institution, and not have been moved into an abusive home.

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