A family's story about an adoption gone wrong is told by 20/20.
A family’s story about an adoption gone wrong is told by 20/20.

Did you see the 20/20 show, The Toughest Call on troubled children adopted from Russia?

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The premise is nothing new to those of us involved with adoption, but it always interesting to see it through the eyes of the general public. The show followed the Mulligans, a childless couple that adopted two sisters, ages 11 and 8, from Russia in 2004, and shortly thereafter adopted a four year old Russian boy. The show follows them from their first weeks home (via home video), through boarding school for the eldest and tantrums with the youngest, and finally to the Ranch for Kids in Montana for emotionally disturbed adopted children. It is a sad tale indeed.

The Mulligans went into adoption bright eyed and enthusiastic with good intentions. They had love to give, and these Russian orphans needed love. It seemed like the perfect fit. It is now painfully apparent that they were woefully unprepared to adopt older children. They wanted healthy normal kids that would respond like healthy normal kids to their love, and would flourish in their new environment of designer rooms and the best American money has to offer. Instead, much to their surprise, they got children damaged from abuse and neglect.

It is not my place or my intent to criticize these well meaning parents. I haven’t walked in their shoes, and I know enough to know that until you’ve lived through an experience you have no right to judge. Raising emotionally disturbed or brain damaged children is a challenge for the best parents. They clearly want to help their children and are not willing, at least for now, to throw in the towel and give up. I admire tenacity. This show, however, disturbed me.

The beginning of their adoption story is told through home videos. These videos were heart wrenching, and quite frankly seemed exploitative to me. One video was taken less than a week after they brought their first two children home. The camera followed a frightened confused 11 year old around the house while she sobbed and tried to escape. It felt more like the child was being chased by the camera toting parent. The parents said they took the video to show others how chaotic their life had become. Mind you, this was less than a week home, and a child crying uncontrollably and running aimlessly around the house seeking a way out surprised them. What in the world did they expect? Of course, I wasn’t there and I also don’t know what was left on the editing room floor, but what was shown on the video looked like a terrified grieving child, and seemed like a reasonable reaction one week after everything she knew in her world had been obliterated. Her pain, confusion, and fear were palpable. I wanted to sit down on the floor next to her sobbing body, and just be with her to let her know that she wasn’t alone.

The show continued with other scenes of the oldest daughter acting out, the youngest daughter acting perfect, and the son acting troubled. The parents told the world that their daughters’ birth mother was an alcoholic abusive prostitute. As I watched, my overwhelming reaction was to question why this intensely personal information and moments of a child’s life were being aired on national TV. It’s one thing if an adult chooses to share personal information with the world, but a parent does not have the right to do that to a child. For the life of me, I can’t imagine recording the videos in the first place unless urged to do so by a therapist of social worker, and that seems highly unlikely one week post adoption. There have certainly been times when my children were suffering and acting in what I consider an irrational way, but recording these moments for posterity never entered my mind. And I’m certainly glad that when I’m stressed and acting less than my best no one is following me around with a camera. The home videos looked like evidence gathering for their eventual lawsuit against their adoption agency.

I am not suggesting that these children do not have serious attachment issues. I have no idea. Certainly some of the behavior described on the show would indicate poor attachment. What I am suggesting is that one week post adoption is far too early to be labeling a child or collecting evidence, and that exposing your child on national TV is not a good way to foster attachment.

Another things that irked me about the show was the analogy of adoption to an arranged marriage and the “logical” conclusion that “if the chemistry isn’t present, it won’t work.” I don’t deny that there is often a serendipity aspect to life where it feels like things are just meant to be. Where the child you get, either through birth or adoption, just fits perfectly with your personality. When this happens, it’s an undeserved blessing. (Is there any such thing as a deserved blessing?) Most of the time, however, we have to work at relationships, including relationships with our children. We have to look for things we have in common, ways that we can connect, ways that we are alike. Chemistry can be created; that is our job as the parent.

I don’t know how things will turn out for this troubled family. They need ongoing support and therapy in order to stand a chance. They need advice on how to raise children that have troubled pasts, and they need some plain old parenting advice. They received wise counsel and a sympathetic ear from Joyce Sterkel at the Ranch for Kids in Montana, which is at least a start. I hope and pray that they will find competent counselors in their home town that understand attachment, family dynamics, brain damage, and parental stress.

The Mulligans are a cautionary tale for others, and I’m more interested in what we can do to prevent more stories like this. The one thing that was absolutely clear to me is that they were unprepared for adopting older institutionalized children. They also seemed unprepared for how to foster normal sibling relationships, especially the typical triangulation that some kids are so good at (with one child playing the role of the perfect child and the other taking the part of the troubled one). I don’t know if they were unprepared because their agency failed to educate them or because they didn’t want to really hear what their agency had to say. Prospective adoptive parents, intent on getting a child, sometimes resent being told that they need to read more books or attend more classes. They don’t want to hear that it may be a long hard row to hoe. They don’t want to be told that maybe they should adopt only one child, rather than quickly go from zero to three. They want to believe that if they can help their children look the part of a normal American kid by dressing them from Gap Kids and decorating their rooms from Disney, they become normal American kids.

Adoption agencies also often share the blame. I don’t know anything about the specifics of this case other than that the Mulligans are suing their adoption agency, but agencies walk a fine line between preparing prospective adoptive parents and scaring them away, and some agencies do a better job than others. Adoption is a business and prospective parents pay the bills. Any reputable agency should provide post adoption services. Family struggles are typical, and this family in particular could have used good advice in their first months home. As I always tell people when they are selecting an agency: look for an agency that feels more like a child welfare agency, than a child finding agency.

The Mulligans said they went public to let others know about the pitfalls of adopting older children. Fair enough. Families that adopt older children from abusive and neglectful backgrounds need to be prepared, and this is a message the public needs to hear. Good adoption agencies and professionals have been saying this for years. I just hope the Mulligans, and especially the Mulligan children, haven’t paid too high a price for this public education.


Image credit: allthecolor