When Adoptions Go Wrong

Dawn Davenport


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

09/12/2008 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog | 11 Comments

11 Responses to When Adoptions Go Wrong

  1. Avatar terra earth says:

    The story of how I came to be is kind of complex and hard to fallow, but that is why I’m writing it down. The psychology behind my family is complex. I feel it should be part of the public record. Someone should be held accountable.

    My biological mother was a 16 year old alcoholic when she snuck into a bar and got pregnant buy an intoxicated one night stand. I didn’t have the guts to ask her if she drank while she was pregnant with me, except for the night I was conceived, pretty likely. When I met my biological mother for the first time I was 45 right after my adopted father died. It was a disastrous and damaging encounter.

    What struck me was how much my biological mother sounded like me. She proceeded to tell me about her mother how was a extreme alcoholic, opposed to my biological grandfather who was a normal alcoholic. so much so that my biological mother showed me a newspaper clipping of her mother my biological grandmother who made the front page of the paper for killing herself and her friend in a drunk driving accident that she caused. Normally that woodnt make the front page except for the fact she was 85 when she caused the accident. Extreme alcoholism runs in my biological mothers family. My biological mother as well as her sister never had any children of their own, to me this is obvious damage from alcoholic parents.

    From what I can find out about my biological father who refuses to talk to me, from the internet is that for years he has been working as a part time janitor at a church. His face book account has know wife or children picture on it. To me this looks obviously like alcoholism.

    After my mother got pregnant she ended up putting me up for adoption through a doctor, who had a reputation as being an unethical drug dealing doctor in town who you could get anything from. [name deleted] Both my biological mother and my adopted mother told me the exacts same thing, unsolicited by me. The reasons she chose that doctor I never asked but it probable had something to do with cheaper, less regulation or none, didn’t have to have the fathers consent any or all those reasons. I suspect that this doctor was an addic, buy his poor disition making skills.

    Meanwhile my adoptive father was getting turned down by 4 to 5 adoption agencies because of his reputation as the town drunk he told me this himself trying to show me how much he wanted me, all I could think was why didn’t you listen to them. Just like my biological mother I too had a adoted parent that was an extreme alcoholic. For those of you who are not familiar with over the top extreme alcoholism. My father was the one that made all the other alcoholic feel better about themselves.

    Examples growing up at company picnicks coworkers and spouses wood give me a disgusted look because my father was dead drunk passed out next to me on the couch at 10am. I also got a suspicious disapproving looks from people in public because I was my father’s son. When I got old enough to go into bars bartenders mouths wood drop open when they found out I was [his] kid and proceed to tell me how much my father drank , I already knew. I learned very young to call my father before 4pm on work bays because any later he would be drunk out of his mind. The only advice I can ever remember from my father was if you’re going to drink and drive take the back roads and drive slow. Carried a case of gin in his trunk wherever he went.

    My father lived almost his whole life in a hotel downtown because that is a good place for an alcoholic to live, walking distance to several bars. My adopted father was recruited right out of a bar buy the owners of an insurance company to be an insurance salesman who would handle the out of town client that were away from there families and wanting to party it up and drink all night. Alaska has a high alcoholism rate because its dark and cold outside and for most of the winter it’s too cold to even do winter sports, so a lot of drinking goes on during those long winters. Plus he was already living down town in a hotel next to the company hotel room. I always thought my father won the job lottery, How often can a extreme alcoholic get a 60,000 dollar a year job were drinking was part of the job .

    I don’t remember my adopted parents ever being together , my mother left my father because of his extreme alcoholism even though she drank a lot herself and moved us out of state. I found out on his death bed that he was brutally beaten his whole childhood by his extreme alcoholic father and then his father died suddenly when he was 16. I finally understood my father, in his world all he had to do was not brutally beat his kids to be a good father. My father was the complete opposite , avoided any confrontation never got mad never disciplined his children. Did all kinds of horrible behaviors growing up never got so muck as a talking to. he was incapable of any kind of parenting.

    Looking back I can see that he had lifelong mental trauma from his childhood. Growing up he never talked about his childhood his father his mother his siblings. Never seemed to have opinions or beliefs. Never had dreams, he didn’t have heroes or people he respected. I don’t know foresure, but I seems the only thing he learned from his abusive father was how to keep quit and not make waves.

    I had an older brother who was also adopted the reason my father was able to adopt him was because he adopted out of state were know one new of his extreme alcoholism. I’m not prejudice but it took me tell I was 45 to realize my older brother was a probable a Jew I don’t know foreshore but he looked like a Jew, he has a Jew nose, from a very young age my brother rejected my adopted father and mother because of his alcoholism, he considered the whole family to be low life’s his whole life and rejected his adopted mother because he thought she would be trying to get money from him. Even though he had a world class alcoholic for a father he never ever tried drinking. He did all he could do to distances himself from the family. He was born naturally good with money, good saveing skills, he ended up controlling all the family inheritance. And cheated me and my sister out of 33 thousand dollars of inheritance. became religious, even though he was raised in a family with no religion or values and know financial skills. He on newmoris acations coned me out of money. … [Deleted by Creating a Familyfor prejudicial racial and religious overtones…] That seems to explain the huge difference between me and my brother growing up. I asked him at my mother hospice what was I suppose to do reject dad to how was that going to work both his adopted son rejecting our father.

    After being told by a doctor my adopted parented couldn’t conceive a child. Miraculously my adopted mother got pregnant with her biological daughter. My mother told me when she was drunk that all she ever wanted was a baby girl and she got her. She said she didn’t even like boys. Needless to say me and my brother became second class children after my sister was born. I don’t ever remember my mother ever hugging me which was alright buy me I was adopted after all. I wood of been nice though if she wood of tried.

    Looking back I realized because of my dad’s addiction he made poor disition in my life. Supporting me for 48 years and never making me stand on my own two feet was one of the big ones. When I was real young my father started to tell me what I was going to do when I grew up, never got the chance to dream about what I wanted to be when I grew up he decided for me. I’m 52 and not once in my life have I supported myself. That realization causes me a lot of damage. Growing up I had every kind of negative behavior associated with being adopted, coming from a broken home, raised without a father, cold distant mother major alcoholic mentally tramatised parental role model.

    From the very first day of kindergarten I had extreme detachment from school mates and teachers. All the problems I had growing up could fill a text book. Mist behaved in every conceivable way. From not respecting authority figures to running away from school acting with severe impulsive behavior with no consideration for anything or anyone. One of my earliest memories is of me thinking that if I just move, I’ll do something wrong. Starting fires, many burglaries, robbing convenient stores, killing animals, unapropriet sex, Alcohol and drug problems. Flunked second grade, always in special education, in the principal’s office. When I was a senior in high school the only reason I was a senior was because I was in special education, didn’t even come close to having enough credits to graduate. When I was a senor in high school I got my girl friend pregnant, short relationship, had very few short lived relationships. then got her an abortion, never have felt one once of gilt for killing my unborn child. I know what it is like to be an unwanted child. Got thrown in adult jail for 2 month for burglary, only time I ever got punished for something. and burnt down my mothers house,that time it was an accident. , all in my senior year. Left a lite cigarette on the ironing board and it roled of onto the bed. Never got into any trouble from my mother and my father, how lived in a different state, never said a word about it. I was able to completely block out my senior year from memory for 30 years.

    I’m 52 now and have flunked second grade, never got a good grade, then droped out, have quit or got fired from every job I ever had, never had a real relationship, don’t have any friends, never owed a dog, never bought a car, never bought a house, never been to a wedding or funeral, never held a job , never supported my self, never got married, never had any kids. Never made a car payment Exc. Getting in contact with my biological mother was a complete disaster, the only reason I did it was because I thought I had real brothers and sister, You would think my teen age alcoholic mother wood of got knocked up a few more times in her life. The unethical doctor who thought it was a good idea to place the infant with the exsteem family history of alcoholisms with the town drunk should have been disbarred and prosecuted. I should be able to collect off his social security. He knew, everyone knew about my dad’s drinking. my biological mother was just like me it doesn’t take much for her to tell you all about the extreme alcoholism in her family. In strait forward harsh language. Right now it looks like both sides of my biological parents family and both side of my adopted family, all four sides of my family have extensive to extreme alcoholism running in their family.

    After I learned that even though its horrible news it exspaned a lot. It also made me realize how much I really am a hillbilly from hell. I remember reading about jeans , and you can have all the jeans associated with alcoholism, but they have to be activated at an early age. Mine were activated at a very early age. At a very early age, before my friend were drinking, and they were all the future alcoholic drug addict. I got all my understanding of alcohol just from watching my father, all I knew was alcohol was great and you drank a lot of it. I filed an 12 once glass of vodka completely full to the rim and drank it all the way down before I realized that alcohol tasted horrible . I could never do that again in a million years. Needless to say the world emediotly started spinning hard and I fell flat on my face and that was the last thing I remember tell I woke up in a shallow bath tub with my mother and her friend standing over me. I was so young it wasn’t strang that my mother and her friend were standing over me buck naked in a shallow bath. After that I had an uncontrollable erge to not just to get drunk but to get super drunk as a child. Finding my biological mother made me realize what a hillbilly from hell I really am. Extreme irresponsible behavior from a teenages, adults, and a unethical doctor, is the reason I exist. I feel like everything that is wrong with parents and society today is the only reason I exsist.

    im 52 live in az were they don’t treat drug addicts mentally ill or the poor very well even if they did there is a part of me that loves being completely different from every human that ever lived. I still think I should be studied im in a class buy myself. If you could help me you could help anyone who was born with normal intelligence. Who’s childhood was completely screwed up and wrong. Everything I am came out of my childhood bad geans and the people around me. At this this age I’m still mirroring my father who excepted his diseased and at 85 when told by his doctor he was going to die went home gazaled a half bottle of gin and killed himself.

    To the human raise treat your children better, it’s the most important thing you’ll ever do. There not toys or pets there not your friend there not to make you feel better or look normal fuck your quality time parents don’t get quality time. And family isn’t the most important thing, learning to recognize if you should even be a parent. Learning to be a good parent and then be one, learning that its not about you, the world is full of 7 billion half assed children with almost zero truly wise adults. And those truly wise you dont even recognize. I wood take away all your churches and temples and turn them into drug rehabs and homeless shelter on behalf of gods love. I wood take away your sports arena and turn them into cathederals of higher learning. No more worshiping childish sports or singer, actors. You will worship your planet the natural world, humans like einstien. The very few truly great human beings of histoy. The sad part is you don’t know what your missing iv stared into the infanet complexity of the universe and saw god. We arnt created from majic we are created from trillions and trillions of unimaginablely intelogent complex machines all working together to create you, your infanetly real. Your as real as you can get. You learn that god dosent exsist whats truly inportent is the work he left behind. I don’t exsist the work I leave behind is what exsist. Im not brain washed or inflewenced in anyway by the outside world don’t care if you like me. Just speaking my truth just like my uneak one of a kind vision of god its all about what I leave behind not wether I exsist or not. The things that are truly important you don’t care about like this planet and nature, that’s why your destroying the planet, destroying natural systems and living animals that took billions of years to create raping the planet of all its natural resources poisoning the land, air and sea. All for your halfass familys. Mankind is heading straight for disaster and you deserve everything you get. Ignorant, self centered judgmental, greedy beings. Im your creation, I never should of exsisted. Im you, im mankind. well im judging you this time. And in the end ill of won. See there was never anything wrong with me, its all of you the human race that’s wrong. I saw such a wonderful future for you that will never be. I wood of preferred to be strangled in my crib, would of been a lot more humane. The worst thing you can do in life is screw up an innocent child. Terra earth

  2. Avatar Mirah Riben says:

    In my experience, having been researching and working with members of the adoption community for about 40 years, writing presenting…the origin of th problem is twofold. You hit on one: expectations.

    The depper problem is MONEY and greed (isn’t it always?).

    Adoption is a $6.3 billion dollar a year international industry. Those whose job is it to redistribute children, and whose livelihood depends upon locating kids for eager parents willing to pay huge sums…are not vested in being supportive and hand-holding and certainly have no reason to scare off potential customers with the truth!

    We need regulation of baby brokers and businesses called adoption agencies – even non-profit ones. We need to stop giving out adoption incentives that treat unscrupulous human traffickers on an equal plane with states who are trying to find homes for children who are truly orphaned or whose parents have been deemed unfit – right here in the USA…hundreds of thousands of them!

    Why do people shy away from “special needs” older children and naively think that institutionalized children who do not speak English and may have been victims of FAS will fair better?

    I highly recommend you read the following:

    1. Child Trafficking by David Smolin works.bepress.com/david_smolin/

    2. Romania for Export Only

    3. The Lie We Love by E.J.Graff

    4. Read what those adopted internationally and or interracially feel as adults:


    and: http://tinyurl.com/5qdjqe

    5. The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry

    Check with the UN. They state that adoption should always be a LAST RESORT!

    Taking children one at a time from their origins does nothing to ameliorate the poverty of their family, their village or their nation. There are far more humanitarian ways to help.

    More than a dozen children adopted from Russia have been MURDERED by their American adopters! Many others abused and abandoned.

    It MUST STOP!!

  3. Avatar achildoflite says:

    We adopted 3 children in one family and the DHS worker didn’t want to put a lable on children, so we have 2 R.A.D and one STSD. I feel the children should be in counseling when they enter foster care here in the USA. We need to get a jump start on the children Mental Health. When the children moved in with us, I put the 8 year old girl in counseling with her 6 year old sister and I had ask the case worker to do the paper work for the 4 year old brother, but she did nothing, so I waited untill after we adopted him at age 5. February 11 2009 was the adoption, we foster them for 6 months, We thought things would get better in time, But we are having are ups and downs, The now 9 year old put glue in my tea, the now 7 year old is cutting her self and is in daytreatment. The little boy just talks about hunting and killing. What we are learning from are children is the 9 year old has been raped, and has acted out on the other 2. We have 5 adopted children in are home. The other 2 case worker had them in treatment befor we adopted them, so they are doing real good. I need HELP with my R.A.D Children.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I am so sorry your family is still struggling. RAD is a treatable condition. Listen to some of the Creating a Family shows we’ve done on attachment and parenting children with attachment issues. Also check out some of the resources we list under attachment (in Adoption Resources). Get support for yourself because it’s hard work parenting a child who is not attached.

  4. Avatar MamaBev says:

    I watchted the 20/20 show with interest. I have adopted 4 older children from Russia in the last 3 years-one sibling group of 3 and the best friend of my middle daughter. My oldest adopted daughter watched the show with me (she is almost 20 now) and we saw a lot of similiarities in the Mulligans’ oldest daughter and her sister.
    I have read more books on adoption related issues in the last 3 years since bringing the kids home. None were recommended to be read before the adoption. I have since had a very serious talk with the director of the adoption agency-more training IS needed for those of us who are adopting older children! And, it should not be an after the fact type of self training!
    As for the small number of children who have been killed by their adoptive parents, why is the world looking at this through a magnifying glass? There are many more who are truly loved and suceed in life due to the adoptions! And, what about the children who are American born, often to too young of parents, who are subsenquently abused and/or killed by these incompent people-many more die each year at the hands of Mom’s boyfriend than total adopted children who are victims of parents’ frustration and inability to understand what they are up against!

  5. Avatar Dawn says:

    The show did say that most adoptions are successful, but I think you are correct that the take home message for most viewers is that adoption, especially of older institutionalized children, and especially from Russia, is too risky. What a shame.

  6. Avatar Dawn says:


    There is little of your response that I agree with, but I don’t have time now to do justice to a reply. I appreciate your thoughts and the time you took to respond, and you deserve a response that is equally thoughtful. I will post my response as next week’s blog. In the meantime, I would love to hear others thoughts on Mirah’s comment .

  7. Thanks for the very balanced and carefully written thoughts. Another sad part of this is that it casts a negative light on all adoptions in the minds of many already prejudice people.

  8. Avatar Dawn says:

    Hi Sonya, while I share your frustration, I don’t want to be critical of the parents. Parenting an unattached child is so hard, and parents are often misunderstood. I don’t watn to perpetuate the belief that all it takes is love. It is hard, however, to imagine why they went so very public with such a private matter.

  9. Avatar Sonya says:

    Hello Dawn,

    After watching the 20/20 episode last week, I felt the same as you. I was so disappointed that something like this had taken place and was aired on national television.

    As I mentioned earlier in a adoption group from my agency, I am a public school teacher and encounter children with these types of problems that are from loving biological homes. Although there are often some attachment issues that come along with adopting older children, the way that the parent reacts (or does not react) has a tremendous effect on the outcomes. Like you, I so wanted to be able to find a Russian Interpreter and sit down and hold that poor girl and assure her that everything was going to be okay and that it was okay for her to have the feelings that she was experiencing. It just seemed that they pushed her aside and place all of their positive attention on the younger girl.

    I was heartbroken after watching that documentary, because I know that seeing something like that can negatively impact the adoption of children abroad and it breaks my heart to think that children are left institutionalized because of a biased show that does not depict the real picture of international adoption.

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