From Russia With Love -- Dealing With Difficult Adoptions
Adoptive Parents Say They've Struggled to Integrate Foreign-Born
By JUJU CHANG, JIM DUBREUIL and KETURAH GRAY
Nov. 28, 2008—
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
"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.
Watch the story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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