From Russia With Love -- Dealing With Difficult Adoptions

Adoptive parents chronicle their struggle with behaviorally challenged children.

November 24, 2008, 11:54 AM

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 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.'"

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