I saw an immensely disturbing story on 20/20 tonight. Well, actually stories...the stories of American couples who adopted Russian children, then had second thoughts.
The program focused on Michael and Tanya Mulligan, a Florida couple who adopted three Russian children, two girls and a boy. The boy suffers mild brain damage and sometimes acts out violently. The girls are better-behaved, but have sibling rivalry issues and some minor behavioral problems. The Mulligans are currently suing their adoption service because, as Michael Mulligan so delicately puts it, "When it comes down to dollars and cents, you're basically buying a child." And they feel that the three children they "bought" are defective merchandise. Unable and/or unwilling to parent these children as they agreed to do, they've dumped them off at a Montana ranch run by a woman who takes in adopted children and teens (mostly Russian and Eastern European) that other people don't want. The ranch accomodates 40 children at a time, and it's always full. It's like the SPCA for Russian adoptees. Foreign adoptees whose "parents" can't afford the boarding fees at the ranch or at boarding schools end up in an already overtaxed foster care system, in federally funded programs like Job Corps, or back in Russia.
If you think I'm exaggerating by comparing this ranch to the SPCA, here's a quote from the journal of Amy Thompson: "We discussed how much we would love to get rid of them like dogs at the pound, and even contacted a ranch in Montana about taking them to other homes." Amy and her husband Gary had adopted two Russian children. In 2003, Gary intentionally lowered 3-year-old Liam into a tub of scalding water, and both Thompsons refused to treat his second- and third-degree burns for two days. Liam died.
One Russian child at the ranch, a 9-year-old, was placed in psychiatric care after only 5 weeks in the U.S. because her family was alarmed by the way she ran around their house "touching everything", and by her temper tantrums. She is now appears to be a wholly socialized and normal child.
Would you place your 9-year-old in a psych ward for "touching things" and having tantrums? Probably not. Even if you wanted to do so, the system doesn't make it easy for biological parents to cop out on their responsibilities. So why do we make it easy for adoptive parents?
Faced with the fact that her youngest adopted child is brain-damaged, Tanya Mulligan whines that she'll have to take care of him for the rest of his life. She also whines that non-adoptive parents can't understand her situation, "People don't understand. These kids come at you every day … many times a day. It's like a battering ram and they just keep at you and keep at you and keep at you." She wonders where things went wrong.
Well, let's break it down for you, Mrs. Mulligan...
1. You "buy" children from a foreign country, probably with the expectation that they will be extremely grateful to you for "rescuing" them from a life of squalor.
2. You don't bother to learn a single word of Russian. The children, of course, do not know any English. Why would they? They didn't know they were going to be purchased by Americans.
3. You encounter situations (rebellion, tantrums, brain damage, sibling rivalry) that can and do arise in biological families. Rather than accepting such travails as challenges of parenthood, you see them as evidence that you aren't getting your money's worth. Much like those fat middle-aged men who order desperate 20-year-old wives from Russia, then can't understand why they're dumped after the ladies' green cards arrive.
I think I might know where things went wrong, Mrs. Mulligan. And it's got nothing to do with your children.
This is not to say that some adoption agencies/agents aren't unscrupulous, dishonest, or even criminal. Some are, and should be held accountable. But shouldn't there be some accountability for adoptive parents who abandon their children when things don't go their way? And isn't it time we teach people to carefully weigh the merits and downsides of foreign
child-buying adoption before encouraging them to jump into it? Should books like Adoption for Dummies really be on our library shelves?
The program mentioned that 15 Russian children have been murdered by their American adoptive parents since the early 1990s, and described the death of Nina Hilt in 2005. The 2-year-old was severely beaten by her alcoholic adoptive mother, who became enraged when the toddler tried to "attack" her other adopted daughter. Nina died during a Fourth of the July vacation the following day. Peggy Hilt gave police and prosecutors a sob story about being so overwhelmed by caring for a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old that she simply had to drink a 12-pack of beer every day.
Rather than making an example of Hilt, a court recently reduced her sentence. A Newsweek story on the murder actually begins, "Peggy Hilt wanted to be a good mother". Would anyone say this about a woman who pummeled, shook, and kicked her biological toddler to death? God, I hope not.
This list of Russian-adoptee murders shows that in every case, the child had been in the U.S. for less than a year. In most of the cases, the murderers were middle-class, educated people with no history of violence, yet the abuses are appalling. Brenda and Bob Matthey sadistically punished and tortured their adopted 6-year-old Russian son, Viktor, whom they froze to death by locking in an unheated crawlspace. The Mattheys were outwardly religious people who insisted that Viktor's Reactive Attachment Disorder and tantrums drove them to duct-tape his mouth, lock him in a crawlspace without access to a toilet, and force-feed him uncooked or salty food without water as a punishment. They also whipped their six children (4 biological sons, plus Viktor's 4-year-old twin brothers) with a cat o' nine tails. According to one website, Viktor might have been a victim of controversial "attachment therapy" techniques.
Renee Polreis tried to convince a court that her 2-year-old Russian adopted son, David, beat himself to death with a wooden spoon while her husband was out of town. When that failed to convince, her attorney produced a pathologist who said the bruising could have been caused by pneumonia. Polreis insisted David had severe Reactive Attachment Disorder, despite a psychologist's testimony that he had watched David hug and kiss her a month before his murder.
I don't know how many Russian mail-order brides like Anastasia Solovieva have been slaughtered by their husbands, but I fear that number isn't good, either.
The murders of foreign adoptees pass quickly out of public consciousness. At this time, a mere handful of websites honour the dead children and call for increased oversight in the adoption industry.
Why is this happening? Is it possible that some people don't feel the same empathy for their adopted children than they do for their own children? Some of these cases remind me of the torture death of Sylvia Likens at the hands of other teens and children, egged on by her guardian. This woman, Gertrude Banishewski, was not known to abuse her own 7 children, yet she had no difficulty beating, burning, starving, and molesting another child in her care. Similarly, the Mattheys did not lock their own children in unheated rooms when they misbehaved. Is it really the children who have attachment disorders in these instances?
While people like the Mulligans aren't abusive toward their adopted children, I wonder about the emotional trauma that could result when children are forcibly removed from their home countries, made to live in households in which no one speaks their languages, and abandoned if their reactions to their new environments become bothersome. It is painfully obvious that many adoptive parents aren't prepared for any sort of parenting, much less foreign adoptions.
Some choices are meant to be permanent. If you can't live with their consequences, then you shouldn't be making them.