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20/20's "From Russia With Love — Dealing With Difficult Adoptions"

Adoptive Parent Lessons We Can Learn from the Mulligan Family


Mulligan Family: Mike, Tanya, Slater, Elena, & Margarita

Mulligan Family: Mike, Tanya, Slater, Elena, & Margarita

Image courtesy of Mike Mulligan.

Tanya and Mike Mulligan opened up their home to camera's and displayed the extreme behavior issues two of their three adopted children exhibit. The Mulligans adopted Margarita and her sister Elena from Russia when they were 11 and 8 years old in July 2004. Soon after bringing their girls home they adopted a 4-year-old little boy named Sasha, also from Russia. They renamed him Slater. The family's adoption is 4-years-old now and the oldest and youngest children in the family are struggling with multiple diagnoses.

"I didn't want perfect children," Mrs. Mulligan said during the 20/20 interview. "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."

Tanya and Mike Mulligan are now suing the adoption agency for damages, because they feel that they did not receive full disclosure as to all of their children's psychological needs. The agency states that due to the paperwork that the couple signed, they understood that the children "could arrive with undiagnosed physical, emotional, mental and /or developmental problems." The lawsuit was pending as of November 2008.

The 20/20 episode also highlighted the time that the Mulligan family received help and counsel from Joyce Sterkel. Sterkel raised three Russian-born teens and in 1999, opened the Ranch for Kids, a last stop for families who are on the edge of dissolving their adoptions.

As I have been reading different message boards, I've noticed that many adoptive parents seem angry with the Mulligans and their very open discussion on some of the pitfalls of international adoption, even though Mr. Mulligan has stated that there are many children awaiting homes and they are in no way discouraging people from adoption.

"There are millions of children out there that need parents," Mike Mulligan said during the 20/20 interview. "Every child deserves to have a loving home. I think the message really that we're trying to send is 'be prepared.'"

Things I think we can learn from the Mulligan family

I think that there are many lessons to be learned from this family for prospective and current adoptive parents, so what can we learn?

  • Be prepared to parent your new child(ren). Just like Mr. Mulligan stated above.

    • Understand grief and loss issues associated with adoption. During the 20/20 episode footage was shown of 11-year-old Margarita running around the house distraught and out of control. Mr. Mulligan had filmed the footage after the girls had been home for only a few days. My immediate reaction? The child was grieving, but to new adoptive parents, perhaps not trained on grief and the impact the first few days/weeks home in a new environment/home/country, it was overwhelming and scary behavior to witness.

    • Understand the drug/alcohol effect on brain development and how it affects behavior. The Mulligans discovered that Slater suffers from brain damage and therefore will need lifelong care.

    • Understand abuse and neglect issues and the impact on brain development.

    • If adopting internationally, learn a few key phrases in your child's language in order to communicate and comfort. This was another huge barrier to this adoptive family.
  • Seek help when needed and if the help is not helpful, move on. Try the United Way's 211 system to locate resources in your area.

  • Don't try to buy the child's love. Sterkel stated on the 20/20 episode,

    "It's the No. 1 sin of adoptive parents, the overindulgence of commercial and material benefits."

    Remember where the children have come from. Stuff may be really distracting and unattractive to older adoptees who have lived without for so many years.

  • Remember that you are a stranger. Period. Joyce Sterkel compared adoption to an arranged marriage. What an accurate comparison. How weird it must be for an older child to be introduced to a complete stranger and be told, "this is your mom." You are a stranger for the first bit of the relationship. So, spend time bonding and getting to know your child and not in a shopping mall.

Remember that these issues are not limited to Russian adoptees. A study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine reports that internationally adopted teens seem to do better than domestically adopted teens when it comes to navigating the rough waters of adolescence.

My final comments regarding the Mulligan family? Unless you've lived it, you probably don't understand the full scope of it all. The best we can do is to support and learn from each other.


About.com Interview with Mike and Tanya Mulligan

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  6. 20/20 Investigated Russian Adoptions and How Some Children Struggle Fitting In

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