Broken Hearts, Broken Lives, Broken Families
After hearing so much about the 20/20 special on failed international adoptions I had to make sure I saw it. I watched the trailer and tried to reserve judgment until having view the entire show. So, along with friends yesterday evening I sat down to watch it, trying to keep an open mind throughout. I hope many of you watched it as well so you can contribute your 2 cents worth (after all, you contributed much more than that on this blog this past week! Hahahaha!).
Watching something like this when you have already lived through RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) is VERY different than watching it having never truly understood the reality of what RAD is. I also found myself in the somewhat interesting position of viewing this while also having experienced what in my mind has been a 100% successful older child adoption. Finally, as we await the arrival of our daughters who mirror the ages of the ones presented in the special, the show took on a much deeper meaning for me.
My first general thought about the program was that IT failed in a couple of ways. Assuming that this program was to inform the average American about the perils of international adoption, it did not explain at all what RAD really is, it highlighted behaviors (and I thought didn't do a very good job of that) and showed video of children from a particular family, but it didn't explain at all how a child becomes so damaged. How can the layman begin to understand what RAD is if they don't know how the disorder even begins? I also thought it glossed over with just a mere mention that children adopted domestically also have high rates of diagnosed RAD (and in my opinion many undiagnosed cases are out there as well). It was obvious there was an agenda...a bias against international adoption when the exact same issues arise with children adopted domestically. Why focus solely on international adoption then? Why not do a show on "Failed Adoptions"...but of course we probably do not track statistics for children whose adoptions were not completed but also "failed" due to RAD from the US foster care system because the adoption had not yet finalized here in the US courts.
I also thought that a show such as 20/20 could have come up with a better statistic than "10-25% of all international adoptions end in disruption". Sorry folks, that is such a wide margin for error that I find it a "throwaway" statistic and not worthy of my attention. I also do not believe it, after almost 10 years on international adoption boards online. 10% maybe, 25%? No way. That would be enough to be statistically significant to almost every prospective adoptive parent and dissuade most from ever adopting. To throw a statistic out there as fact in such high profile journalism is irresponsible, and a 15% margin of error is ridiculous when speaking of people's lives.
The Mulligan family was the focus of the story, and they adopted 3 children from Russia, biological sisters for their first adoption then a son later on. 2 of the 3 children presented with significant issues as were presented on the show.
The most disturbing footage to me was the home video taken the first week the family was home with their daughters. The oldest daughter, Margarita, who at around 11 years old was in such obvious distress, emotionally a wreck, wandering around the house sobbing, utterly lost and alone. And what do Tanya and Mike Mulligan elect to do at this moment? They decide it was appropriate after ONE WEEK to follow their child around with a video camera filming her "extreme behavior". They were in her face pointing a video camera as their daughter was experiencing incredible grief and disorientation in her new home, and they thought THAT was a way to help her. It showed an almost unbelievable lack of compassion and understanding of what our older adopted children go throw as they transition to their new lives.
It made me want to reach through the screen, grab both parents, and plop them down in a country where they knew no one, they had no resources, they had no one who loved them (obviously), and to know they would never go home again. Then thrust a camcorder in their face and film them as they wandered through the streets sobbing...yea...that would really help them, wouldn't it? How could they not see what I am certain most of America saw reflected in that footage? Fear...grief...loss.
Now I want to make it perfectly clear here that I am NOT pretending to be a professional, I have no idea if Margarita indeed is a RAD child...or if she arrived with RAD or developed RAD later on. And while I found that particular moment totally inappropriate I readily admit I do not live in that family's home so I have no idea what other behaviors presented themselves other than the lying and stealing that was discussed by the parents as their daughter is now 16.
And therein lies the problem with this special...this enormous gap that anyone who has parented a child adopted internationally must have felt while watching it. We have footage of a confused and sorrow-filled child one week post adoption, then we jump to the angry, distanced parents of a 16 year old. There was nothing in between, no explanation of the gradually escalating behaviors, no presentation of how RAD shows itself, no real discussion about the lack of affection other than a brief comment and then showing it at 16 years old after years of problems with the relationship when almost any of us would be worn out and show little affection. Where was the interim? What were the behaviors aside from that first week that led the Mulligan's to determine that Margarita had RAD? Huge holes led to a less than authentic presentation of their story, it did a very poor job of explaining to the average American why these kids are hurting so bad, why these adoptions fail. It left out the most important components which could have led to a much better understanding which is what I thought was the intent of the program.
Instead we were left with very conflicting images to use in analyzing it all.
We were shown additional footage of Margarita as she and all her siblings (including Elena, the younger sister who was supposedly "normal", I didn't quite get that at all) were taken to The Ranch For Kids run by Joyce Sterkel in Montana, where they participated in a treatment program which includes a spartan lifestyle, equine therapy, chores and straight talk about their issues with none of the interference of having parents present. There, all three children including Mulligan Slater, the son, were given as much a respite I think as the parents were. Mulligan, who quite obviously did have some mental issues and might have been a more classic RAD case to present was for some reason not the main focus of the story. Slater had multiple diagnosis as many of our children do, and the family's life had become a nightmare for many reasons due to his and Margarita's issues.
There were several moments within the program that spoke volumes, one was when Elena, the younger "normal" sister started crying as she was interviewed and she spoke about life here versus life in Russia and how much happier she was here. She seemed quite puzzled about her sister's behavior, and Elena was presented as the "perfect child" of the family. There was no discussion at all about her transition and how difficult or easy it was, what issues came up, etc. All of us know that any older child adoption could not have been that seamless, even if a child is quite resilient as it does indeed appear Elena is. Again, another gap in the story which left me wondering and wanting to know more.
But for me, the very brief interview with Margarita was the most profound and provided me as an international adoptive parent with the best piece of advice. In her interview she spoke about how her sister had changed during the two years she had been shipped off to boarding school, that when she returned her sister was spoiled and that her parents just bought anything that was asked for. Her obvious disgust at this was shown a little earlier in the show as she returned home from boarding school (again, why in the world would any caring parent allow a film crew to participate in such an important moment in the family's life?) and immediately made negative comments about her sister and her room which was decked out as any Princess would expect. The Mulligan's later showed the room in the new house which had been prepared for Margarita and essentially said "Why wouldn't anyone be happy with this?"...and then one contrasts that with the obvious relaxed and happy Margarita everyone saw at The Ranch for Kids where there was no designer decorated bedroom and every possible advantage in the world.
I wonder if after viewing the show the Mulligan's themselves "got it" at all.
As Joyce Sterkel of The Ranch said herself, and I am paraphrasing here as I don't have a transcript, one of the biggest mistakes international adoptive parents make is giving their new child everything, spoiling them.
They also interviewed an adoptive mom who is now in jail for murdering her internationally adopted child who suffered from RAD. Again, not the best example they could have used but effective. The mother, Peggy Hilt, discusses how she sank into alcoholism and was drinking the equivalent of a 12 pack of beer a day before finally losing control and murdering her RAD daughter. While sitting there watching this interview, I could easily see myself in her shoes as she discussed her child's extreme behaviors, the anger and the physical acting out. The frustration, lack of sleep, and rejection of a child can do incredible harm to a mom's psyche. Patience can only last so long, and I definitely thought to myself that I am SO GLAD I got help for Josh and I before we got to that point and I found myself behind bars. Yea, I saw myself in Peggy Hilt...with one exception which is why I wish they had selected another interviewee...the alcohol. I would have much preferred that they used an example that did not have the excuse to fall back on of "I was drinking heavily", as sadly even those who are not at all impaired have hurt their RAD children when their emotional reserves are depleted, and an example that didn't have that built in excuse would have been more effective at getting the point across.
I think this program, although well intentioned, did a great disservice to the international adoption community. By focusing on one family, ABC didn't use their programming time to their best advantage to present their case of disrupted adoptions. The family they did present no doubt has suffered deeply, have wounds that will never heal, but were not the best example of a true RAD affected family that could have been used. They were merely a family willing to be paraded on TV in hopes of perhaps feeling more vindicated. Their story was not adequately shared, and perhaps if it had been I myself would have found that I was more sympathetic, because sadly I DO understand what RAD can do to a family and I also know that the challenges we experienced would seem like a cake walk compared to the reality of what many adoptive families go through.
Where were all the other parents...whom we know are out there...to present their experiences? Where are the folks who have attended Nancy Thomas' seminars in an effort to learn how to better parent their damaged kids with firmness and compassion? Where were the videos of children taken 2 or 3 years post adoption showing true raging?
After all, if there are actually 10-25% of all international adoptions that have disrupted, one would think it would be very easy to find a handful of parents willing to go on camera. Interestingly, as I read the ABC accompanying article online I came across a statistic quoted by them of 81 children placed in foster care in 2006 who were adopted from overseas. If one takes a ballpark figure of about 19,000 international adoptions a year...by my calculations that is far less than 25% of adoptions that have been disrupted. I also have to wonder how that figure compares with supposedly "safer" US foster care adoptions.
I think that the 20/20 special did nothing to better prepare me as an international adoptive parent but its sensationalism did do one thing it set out to accomplish, it struck fear in my heart that didn't really need any further assistance. As we sit on the cusp of bringing into our hearts and home a sibling group almost identical to the one presented in this special, how can I not view it with trepidation? How can I be expected not to see myself in all of this?
The truth of the matter is that international OR domestic adoption is a risk. You can bring home a child who can wreck havoc on your life, deplete your finances, scar your soul. You can adopt a child who is mentally unstable, who is violent, who is incredibly angry and with good reason. Are they "damaged goods"? Some would say "always", others would say "never" and some would admit "sometimes". The reality is that there are children who despite every ounce of effort from their new parents will never heal. There are children who are deeply loved...as was not really show in this show, sadly...but who will be incapable of achieving some semblance of a normal life.
There are many who have said to us that our impending adoption is perfect, they believe it has taken on an almost fairy-tale like quality to it. Others who have met our daughters-to-be have said that they are a perfect match. I have continually said that we pray it all works out, that we know our newest children will be coming to us with the most destructive histories of all of our kids, and we fully expect it could be awful for a long time to come. We know this is not necessarily going to be a "happily ever after" story and if we make it there will be accompanying pain, revelations, fears and much sorrow that might have to take place before true healing begins.
There are moments when I am terrified of the reality of what our life might eventually be. Others try to "pooh pooh" it, others who have never adopted before nor never witness RAD and its effects have no idea what we might be willingly walking into. Even I don't know the full extent of what lays ahead.
Questions run through my mind constantly...was Kenny's successful adoption an "accident"? Do I have any idea at all how to parent these children who will walk into our lives soon? Am I really the mom they will need me to be? How better can I prepare myself? Are we ruining our family by "tempting fate" one last time? What if they are so damaged we can never help them live a normal life? What are the things we don't know?
The only thing I have to hang on to, however ignorant that may seem to others, is our Faith that these are most certainly our daughters. I have tried to shake it for years, I have made every effort to let go of it, and still it lingers. I have to trust that God would not lead us down a path to destruction, He would not make something possible when we were told all along it was not, He would not have moved mountains to bring them home only to abandon us. I also understand that doesn't mean He doesn't have things for us to learn that might be very, very hard.
International adoption isn't a fairy tale, folks. Kids aren't institutionalized for happy reasons and institutionalization itself takes its toll very quickly. Not every family is emotionally or otherwise equipped to handle such children, I don't even know if we are. That doesn't make the parents monsters, it doesn't make the kids evil. It simply means that sometimes it is too late to help them, or that sometimes we don't have the right tools to do it ourselves.
How I wish ABC had done a better job with this, how I wish they would have accurately showed the gamut of circumstances within RAD families, that some children can heal and some have suffered so much that was out of their control that they will never present as normal adults. What ABC did was show a borderline disrupted adoption, what they did not do an adequate job of explaining was why it happens, what it looks like to live in a family with an RAD child every day, the great lengths that many parents go to who are not shipping their kids off to boarding school go through (I do NOT include The Ranch in that category as that is a therapeutic solution that may result in reunification). What it DID show me is a gap in our therapies, that we often want to treat the damaged child, but we do very little to work with the parents to show them ways to better parent these kids...to show our own failings and lack of training for dealing with such extreme issues.
I also think it is important that parents understand that your adoption agency is NOT the only purveyor of information out there, and if you rely solely on them to prepare you for international adoption then it is YOUR FAULT. Yes, you read that right...your agency facilitates an adoption, they are NOT RESPONSIBLE for long term ongoing education for you as the parent or therapy for your child. They can not possibly know everything about the child you are bringing home and you sign documents to that effect, that you understand the limitations of your agency. Your agency helps prepare you, but that is only a beginning point.
If you were buying a used car, crass though this comparison sounds, would you rely only upon the information the salesman provided you? Would you run a Carfax check? Would you have a good mechanic lined up for a pre-purchase assessment and for post-purchase repairs...after all, it is NOT a new car. Would you make sure your car dealer had a solid reputation? Would you learn as much as you could about the make and model of vehicle you were buying before you bought it so you could recognize its weak spots...oft repaired transmissions, timing belt problems with a certain year's model, etc? Or would you walk onto a lot totally unprepared, listening only to the salesman, having done no preparation of your own prior to visiting the lot. And do you recognize that no matter what, you are buying a used car and it may have some dents and scratches, it may come to you with a history of a major accident or at the very least a fender bender?
I have never understood why people who would never approach an auto purchase in this way would walk into an adoption agency having done so little self-preparation and self-education, then blame the agency when EXACTLY what the agency said could happen actually occurs.
I would love to cling on to the dream that our upcoming adoption will indeed be a fairy tale, that it will be wonderful and magical and the girls will feel as if they have always been with us. Wouldn't that be lovely? Wouldn't that be great for all involved? However, refusing to view this from a more practical and reality-based perspective will help no one, not us and not our children. I pray daily that our daughters transition will be a smooth one, that their fears would be reduced, that their trust in us as their mom and dad would be wholehearted and possible.
I pray that we do not end up like the Mulligan family, for whatever reasons, nor like many of the other families I know exist who have done their best despite great odds and still find themselves throwing their hands up in the air in defeat.
Too bad ABC didn't take better care to more fully and clearly present what we might be facing in a few months. It sure would have helped.