By Megan Twohey, Reuters
Editor's Note: This is the final installment in a series of online and broadcast reports on adoption by Reuters and NBC News.
BATTLE CREEK, Michigan – Inga spent most of her childhood in a Russian orphanage, longing for parents who would protect her.
Her mother, a prostitute, had abandoned her when she was a baby. She never knew her father.
At the age of 12, her life was about to change. It was 1997, and an American couple was adopting her.
“My picture was, I’m gonna have family, I’m gonna go to school, I’m gonna have friends,” Inga says today.
But less than a year after bringing Inga home, her new parents, Priscilla and Neal Whatcott, gave up trying to raise her. They say the adoption agency never told them that Inga struggled to read or write, that she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that she smoked.
Over six months, making contacts via the internet, the Whatcotts sent her to three different families. None wanted to keep her. In one home, Inga says she had sex with a sibling who then urinated on her. In another, she says the father molested her.
Sent to a Michigan psychiatric facility at the age of 13, Inga says she had sex again – this time with her therapist. Michael Patterson, the therapist, was acquitted of first degree criminal sexual conduct and remains a licensed social worker in Michigan. He says he “did not cross the line” physically with Inga and remembers her as “a very troubled child.”
No one disputes Patterson’s last point. When Michigan institutionalized her, officials characterized Inga’s troubles this way: “substance abuse, domestic violence, separation from parents, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, attachment issue and mental health issues.”
Now 27, Inga remembers the situation seemed just as bleak to her. “My parents didn’t want me. Russia didn’t want me. I didn’t want to live.”
Inga Whatcott is one of the roughly quarter-million foreign children brought to this country through adoption since the late 1990s. A Reuters investigation has revealed how Americans who adopt from overseas can easily offload troubled children to virtual strangers they meet on the Internet. Through a practice called “private re-homing,” parents market their unwanted kids online and pass them along to others - quickly, often illegally, and almost always without consequence for the adults.
Adoptive parents say they turn to Internet groups because they have no alternative. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2001, Priscilla Whatcott said life was so bad that she wondered whether Inga would simply be better off dead. “Some days I think that the very best answer is for God to take her,” she told the AP. “Release her and be done with it. There is no happy ending here.”
BREAKING POINTWhen the Whatcotts arrived in Russia to adopt her in October 1997, Inga says she didn’t know how to be a daughter. She remembers hiding beneath a blanket on the train ride from the orphanage in St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Only after meeting Inga did the Whatcotts learn that she was four years older than they had been told. She displayed emotional and behavioral problems that they say had not been disclosed by the adoption agency. They say the adoption agency never told them that Inga struggled to read or write, that she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that she smoked.
They had no training to deal with the challenges Inga presented. Even so, they went ahead.
“When we got her home, it was a disaster,” Priscilla says.
Inga sometimes tried to sneak out a window. She would crouch in the back of her closet, refusing to come out. “I was hurting,” Inga says.
Within a year, the Whatcotts reached their breaking point. A fight between Priscilla and Inga turned physical during a vacation in Hawaii. “She’s got to get out of this family,” Priscilla told her husband.
The Whatcotts say they tried therapy and support groups. They even reached out to a Russian judge to undo the adoption.
The adoption agency that led them to Inga suggested they enlist the help of a therapist who had also adopted a Russian girl. But that arrangement was temporary.
(The adoption agency told Reuters it “cannot discuss the specifics of any case.” In the years since the Whatcotts used the agency, it says, everyone involved in international adoptions has come to recognize “the need for post-adoption support.”)
In an early example of adoptive parents using the Internet to seek a new home for an unwanted child, the Whatcotts turned to what Priscilla now calls “the underground network.” Priscilla became active in a Yahoo group for families who had adopted children from Russia.
“There are a lot of these Yahoo groups,” Priscilla says. “Everyone is chatting about various challenges with their children. I expressed what was going on. People started saying talk to so-and-so.”
AN OFFER OF HELPSoon Priscilla was on the phone with Mary Gayle Adams, an adoptive mother who sometimes offered to help parents find new homes for children. Reuters found numerous cases of freelance middlemen like Adams who assist parents with re-homing. Some perform services, such as posting ads of available children, that under the laws of some states can only be handled by licensed professionals.
Pennsylvania, where Adams lives, requires no such license. Adams, 68, isn’t a licensed social worker. She’s a former elementary school teacher. Today, she says, she lives in a former school with 25 children she adopted, some who came through re-homing. She says she still finds time to volunteer as a go-between in re-homing cases, and sometimes reaches out to families through the online bulletin boards.
Adams says she doesn’t recall Inga, the Whatcotts or the families she recommended for them. But Priscilla Whatcott says the homes Adams identified were “in no way” approved by government authorities. When the government places children in foster homes, prospective families are vetted and a social worker examines their suitability as parents.
The first replacement family the Whatcotts found for Inga lived in Maryland. Inga remembers little about her stay, except that it lasted less than two months. The parents decided she was too difficult to handle.
As with the first family, the Whatcotts say they located the next two through Adams, the volunteer. “I kept calling her back,” Priscilla says of Adams. “She’d say: ‘I have another one.’”
The second family lived in Michigan. The parents routinely took in children and had adopted almost a dozen. The Whatcotts never met the family before sending Inga there. She wouldn’t stay long.
She stole liquor from the family and ran away from home, Inga says. She and the mother exchanged slaps across the face, and Inga says she was beaten up by some of the other children living there. She had sex with one of the boys, she says, and he urinated on her afterward. She had just turned 13; she doesn’t recall the boy’s age.
The mother says she never slapped Inga. She says she doesn’t believe Inga was beaten or had sex with the boy.
Months after Inga had left the house, court records show, the mother was found to be “neglectful” of one of the children there. Authorities also told the mother about “allegations of sexual abuse between the siblings,” court records show. Inga’s accusations weren’t mentioned.
When the Whatcotts refused to take Inga back, Adams helped locate a new family, also in Michigan. In her third re-homing since arriving in America, Inga joined a family of at least eight biological or adopted children.
The Whatcotts never met the parents before sending Inga to them, but Priscilla says the couple seemed nice over the phone.
Inga says the father was violent. He and his wife later divorced, and the estranged wife described his alleged behavior in a sheriff’s report filed after Inga had left the house.
The man and woman couldn’t be reached for comment.
The woman also told police that her former husband “had a problem” with pornography.
Inga says it went further. The man fondled her on several occasions and sexually assaulted her, she alleged in a subsequent police report. “He’d kick out the other children, watch porn with me and say, ‘I bet you can’t do that,’” she says today.
Inga told authorities about the alleged encounters, but says she feared the man and didn’t want the case pursued. Because she wouldn’t testify, the prosecutor dropped a criminal sexual conduct charge against him.
IN THERAPYIn March 1999, when no family would take her, Inga was taken into state custody. She was admitted to Fieldstone Center, a psychiatric hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. There she met Patterson, the social worker who helped treat her. Patterson, 41 at the time, had recently joined the center as a therapist in its adolescent residential unit.
“I was really hurt inside,” Inga says. “Every night I’d cry hysterically.”
In June 2000, Fieldstone fired Patterson, and the state of Michigan’s Board of Social Work filed a complaint. It alleged that he had shown negligence in his dealings with two patients at Fieldstone. One of the patients was Inga.
The complaint alleged that Patterson had talked with a caseworker, Inga’s court-appointed attorney and Inga herself about a “possible plan for him to become her foster parent.” Such an offer could be considered a breach of a therapist’s relationship with a patient.
The complaint says nothing about what Inga would allege to Fieldstone staff the next year, in August 2001: that she and Patterson had been having sex at the facility.
Patterson had sex with her more than a dozen times between 1999 and June 2000, Inga told police. “She said that he promised that if she would have sex with him that he would adopt her and that he told her if she told anybody about their sexual relationship that he would not adopt her,” according to a report by the Battle Creek police.
Police also interviewed a patient who lived across the hall from Inga’s room. Inga’s door was partially open one day in April 2000, the patient said. That’s when the patient said she “saw Patterson kissing” Inga, the report says.
The police report states that Patterson had been fired by Fieldstone for “inappropriate conduct with patients.” Citing patient privacy guidelines, a Fieldstone spokesman declined to comment.
In 2002, Patterson was charged by authorities in Calhoun County, Michigan, with criminal sexual conduct in connection with Inga.
Patterson was acquitted. In his verdict, Judge Allen L. Garbrecht said Patterson showed “extremely poor judgment” by telling Inga he might seek custody of her. But as to the sex charges, Garbrecht said he was “not convinced that the prosecution has proven that element beyond a reasonable doubt.” The case, the judge noted, was essentially Inga’s word against Patterson’s.
State regulators in Michigan put Patterson on professional probation. He was required to complete 16 hours of “continuing education courses in ethics and boundary issues.”
Patterson says he never had any sexual contact with Inga. His acquittal vindicated him, he says, as did the actions by Michigan regulators.
“If the state thought I was a horrendous person, they wouldn’t have just given me probation,” Patterson says.
‘LIVED WITH FEAR’More than a decade ago, Priscilla Whatcott spoke out about her experience with her damaged Russian daughter and the perils faced by Americans who adopt from overseas. In Congressional testimony and media accounts, she couched the case as a consumer-rights issue: Adoption agencies, she warned, face no repercussions for failing to disclose pre-existing problems of children they place. Today, 16 years on, Whatcott still compares adopting Inga to buying “a pig in a poke” or being “sold a bill of goods.”
Whatcott’s solution was tougher liability laws. “Clearly, we would have avoided much of this heartache and tragedy if consumer protection laws pertaining to international adoption had been in place,” she wrote in testimony submitted to Congress in 1999.
In 2003, about four years after Inga was admitted to Fieldstone, the judge granted the Whatcotts’ request to essentially nullify their responsibility for Inga. They were ordered to pay $5,000 to the state and to help Inga become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Shortly after, a judge appointed Inga a legal guardian, Jodi Farleigh.
Farleigh took legal responsibility for Inga as the girl transitioned out of Fieldstone and government-sanctioned foster homes.
“She took a place like my mom,” Inga says. “No matter how I behaved or stressed out, whatever, I had problems in my life, she'd always be at my side.”
FEAR OF FREEDOMBecause Inga had never attended school regularly, she didn’t know how to read or write in English. She struggled with violent outbursts, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
“I get afraid of freedom,” Inga says. “I wasn't ready for that.”
Farleigh pushed to get Inga more schooling and therapy. With the first consistent parent figure in her life, Inga says she started to improve.
“She has a heart of gold,” Farleigh says. “She had to learn how to love and trust.”
Sitting in a restaurant in Battle Creek recently, Inga said she often thinks it’s her fault that the Whatcotts sent her away.
“I let my parents down,” she said, tears slipping down her cheeks.
Farleigh grabbed Inga’s hand.
“You can’t look at it like that,” Farleigh told her. “You’ve got to look at it a different way, that you have a new family now.”
Inga has friends and sometimes goes on dates. An elderly couple at her church - she calls them grandma and grandpa - welcomes her for holidays.
She studies writing and math at the YMCA. She works part-time at a Burger King. She takes cooking classes and goes on camping trips.
Although she hasn’t seen the Whatcotts in years, a framed photo of the Whatcotts sits on her dresser. And she still reaches out to Priscilla.
“She says, ‘Tell dad I love him. When are you going to come visit?’” Priscilla says. “I say, ‘That’s not possible right now.’ She has a fantasy about our family.”
Megan Twohey is an investigative reporter at Reuters. Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill, Robin Respaut and Zachary Goelman in New York.
More from NBC News Investigations:
- PHOTOS: A slideshow of re-homed children
- VIDEO: Journalist Megan Twohey on her investigation of re-rehoming
- INTERACTIVE: A database of messages from a re-homing chat group
- Adopted girl says new 'mom' slept naked with her
- Adopted girl says mother forced her to dig her own grave
- The Child Exchange: The full Reuters investigation of re-homing