The XX Factor

When Dr. Phil Is a Mother’s Best Hope

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When I saw the first line of the AP story about Jessica Beagley, which described her as a woman who “put hot sauce in her adopted seven-year-old-son’s mouth … to come up with sensational footage” to get on Dr. Phil, my first thought was to wonder why it mattered that the boy was adopted. I thought I was going to get to write a quick and clever blog post about Beagley, who’s now on trial for child abuse, on how stupid people adopt, too, probably referencing the story of the woman who hoaxed Good Morning America by claiming she’d given her 8-year-old Botox to make the point that what mattered wasn’t the adoption, but the idiocy.

And then I read the rest of the story. It’s not clear whether Beagley really used the hot sauce only to get on Dr. Phil (a line in the story about “making sure there was enough hot sauce on the bathroom shelf” suggests its regular use). It is clear that she was desperate, and that both she and her son were (and maybe still are) locked in a terrible and difficult situation in which she behaved badly, and possibly criminally. The son she was “disciplining” was adopted from Russia along with his twin brother at 5 years old, and has since been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, which can be best summarized as exactly why many people aren’t willing to adopt older children.* Nearly every horror story you’ve ever heard about an adopted child stems from RAD, a condition in which a child trusts no adult to care for her, ever, and acts accordingly. Beagley wasn’t just “hot saucing” an incorrigible boy. She was trying to break through to a kid who’s mentally set up to resist nearly every form of discipline, and that makes her actions both more understandable, and worse.

“Beagley,” says the AP, “made the video and went on the show because she was desperate to find help for her son.” Imagine bringing home two 5-year-old boys and finding that one won’t respond to your affection, won’t follow basic rules of civilized behavior, and lies, hits, and steals without regard for consequences—but only one. The natural thing to do is to up the ante on what works with one child, determined that it will eventually work on the other.

It’s a natural response, and the wrong one. A child who’s already convinced that no one will love him will not respond to things in the same way as a child who’s willing to be loved. It’s a condition that few adoptive parents can handle without professional help, because so much of what the adult is called on to do goes against both the way a parent was probably raised herself, and the natural reaction to a child who’s just intentionally peed on the floor. That kind of help isn’t easy to find in much of the country, and it’s either expensive or extremely limited and subject to long waits. A good adoption plan for an older child would include having therapeutic services lined up in advance just in case they’re needed—and I know of no adoptive parents who did such a thing, or were encouraged to. It’s common (and subtly encouraged by cash-pressed social services agencies) to trust in luck and love (and in many cases, God), but in a few cases, those things will never be enough.

Most parents, no matter how desperate, wouldn’t send a video of their very worst parenting moments to a reality television show: a recipe for failure if ever I’ve heard one. And surely being put on trial for child abuse is the worst possible result—for her. But ironically, it sounds like Jessica Beagley’s son is finally getting the help he needs. Maybe (and probably inadvertently) she actually did something good for son by telling the world just how far she was in over her head. As I write, there’s no verdict in her court case. I hope ulitimately both mother and son and the whole family get the full spectrum of help they clearly need.

But it turns out I was partly right in my initial assessment. What matters here is both the adoption and the idiocy—of a system wherein a parent who’s undergone the full gamut of social services and evaluation and hoop-jumping to complete an international adoption finds herself with nowhere to turn except Dr. Phil when it matters most. Jessica Beagley may have failed her son. But if you ask me, plenty of people failed her, too.

Correction, Aug. 24: The original version of this post referred to Reactive Attachment Disorder as Radical Attachment Disorder.