Holding On

Families search for a miracle therapy that won't hurt their troubled children

A 26-year-old mother of twins, Whitfield still screams in her sleep, dreaming that she's reliving therapy sessions. She doesn't believe RAD is a legitimate disease -- she says it's a catch-all to label misbehaving kids.

"I was a child with a lot of problems that needed help -- not what they put me through," she says.

As a psychiatrist, Cline says, he understands why the American Psychiatric Association is reluctant to endorse attachment therapy. They don't want to get sued, he says. He argues that most forms of non-drug-related psychology and psychotherapy -- like play therapy -- are experimental and have not been scientifically proven. He says there's little documented proof of the life-improving factors of many things, like watching a sunset or a father playing with his kids.

Experts differ on what constitutes holding therapy.
David Terrill
Experts differ on what constitutes holding therapy.
Some of the kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can't be left alone with family pets.
David Terrill
Some of the kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can't be left alone with family pets.

For therapy to be considered scientifically proven, double-blind studies need to be conducted, Cline says, with a "statistically large enough control group."

That isn't going to happen, he says.

Studies would be costly and wouldn't be backed by drug-company money, because there isn't a magic RAD-reduction pill. Since kids have died, he doubts teaching hospitals and universities will fund studies. Front-line therapists, he says, are not keen on the idea of control groups, because they want to try to treat children they think they can help.

"Everyone recognizes (although there may be no scientific proof) that when an infant is in a rage, the mother's holding of the infant is essential to help the infant learn to cope, work things through and self-soothe," Cline says. "Is it really such a leap of faith to believe that exactly the same thing is needed with older children and adults who experience the same rage from unresolved early abuse and neglect?"

The therapy seemed to be working. Every night, Carol fed her daughter a bottle and they had cuddly, quiet time. Stephanie seemed to be falling in love with her, Carol says. But as therapy progressed, Stephanie's behavior worsened. "I don't see improvement," Carol says. Stephanie can't go an hour without having a temper tantrum. The week school started, Stephanie got so upset she pulled out one of her teeth. "It was not loose," Carol says. "I don't know how she had the strength."

Therapists assure Carol that Stephanie's behavior has to get worse before it can get better. They say that change is scary and Stephanie is frightened because she isn't in control anymore. But sometimes Carol wonders if they're doing the right thing, or if she's even the right parent. She's 41 years old, and the therapists want her to change her entire parenting style and not yell at Stephanie when she does something bad, doesn't obey or doesn't come when called. The soothing, well-looks-like-you-made-a-bad-decision therapeutic parenting works for a while, but at the end of the day, she's tired and she can't keep it up.

Sometimes Stephanie makes her so mad she doesn't want to touch her. "It's very difficult to do the bonding work," Carol says. She doesn't feel like Stephanie's mommy. She feels like a disliked nanny.

Carol's insurance won't foot the $7,000 bill to send Stephanie to the two-week intensive program in Evergreen because she hasn't seriously harmed or hurt anyone. And the outpatient psychiatric clinic Carol was referred to a month ago doesn't take children under eight. Carol stood in the parking lot and cried. "Ted Bundy had this," Carol says. "If I don't get help soon helping this child, something bad is going to happen."

Her friends tell her she's crazy for putting up with Stephanie's behavior. If she terminates the adoption, Carol says, she's setting Stephanie up for failure because that's one more bond she failed to make.

"One minute we say we're never gonna give up on her -- the next minute I think, 'I can't live the next ten years like this -- my family can't live the next ten years like this,' " Carol says. "Right now we're keeping her. Ask me again in five months, and it may be a different story."

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