Two or three nights a week, "Ruth" woke up with her six year old daughter, "Lisa," standing over her holding a steak knife in each hand. Lisa broke her bedroom window a dozen times and punched holes in the wall. She stole the glass plates from picture frames, broke them into shards and hid the pieces in her bedroom. Whenever her mother told her no or made her mad, Lisa sliced her wrists.
Ruth adopted Lisa and her two older sisters when Lisa was 16 months old. A psychiatric nurse for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Ruth took Lisa to several psychologists and psychiatrists, who misdiagnosed her as being bipolar and schizophrenic and having attention deficit disorder. Lisa had several stays in county psychiatric hospitals before being diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. "We didn't know how to help her," Ruth says.
Lisa was a teenager when she began therapy with attachment therapist Beth Powell. But by then, Ruth had had four heart attacks from the stress of her daughters doing drugs and running away from home and wasn't in physical shape to be a co-therapist.
"We couldn't do anything," Powell says. "She was too far gone."
Ruth's husband left her after 17 years of marriage. He lost his job and was dealing with his own depression and said he couldn't handle their adopted daughters anymore. Ruth met another man who included Lisa on dinner dates, movies and trips to the mall -- until Lisa told a CPS caseworker that he had molested her.
"That was the end of him and me," Ruth says. "Lisa's happiest when those around her are miserable."
She says Lisa later admitted that she had lied because she was jealous that he was taking her mother's attention away.
"She still makes up stories, makes up lies," Ruth says. "When she turned 18, she told me what I could do with myself."
In January, 19-year-old Lisa gave birth to a daughter. CPS took custody of the baby four days after it was born. Lisa's older sister wanted to adopt her niece, but Lisa put the baby up for adoption and relinquished her parental rights without telling her family members.
Ruth had hoped that her grandchildren wouldn't be in foster care and adopted homes like her daughters. "I wanted to prevent the cycle from coming around full circle," Ruth says.
"Sarah" broke into her mother's craft-supply cabinet and sliced drawings into her skin until her hand dripped blood. She purposely falls off her bike and skins her knee or slices her lip to get attention. When she needed stitches, she didn't cry. "She laid there and smiled when they put her skin together," says her adoptive mother, "Kathy." "It's really spooky, unnerving to realize how she can separate herself from pain."
Kathy says her seven-year-old adopted daughter is an adorable, charming, manipulative, defiant girl who doesn't trust or love her. Sarah won't hug her mother unless Kathy is sitting down, because her arms have to be on top.
"She wants to control and manipulate me," Kathy says. "The more love I show her, she gets worse. She's convinced that we'll get rid of her, just like everybody else has."
Homeless, Sarah's biological mother abandoned her three-year-old daughter at a train station. Kathy and her husband adopted Sarah two years ago. They already had two biological sons and an adopted Russian daughter who wanted a big sister.
Sarah once tried to leap out of a car going 70 miles an hour. Another time, Kathy had to tackle Sarah to keep her from running into the highway. Sarah refused to use toilet paper, then refused to use the bathroom at all, preferring to wet her pants.
Sarah steals Hot Wheels cars and Game Boy cartridges from her brothers and hair barrettes from her sister. She nabs teachers' pencils and crayons and hides them in her purse, beneath her bed or under her pillow.
Her temper tantrums used to happen once a week, now they're every day, sometimes several times a day. "Tantrums like a two-year-old would throw, only in a seven-year-old body," Kathy says. "She can throw a fit and kick and scream nonstop for two hours When she's kicking and screaming, I have to look at her with loving eyes. When she's wetting her pants, I have to look at her with loving eyes and not get angry. That's what's hard."
Lodema Miller and her husband, Continental Airlines pilot Jim Moore, adopted eight children with attachment issues. Six of them, Miller says, had full-blown reactive attachment disorder. One child threw a knife at her across the kitchen table and the butt hit Miller and gave her a black eye. The kids drowned a kitten in the pool, stabbed a hamster to death with a sharp stick and killed a frog when they spray-painted it to try to change its color.
"We didn't realize when we adopted them it was going to be so difficult," says Miller, who lives in Plum, about 50 miles east of Austin.
She took therapeutic parenting classes and learned about attachment and holding therapy. "I'm well aware of how dangerous it is and that some people think it's totally wrong and think it's child abuse," Miller says. "But I think it's very hopeful for these children. It's the only hope they have. Other methods do not work."
Her prime example of holding therapy's benefits is the two-year-old she held for six hours a day for several months. "Everyone in the family had teeth marks until we got her tamed down," Miller says. "She didn't like the holding, she didn't want to get close to me, but I was pretty persistent -- and I was a lot bigger than her. Sometimes she would scream for an hour or two or three. And I would hold her until she calmed down."
Last year the children told a CPS caseworker that Miller and her husband were neglecting them, getting drunk, having orgies and molesting the children. "These children are not at all committed to the truth," Miller says.
CPS took custody of all eight children. The youngest two girls were gone nine days, three of the boys were away from home for two months, and a boy and a girl were out of the house for three and a half months. The last child just returned a few weeks ago after a year-and-a-half-long absence. "He's gonna be a fine young man," Miller says. "They're all lovely children now."
Three-year-old Ja-Juan Schreck hit, pinched, punched, bit and kicked other children until they cried. He didn't have the strength to hurt them, but he wanted to. He ignored his parents and refused to use the bathroom. Ja-Juan wouldn't let anyone touch him and never smiled. When he enrolled in the Head Start program in Eagle Lake last year, an aide was hired to follow him around all day to keep him from hurting other kids. He couldn't go two minutes without throwing a temper tantrum.
His mother was a crack addict, so the first four months of his life, Ja-Juan went through withdrawal. He screamed and wouldn't let his adoptive mother, Katherine Milton, touch him. Wriggling on Milton's lap, Ja-Juan wears a blue Power Rangers T-shirt and snaps his fingers, talking about how much he loves scary Stephen King movies, blood, guts and gore. Since April, attachment therapist Beth Powell has been working on improving Ja-Juan's cause-and-effect thinking, and focusing on school- appropriate behavior and talking in an indoor voice.
He turns to a stranger in the room and says he wants to punch her nose and make it bleed. "Previously he would have acted it out," Powell says. "Now he's just talking about it."
"When I get older, I can have a gun," he says.
"What are you going to do with a gun?" Powell asks.
"Shoot a bird."
"What are you going to do with the bird?"
"Cook it," he says.
Every evening Cheryl Hayword and her husband pray for God to heal their foster son's heart. "The devil's my only hope," the nine-year-old says and walks out of the room.
James (not his real name) has lived with the Haywords for three months. In that time he has "inappropriately touched" his foster father, his foster sister and the family dog. James pulled down his swim trunks at the subdivision's pool, and tried to kiss, bite and grope his foster sister's friend.
He screams and throws tantrums in restaurants, gets into fights on the school bus and steals toy cars from garage sales. "It's like having a two-year-old you can't put in the playpen," Hayword says.
When he was two years old, James was removed from his alcoholic, drug-using parents' home and sent to live with his aunt and uncle for two years, then bounced around to foster families.
He's afraid of the dark and won't go outdoors after dusk. He refused to laugh or cry around his foster parents. When the family vacationed in Louisiana, he was afraid the house would be gone when they returned.
Attachment therapist Nancy Hernandez says that when James misbehaves, Hayword should "stop, drop and cuddle."
But Children's Protective Services requires foster parents to take a four-hour training session before they're allowed to restrain a child who is throwing a tantrum. "You wouldn't ever pin them down," says CPS spokesperson Judy Hay. A caseworker has to grant special permission for parents to learn how to do a basket hold, to wrap their arms and legs around the child to keep him from hurting himself.
Although foster parents are encouraged to hug and cuddle kids, they aren't allowed to do holding therapy, Hay says. "Foster parents are not licensed therapists."
James refused to drink from a bottle as Hernandez suggested, and when Hayword first tried to hold James, he would bite, pinch, spit and dig his fingernails into her skin. "We held him anyway," Hayword says. "But he's getting bigger."
On a Tuesday afternoon he sits on his mother's lap pointing out fresh mosquito bites dotting his legs. He lays his head down and snuggles. "See, Miss Nancy? This is the real boy," Hayword says.
Hayword rocks back and forth. Hernandez packs up her bag, waves good-bye and walks out the front door. "That's the therapy," Hernandez says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.