Updated: Sep 22, 2021
My husband and I had been foster parents for three years the day we got the phone call.
The woman on the phone was from the U.S. Department of Human Services (DHS). She told me that a 4-year-old girl by the name of Christy needed a pre-adoptive home. Although she had found the girl a home three weeks prior, that family felt ill-equipped to meet her needs. Christy was sent back to her previous foster home.
The little girl needed an experienced family who could commit to her long-term, the DHS agent said. That was us. We had raised our two biological sons and cared for many children from the foster care system. We didn’t question our own readiness.
Although foster parenting isn’t for the faint of heart, it had been a rewarding experience for us. We saw drastic growth and change in so many of the children. Without hesitation, we said we’d welcome Christy into our home.
My husband and I knew that Christy was a child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), as diagnosed by her therapist. We had heard of RAD before but didn’t know if or how it’d impact our daily lives. An instructor touched briefly on the disorder in one of the foster care classes we had taken. We only knew that early trauma can cause RAD and inhibit children from attaching to caregivers.
But we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when we met Christy. She was an adorable, sweet kid. We knew we might encounter some difficult times. After all, she had been through so much in her four years. We felt confident, however, that she’d settle in with time as the DHS agents assured us.
By the time Christy came to live with us, she had lived in six different homes in just eight months.
We began to see concerning behaviors with Christy right away. She was non-compliant overall. She would never play by herself, had emotional outbursts, and was an extremely angry child. We were quickly overwhelmed.
But Christy had absolutely no behavior issues at preschool. In fact, her teachers beamed about her. We figured the problem was us—that we needed different parenting techniques. So we began researching and trying different methods.
We didn’t know at the time that Christy’s behaviors were typical for reactive attachment disorder. To behave well with other adults but outlandish at home was the first big red flag that we missed.
Meanwhile, the DHS workers continuously encouraged us to finalize the adoption. It would help Christy to feel safe knowing our commitment as her forever family, they said. This concerned Christy’s therapist, however, who felt we needed far more support before we’d be ready to adopt.
Looking back, I realize the therapist was spot on. But we didn’t realize the gravity of our situation back then. We adopted Christy as soon as legally permitted, just six months after she entered our home.
And then we waited, hoping the adoption would help Christy to feel safe, loved—and calm.
But by the time Christy was age 5, we were still waiting for calm. The notion of permanency and safety via adoption hadn’t helped Christy. In fact, her behaviors had grown even more concerning.
Even so, we were open to another call from a DHS agent that year. The woman said that another little girl, Carrie, needed a home too.
We adopted Carrie sixteen months later. We still felt hopeful that love and time could cure-all. And maybe a sister could help Christy finally feel safe in our home, we thought.
But Christy continued to struggle for several more years with rages, manipulation, and other disturbing behaviors. My husband and I were at odds with each other. Carrie was afraid of her sister. We were in complete turmoil as a family.
We had tried multiple therapists, worked with a psychiatrist, met with her school’s staff multiple times, tried therapeutic boarding school, homeschooling, attended conferences, and read dozens of books. Nothing had helped.
At 12-years-old, Christy hacked her school laptop computer to view pornography during school hours. Despite all of our work with the school, she continually looked up worrisome terms like “rape sex” and actively reached out to strangers online.
We couldn’t keep our daughter safe from herself.
By 8th grade, Christy was raging more frequently and with greater intensity. It was as if she had superhuman strength when she became angry. We had to call the police once during a particularly scary episode.
During rages in her room, Christy tossed her clothes, hangers, and books everywhere. She threw her drawers, fan, and CD player against the wall. Christy would slam her door repeatedly. She’d pound her chest of drawers against the wall. She pushed her bookcase to the floor. She ripped her shelving unit out of the wall of her closet once. Her rages lasted hours.
My husband, Carrie, and I lived in a constant state of hypervigilance. We never knew what would set Christy off or what she might do. She tried to hit my husband over the head with an iron skillet in the kitchen once during a rage. Thankfully, he was able to grab the skillet from her in time and defend himself.
I was terrified to wake Christy up for school and waited on edge as she returned in the afternoon. I was on blood pressure medication and anti-depressants and began to have regular panic attacks. Carrie always had a safe place to go at a moment’s notice. We lived the lives of domestic violence victims. But our abuser was a child.
And then one day, while Christy was in school, I desperately searched online for more help. That’s when I happened upon RAD Advocates and reached out to them. Beth, the advocate who called me, understood our situation immediately. For the first time, I didn’t feel judged.
Beth didn’t need to ask a million questions because she had been in our situation once too. She had the experience to understand how I felt. But she was emotionally removed enough to think more clearly than I could.
As we worked together, Beth confirmed what I knew deep down—it was time to seek true safety for our family.
We deserve peace and healing. Carrie deserves a normal childhood. My husband and I deserve each other. Our needs matter too. We needed to love our family enough to create boundaries with Christy. With Beth’s support and navigation, we moved Christy into a residential placement outside of our home state.
Christy has been away for a year now. While we feel immense relief, there is equal grief. It’s incredibly difficult to have such limited communication with our daughter. But it is what she needs right now.
We say traumatized kiddos heal in homes. But sometimes a home isn't for the best, at least for a season. Reactive attachment disorder is an incredibly confusing and cruel affliction. Christy can’t let people care for her deeply. She is terrified of love. Sometimes a loving home feels scarier for a traumatized child than an institution does.
As my husband and I and Carrie grieve for Christy, we continue to try to heal. Carrie and I go to therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. My husband and I are in marriage counseling. We try to move forward with courage as we peel back layers of the trauma parenting aftermath.
But we are, indeed, healing. We’re discovering who we are again. My husband and I are learning to have fun—to date and dream together again. And for the first time, we can give our youngest daughter what she needs. It's been a year of peace in our home. A year for God to heal our hearts.
Through our healing, I’m reminded why we walked the adoption path in the first place. We have fresh eyes to love Christy with our full hearts again. We realize that we weren’t fighting her—we were fighting her trauma. We can’t parent Christy in the way we had initially hoped. But we support her and pray from afar.
We do not know if Christy will ever return to our home. There is still uncertainty in our lives. I have contacted Beth several times to process the transition since Christy has been gone. Beth prepares me for the road ahead in a completely honest and genuine, but sensitive way.
We take each day a step at a time and continue to work on our own health—body, soul, and spirit. So that we are at our best if, or when, Christy does come home again. We needed this separation to breathe fresh life in our hearts and our home again, for us and for all of our children.