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A Story of Sad Lessons Learned From Parenting and Reactive Attachment Disorder in a Broken System

Updated: Dec 14, 2023



Like many families, Jill* and her husband felt well prepared to adopt a 4-year-old boy, having previously adopted two daughters in addition to raising their three biological daughters. They completed all the usual training and read lots of books about adoption. Plus, Jill is an occupational therapist and her husband is a school administrator. They even taught a course at their local adoption agency.


“Going in, we were aware there are foundational issues that impact a child for life, especially adopted children with a foundation of loss and trauma,” Jill says. “You need that book of knowledge, but nothing can prepare you for how reactive attachment disorder plays out in the family.” 



Their little boy, who we’ll call Billy, had medical needs. Still, they saw early on these were the least of his issues. “From the beginning, we saw mental health would trump medical,” Jill says. “Everyone’s focus tends to be on the medical part. Mental health plays into physical health and trumps it all at times if they’re refusing things like taking their medications.”


From the first day they brought Billy home, they saw it was “his way or the highway,” and he would quickly turn to violence. “He came to us aggressive that first week,” she says. 

Soon they were making adjustments like securing the heater grate in his bedroom so he’d stop hurling it at them. 


Billy had spent his early months in a hospital. They raised concerns about possible attachment issues, but everyone told them he just needed time to settle in. After all, it was a big transition. 


Families Living in Fear with Reactive Attachment Disorder


Like many of us parenting children with reactive attachment disorder, their issues meeting Billy’s needs were compounded by not receiving complete or accurate information on his past behaviors and issues. For example, rather than learning about it before the adoption, Billy himself told them he had hurt his former foster mother. 


While every story is unique, it’s striking how many similarities are found among families raising children with reactive attachment disorder. Soon, the entire family was suffering, and Mom and Dad’s attention was focused on Billy and his outrageous behaviors.

The “squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Jill notes. They constantly tried to come up with ways to address his behaviors, but “his disorder had to one-up” whatever solution they came up with.



Like the rest of us, Jill and her husband sought out “expert” after “expert” trying to get appropriate help but instead receiving inaccurate diagnoses like autism and trying things like behavior modification that only made things worse. Through it all, Jill and her husband had to prioritize everyone’s safety. With Billy jumping out of moving cars, wandering off in the middle of the night, and amping up his violence, daily life was all about survival. 

Billy’s medical needs brought them in contact with many doctors who saw him refusing to cooperate. Still, they didn’t have a solution. 


Finding Guidance Through Reactive Attachment Disorder Advocacy


Desperate for answers, Jill came across the nonprofit organization RAD Advocates one night while doing internet research and reading blog after blog. This made sense, she thought. Could RAD Advocates help her family? As if by fate, two days later, a counselor friend recommended RAD Advocates to Jill. She contacted the organization right away and was set up with a family advocate and RAD Advocates CEO Amy VanTine. “I remember feeling relief that someone understood,” Jill recalls. “We’d explained it so many times, but people didn’t understand.”


You need that book of knowledge [about the foundation of loss and trauma], but nothing can prepare you for how reactive attachment disorder plays out in the family.

The first step was to see if Billy met the criteria for reactive attachment disorder — a serious affliction that develops when a child's brain is impacted by trauma during the first few years of life, impeding their ability to attach to others. VanTine connected them with counselor Forrest Lien for a consultation. With a reactive attachment disorder diagnosis in place, RAD Advocates began advocating for the family and their needs. During this time, Billy’s violence was getting worse. 


Jill and her family came to embrace VanTine’s advice that, “We’re all worthy of being safe. We don’t have to keep enduring.”


They began calling the police when Billy turned violent. VanTine also helped them create a safety plan that included a neighbor who would come over while Jill waited for the police or would take the girls to her house. “That was instrumental,” Jill says. While calling the police usually doesn’t provide an immediate solution, it creates a paper trail — a record of the family’s struggles. 


While every story is unique, it’s striking how many similarities are found among families raising children with reactive attachment disorder. Soon, the entire family was suffering, and Mom and Dad’s attention was focused on Billy and his outrageous behaviors.

One day, in desperation, Jill and her husband refused to pick Billy up from the hospital. But once again, the same old story many of us face came true, and their department of children’s services threatened criminal charges. Social workers visited their home and suggested they remove all objects that he could use as weapons, thus the main living areas turned bare. 


However, the violence continued, and Billy also started running away from home and other locations. Finally, a fateful set of circumstances came together. Jill called the police once again when Billy turned violent. While she was talking to the officer, Billy filled a metal lunch container with water, snuck up behind her, and cast it at her. 


Seeing the violence first-hand and reviewing the long list of 911 calls, the officer took Billy into custody, and a judge ordered him into care under behavioral injurious, meaning that he was a harm to himself and others. This rarely happens, but Jill believes his medical issues and his behavior’s impact on those issues helped in this case. 


I remember feeling relief that someone understood [when calling RAD Advocates]. We’d explained it so many times, but people didn’t understand.

With his level of medical and behavioral needs, however, the court had a hard time finding an appropriate placement for Billy. He spent nine weeks at an in-patient psychiatric hospital. Even the hospital staff couldn’t handle Billy, though, and they soon refused placement as well. 


Billy, now age 10, is currently in a foster home and not receiving the treatment he needs for reactive attachment disorder. Children younger than 12 have even more limited options as they are often considered too young to receive mental health assistance. As an example, Jill’s local mental health hospital does not accept patients younger than age 12.

“It’s a broken system,” Jill comments. 


RAD Advocates is helping Jill and her husband advocate for Billy to get the treatment he needs. And Jill and her family are getting the treatment they need. “We have learned so much,” she says.


They learned that parents are alone in the struggle to raise children from hard places that it's an exhausting uphill battle to be heard, seen, and respected in doing so. They learned that the families that deserve the utmost support get the least. They learned that parents have to fight to keep their families emotionally and physically safe. Sadly, that often comes at the expense of losing a child that they tried so hard to love and parent.


Making a Difference for Families Impacted by Reactive Attachment Disorder


Families like Jill's don't have to go through what they do. RAD Advocates continues to support parents like Jill, but they hope to serve more families before they get to the point of crisis in the first place when there are still more options. The organization exists with the vision that, one day, more children with reactive attachment disorder will remain in their homes with healthy families that raise them in which every family member is physically and emotionally safe at all times. 


Even parents with children who are not on the moderate to severe spectrum for reactive attachment disorder like Billy those who are not physically violent need plenty of support to keep their families healthy and thriving. It is a complex, confusing, and highly misunderstood disorder.


RAD Advocates is helping Jill and her husband advocate for Billy to get the treatment he needs. And Jill and her family are getting the treatment they need.


Please consider RAD Advocates this season for your holiday and year-end gifts. Every dollar goes directly to well-deserving families in need of support and guidance through our complex system. We can turn the failures and weaknesses we currently see in the system into growth for everyone involved, one family at a time. Together, we’re stronger.



*Pseudonym to protect identity


Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash


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3 Comments


Tracy Williams
Tracy Williams
Dec 15, 2023

This is the same nightmare we live through. The final call to police left me hiding under my vehicle with my animals until the police arrived and took him away. We did not want him placed in a shelter so we paid for a hotel and he then sought out his bio family after living with us for 16 years and decided to live with them. We no longer have a relationship with him and my heart is broken. As a family we have lost so much. I have recently received an email instructing me that I need to apologize to so many people. I believe he means his bio family. He is smarter then this and I can't …

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micaela
micaela
Mar 01
Replying to

I understand and I am so sorry 😞

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