Updated: Mar 2, 2021
It seemed to happen in an instant.
From the time the caseworker called to the time the boys arrived, Anna and Tom had one week to prepare for parenthood. Biological brothers 2-month-old Austin, 18-month-old Trent, and three-year-old Joe* all came to their doorstep at once.
Like most new parents, Anna and Tom had no idea what they were doing.
Still, Anna felt mentally prepared. She always knew she wanted to adopt children. It wasn’t for any particular reason. But her passion to do so was strong. In fact, it made the difference of whether she married Tom or not.
“He is the love of my life,” Anna said. “But I told him if he wasn’t interested in adoption that I’d need to find someone else to spend my life with.”
Tom agreed that even if he and Anna decided to have biological children, they’d adopt too. And a year later, they became foster parents with the intent to adopt three sons and a lot of love and hope to give.
Living as a Family of Five
Anna and Tom were overwhelmed with three young children, as anyone can imagine. But they struggled most with Trent.
Trent would scrunch up his face, fists balled, and scream for hours on end, day after day. The more Anna and Tom tried to soothe him, the louder and more upset he became.
Although Anna understood how early trauma impacted the brain, she and Tom didn’t know the severity of it. They had no idea Trent struggled with reactive attachment disorder—the result of early childhood trauma that changes the brain and inhibits trust and authentic relationships.
Give a year-end tax-deductible gift to RAD Advocates to help families living with reactive attachment disorder.
Anna and Tom felt grateful for the team of county professionals helping their family. They followed all of their advice. But as soon as Anna and Tom officially adopted the boys, all of the professionals and services disappeared.
Anna and Tom were completely on their own, still with no knowledge of reactive attachment disorder. No one in the county shared with Anna and Tom that their family could access post-adoption services.
Thankfully, Austin and Joe responded well to the interventions Anna and Tom found for attachment and healing. But they still needed much more help for Trent.
Trent sat cross-legged in his crib, just staring, not sleeping—all night long. He’d pop out his window screens and run away. At age 3, Trent found a hidden pocket knife and stabbed his older brother with it. He also toppled over a high chair with his little brother sitting inside.
Although capable, Trent refused to potty train. He’d urinate and defecate all over the house, primarily in the heater vents. When Trent was 6-years-old, he punched his teacher and urinated all over the principal’s office.
Anna and Tom asked for recommendations from friends, school staff, and doctors to help Trent. Anna quit working to meet Trent’s severe needs. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on multiple therapists and services.
But nothing helped. No one understood what was happening in their family or what to do for Trent, including professionals. They felt hopeless.
As Trent got older, his behaviors only grew bigger too. Anna and Tom felt as though they could barely deal with his disrespect, fighting, manipulation, false allegations, stealing, and lying. But his physical assaults inside their family scared them.
Trent regularly walked up to his brothers and punched them as hard as he could out of nowhere. He once slammed his older brother's hand in the door because he didn't like him standing in the doorway. He smeared his feces all over his brother’s room and punched a hole through their adjoining bedroom wall.
Austin and Joe grew afraid to sleep alone at night in fear of Trent.
By age 7, Trent had his first mental health hospitalization. The whole family was also in therapy to help them cope with living with Trent.
After Trent’s third inpatient hospital stay, all of his therapists said he needed to live in a residential treatment center (RTC) for the wellbeing and safety of everyone in the family. Yet, all of the RTCs rejected his admission due to the severity of his behaviors. Trent finally had a diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder at that point. But no one knew what to do about it.
When Anna called the county, desperate for help, they said they wouldn’t do anything. So Anna and Tom did their best to persevere and continued to follow the advice of professionals.
But then, one day, Trent’s school principal called Anna to pick him up. He had been in another fight. Upon returning home, Anna let Trent know his consequence for fighting—that he wasn’t allowed to attend an afterschool program. As usual, he began to scream at Anna and throw furniture all over the house.
Anna was able to get 10-year-old Trent to his room to contain his violent outburst. Once she got him to his room, she worked fast to remove any potential weapons she could find. But when she bent down to pick up a pencil, Trent quickly came behind her and jumped on her back.
Trent wrapped the legs of a pair of pajama bottoms around her neck screaming obscenities, saying he was going to kill her. Anna struggled to breathe with the tight pajamas choking her but eventually managed to get Trent off. She got free and ran for help.
Shortly after the incident, Trent went back to the hospital. Tom and Anna knew he couldn’t return home again this time. It was too dangerous.
After hours of research, Anna found an online support group and learned of RAD Advocates, a nonprofit organization that supports parents of children with reactive attachment disorder. They help parents in all walks of the journey, including how to secure safety for their families.
Anna was traumatized and desperate for help the day she called RAD Advocates. As parents of children with the disorder themselves, RAD Advocates understood Anna’s situation immediately.
RAD Advocates helped Anna prepare for the worst-case scenario that she was in. She’d need to refuse to pick Trent up from the hospital, they said. It was the only way to demand he get the help he needed and to protect her family.
RAD Advocates talked her through the process, the documents she’d needed to gather in preparation, and a plan of action to help the whole family feel safe. They attended hospital staff and child protective services meetings to advocate for the family.
In addition, RAD Advocates educated Tom and Anna’s attorney on the disorder. And they provided additional resources that Anna and Tom needed to get through their court involvement.
Through the help of RAD Advocates, the county took Trent back into custody to get him the help he needed. The whole family, including Trent, was finally safe.
Steps Toward Healing
Although Anna and Tom continue to work toward reunification, they don’t foresee a time in the near future that they’ll feel safe doing so. They are just now beginning to heal.
Anna has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although she still wakes up most mornings crying and hyperventilating, her nightmares, panic attacks, and insomnia are beginning to subside.
Joe and Austin still share a room in fear of sleeping alone. But Joe rarely wakes in the middle of the night wheezing from anxiety-induced asthma. For the first time in his life, he can sleep through most nights without a breathing treatment. And 8-year-old Austin stopped wetting the bed.
Austin, who once only grunted and followed Anna everywhere, is now independent, comfortable in his skin, and talkative. “I now get to hear his thoughts,” said Anna. “I love how his mind works. I never got to appreciate it before.”
The boys are relaxed, happy, and living a normal childhood. They finally have friends over to the house and overnight.
"Back when I dreamed about adopting children, I never imagined the system would fail my family to the point that relinquishing parental rights was the last of my terrible options," said Anna. “But RAD Advocates was there, without judgment, when I needed to do everything in my power to protect our family. They're able to understand what no one else can possibly fathom."
*pseudonyms used to protect identities