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How a family who opened their hearts and home to serious reactive attachment disorder found safety

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Pastor Michael and his wife Tanya were in their 50’s and had raised two beautiful daughters. As empty-nesters, they looked forward to having more time with each other, other loved ones and their congregation. They had no intention to adopt children.

Their adult daughters, however, came to know three young siblings in the foster care system about that time.

“[The children] had gone through really horrific things in their birth home…and [their caseworker] was going to split them up because no one wanted the boy, they only wanted the girls," said Michael. "No one should have to go through life alone, without a family, without someone to love them," he said.

That’s when Michael and Tanya began to wrestle with the idea of adoption. After all, they had raised thriving children in a loving and peaceful home. Michael and Tanya wondered if God wanted this for the next stage of their lives.

So the adoption journey began, far before the couple had even heard of the term reactive attachment disorder—a serious brain condition caused by early childhood trauma.

After a few brief visits with the children and a year-long emotional roller coaster, Michael and Tanya still didn’t know if adoption was in their future. Tanya remembers letting go of the decision at that point. “I thought, if the children come to live with us, we will know it was God’s doing,” said Tanya. “From then on, that statement became my guide.”

And the children did eventually join their family.

By just 18-months-old, Lilly had lived in four homes and had two hospitalizations. Yet, she was a smiley, adorable baby. Lilly loved to be held and went to anyone without hesitation. She wasn’t fazed by her siblings’ tantrums, no matter the severity of their episodes. She rarely cried but, when she did, it was a high-pitched screech.

Three-year-old Ana demonstrated control issues within minutes of entering the home. She had empty, almost evil-looking eyes—it was as if she looked at people but could not see them. Ana quickly escalated into fits, no matter who was in the room. And she was wild and inconsolable during those times. She hit, spit, bit, pinched, scratched, kicked and urinated on Tanya and Michael. She ripped doors from the hinges.

Throughout Ana’s fits, she’d talk in various voices—either high-pitched, sugary sweet or in a demon-possessed way. She’d often say, “Please help me, I love you,” to Tanya and Michael. Her episodes looked very much like a horror movie.

Sometimes, Ana displayed glimpses of neurotypical behavior. She’d cuddle and behave sweetly and her eyes appeared more caring. Although these rare moments only lasted 30-60 seconds, it gave Michael and Tanya hope of what could be.

Curt, age 12, was the oldest sibling. He seemed concerned about his sisters and tried to parent them. Curt was guarded and sneaky. It was all normal behavior for a pre-teen in his situation, Michael and Tanya assumed. But within days, his irrational crying, deceitfulness and lying began to concern them. And he wet the bed at home and his pants while at school.

Waiting for normalcy

To drop three children into a new family is bound to cause some turbulence. After living in a solely adult household for some time, Michael and Tanya realized it’d take time to adjust. After all, just to re-learn how to care for an 18-month-old child was a challenge.

But as time went on, the household became all the more chaotic.

Curt had become violent at home. He had broken into their neighbor’s home. Michael and Tanya found out he was extremely interested in pornography. And based on things Ana was saying, Michael and Tanya were worried that Curt had sexually abused his sisters at some point in time. They put alarms on the girls’ bedroom doors.

By age 13, Curt was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to their safety concerns, Michael and Tanya placed Curt in a psychiatric medical institution. Within a year and a half, the staff at the facility deemed Curt too dangerous to return home.

Michael and Tanya’s middle child was exhibiting animalistic, wild-eyed rages that often ran for three hours, several times a day. She, too, had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.

And Lilly had regular screaming fits.

Even as seasoned parents, Michael and Tanya realized they were living in unchartered territory. They needed help. They read and studied everything they could find about reactive attachment disorder.

It was apparent. Michael and Tanya had brought three children with reactive attachment disorder into their home.

And when they needed help more than ever, support was scarce.

For the first time in their lives, people began to question Michael and Tanya as parents. Some members of their church congregation felt they were too firm and unreasonable with their therapist-led techniques. They lacked grace, the church members said.

This criticism led to other areas as well. Ultimately, Michael felt as though he could no longer effectively lead his congregation as a result. Michael and Tanya relocated. “We were living in a war and being attacked from both within and outside,” said Tanya. “Our lives had been turned upside down and shaken. We felt shattered.”

After they moved, Ana was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mood dysregulation and conduct disorder at age 7. She was dangerously aggressive and touching her sister inappropriately. They had cameras, sensors and crisis hotline information all over their home.

When they determined her safety needs were far beyond their scope, Michael and Tanya moved Ana to a residential psychiatric hospital. Yet, as is typical for children with reactive attachment disorder, the program deemed Ana as a model child and ended her program after six months.

Michael was recovering from a spinal fusion at that time, due in part to the abuse he had taken in protecting his family. For everyone’s safety, Ana could not return home.

After moving Ana to various friends’ homes to care for her as they looked for placement, they were finally able to place her in a boarding school.

But then just 18 months at the boarding school, the facility announced their closure due the coronavirus pandemic.

Once again, Michael and Tanya had very little time to find Ana a new placement—just two weeks, in fact.

Scrambling to safety

Tanya spent eight hours a day for days on end searching nationwide for a placement. Yet she was still left with a looming deadline and no viable options.

And then Tanya’s friend happened upon a group called RAD Advocates—a nonprofit organization founded by moms just like Tanya. RAD Advocates guide and advocate for parents of children with reactive attachment disorder. In desperation, Tanya contacted them.

Tanya was quickly connected with advocate Heather Houze. “As a mom who walked in our shoes, Heather was understanding, encouraging, affirming and worked quickly to determine our needs,” said Tanya.

RAD Advocates advised the couple on next steps and helped them establish a plan to move forward. They arranged phone calls and meetings on behalf of Michael and Tanya. They coached Michael and Tanya about phrases to use or not use in their meetings.

Not long after coaching from RAD Advocates, Tanya was able to place Ana in a boarding school that had previously been unresponsive. Tanya and Michael no longer had to fear for the safety of their family.

“We made mistakes and stumbled through a maze of programs on our own up until we found RAD Advocates. Because we did so much of the work on our own without guidance, many doors had been closed to us,” said Tanya. “RAD Advocates helped us to make informative decisions. They walked before us and beside us. When we felt overwhelmed and hopeless, too tired to think clearly and unwilling to push for answers, RAD Advocates stepped in. My only regret is that I didn’t know about RAD Advocates sooner.”

*Pseudonym to protect the child's identity


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