Updated: Oct 21, 2021
At some point in our journey, most of us parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder find ourselves in over our heads, unsupported and misunderstood. How did the system fail us and our kids, and what can be done to change things? (In this case, the system can refer to foster care/department of family services, adoption agencies, therapists, residential treatment facilities and other professionals families call upon for help.)
Understanding Attachment Issues
Attachment issues are common in adopted children but can also occur in non-adopted youngsters, such as those with medical problems that caused separation or whose caregivers were abusive or had medical, mental health or addiction issues.
When we adopted from foster care, our foster care licensure training did not provide adequate teachings on attachment issues, reactive attachment disorder, their prevalence or appropriate treatments. This started us off at a disadvantage right out of the gate. The local therapists and psychiatric processionals also weren’t adequately trained on recognizing or treating attachment issues. As a result, key years were lost with improper treatments and diagnosis.
As a society, we tend to blame parents for any problems their kids display. Because kids with RAD may be charming to those outside the home, many professionals—from therapists to teachers—come to see the parents as the problem. This was definitely true for us. Even after I told our son’s school we needed open communication to avoid triangulation, most of the teachers wouldn’t respond to my emails. Our son’s first therapist also increased triangulation by seeing him alone and only calling us in to discuss things like how our rules were frustrating him. Helping families living with RAD means listening to the people who know these kids best, the parents, with empathy and an ear toward understanding. Treatment and support must be family-focused.
When trying to get help for our kids, an exacerbating issue was the fact we were not given a detailed or complete history of our children’s past, our kids had not received psychological evaluations when in foster care, and they were not in any kind of treatment prior to us adopting them.
I believe we should assume that all adopted children (and some non-adopted children) are somewhere on the spectrum of attachment issues. Agencies should be given the resources to properly train and support families. They should help families find appropriate resources and treatment in their areas. And they need to be 100% honest with prospective parents.
Likewise, therapists, psychiatric professionals, wraparound staff, and residential treatment facility personnel all need to be better trained on attachment issues and reactive attachment disorder.
"Some professionals try their best to help kids with reactive attachment disorder. However, the disorder is not adequately covered in graduate schools so they don't understand it," says RAD Advocates President Amy VanTine. "They can't begin to solve a problem they can't see, that they can't grasp. Part of our mission is to help bridge that gap."
For adoptive parents, once the adoption is finalized, legally the child is yours as if you birthed them. Only, you didn’t. They experienced trauma prior to arriving in your home, even if that trauma was “just” being taken away from their birth mother. (I recommend everyone involved in adoption read “The Primal Wound.”) For those of us who adopted from foster care or orphanages, our children usually experienced a long list of traumas.
When a child has RAD, the entire family needs help and support, not just the diagnosed child.
"Reactive attachment disorder is a reaction to early developmental trauma. The child is in survival mode. And then their parents are too," says licensed clinical social worker Forrest Lien. "Reactive attachment disorder is a family disorder; it does not impact the child alone."
As parents, our training is basic—we’re just average people—but we’re expected to deal with issues even experts have trouble addressing. When we reach out to the department of family services or the adoption agency, they often have no avenue by which to help once a child is legally adopted. The only way to get the department of family services involved is for the adoptive parents to be criminalized via either false reports or their own desperation. This is horribly wrong. When good families take on challenging children, they need ongoing support, including financial resources to pay for specialized treatments.
When parents are over their heads, they should not be arrested, taken to court or otherwise judged. They should be met with empathy and understanding. Reforms to the various systems should include ongoing support for those who adopt children with complex traumas.
Lighting the Path
These are only a few of the ways our systems currently fail us. Each person raising a child with RAD has stories different than mine could illuminate more areas for change.
Luckily for us, RAD Advocates is on the scene to help support families and educate professionals. Working together, hopefully we can turn the failures and weaknesses we currently see in the system into growth and strength for everyone involved.
About the author:
Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Wyoming.