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The reality of reactive attachment disorder parenting: When (not if) CPS investigates

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

It’s not often a matter of if, but when. The reality of reactive attachment parenting is that child protective services (CPS) will probably show up at some point.

False allegations are, tragically, a typical part of life for those raising children with reactive attachment disorder. Because the children feel terrified of attachment, they’ll do anything to keep nurturing caregivers away. To allege or infer abuse and neglect is an effective means.

Most children with reactive attachment disorder accuse their primary caregivers (often mothers) of abuse or neglect. Some also target others, including their siblings. Their allegations can range from subtle to alarming. One child may tell a teacher things that raise suspicion over time about his mother. For example, he’ll claim that his mom doesn’t feed him dinner or buy him warm clothes for the winter. Another child may make an outright accusation that an older sibling sexually abused him.

Although our child had plenty of allegations of her own, I actually called child protective services (CPS) on myself. I told them we could not keep our child safe. It was true—and our last desperate hope to get our child mental health services through the county. If we asserted our inability to effectively care for her, they’d need to step in.

To call CPS on myself obviously wasn’t an easy decision. But we had tried everything else without success. I researched and prepared ahead of time with the help of a good lawyer. I was ready.

But nothing prepared me for the jarring, sinking feeling that day I opened the door to a caseworker. He politely asked to come in and talk to me about how he might help my family. He just had some questions, he said, to see what resources he might offer.

I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I was prepared for the moment, and invited the caseworker into my home.

I offered him some coffee, according to my thorough plan. Steam swirled from our cups as we sat at my kitchen table. I had the coffee creamer—and all of my documentation—ready.

As our conversation progressed, it was clear that the caseworker didn’t have any new resources for us. We had tried all of his suggestions, multiple times. I kindly and calmly showed the caseworker my documentation of all the services we had tried, along with the subsequent poor results.

That’s when the caseworker became visibly irritated. I was refusing the services he offered, he said. He took my documentation.

Thankfully, I had my original documentation stored elsewhere. And I had rehearsed for the moment. I knew our chance to access a funding source other than Medicaid for our daughter hinged on the caseworker’s reporting of me. The more defensive and irritated the caseworker became with me, the more I focused on remaining calm. And the less I engaged.

I politely offered the caseworker a tour of our home. When we got to my disordered child’s room, I showed him the many holes she had left in the wall. His demeanor changed.

The caseworker seemed shocked that the petite child he saw in our family photos could leave so much damage. I could see the confusion on his face. The pieces of the puzzle he had when he entered our home that day no longer fit.

But I knew that our journey had just begun. Even if I had gotten through somewhat to the caseworker, I still had to convince many people that we weren’t at fault. The burden of proof remained on my shoulders.

Our journey indeed continued, with its surprises and defeats. In the end, however, we secured the funding and services we needed. But it was far from easy.

Regardless of how CPS enters into a family, via false allegations or self-reporting, the feeling is always unsettling. Here at RAD Advocates, we hope to avert other families from at least some of the painful lessons we learned the hard way.

Here are 9 tips if you find yourself faced with an investigation from child protective services:

1. Remain calm.

While it may feel like the worst day of your life, it is vital to STAY CALM. It is natural to feel threatened if a caseworker questions your parenting. But remember that the caseworker is only doing his or her job. And the calmer you remain, the more credible you’ll be considered.

2. Be professional.

Treat the encounter like a business transaction. Present information about reactive attachment disorder in a matter-of-fact way and act as if the worker already knows about the disorder. Don’t present everything you know about reactive attachment disorder. Rather, just give enough to let him or her know that you’re knowledgeable.

3. Help the caseworker.

Given the confusing and manipulative nature of reactive attachment disorder, the caseworker likely feels confused. If you work against the caseworker, he or she may feel suspicious of you. Try to put yourselves in his or her shoes and cooperate, no matter how difficult.

4. Ask questions.

Feel free to take time and ask your own questions when the time is appropriate. You will most likely want to know the length of the investigation, the next steps, as well as how to best contact the worker. Be sure to ask for his or her business card so you have the correct name and phone number.

In preparation for round two of the investigation process...

5. Build your own team.

Contact your therapists or other professionals working with your family. Give them updated information about the CPS investigation and permission to share information about your family. Remember to include your child’s school staff. Request that the school psychologist attends and takes notes if a CPS worker interviews your child during school hours.

6. Ask for help from someone you trust.

Your whole family will likely need to take part in a CPS investigation, including other children in your home. Make sure that your children feel as comfortable as possible given the circumstances, that interviews are handled appropriately, and that you have documentation of all aspects of the investigation.

This is where a trusted family friend can help. Ask someone you and your children trust to join your children during CPS investigation interviews. Request that he or she records the interview or, at a minimum, takes notes so you have documentation of every aspect of the investigation.

It’s a great time, again, to matter-of-factly remind the worker that you know she or he understands how stressful an interview can feel for your children and you will, therefore, enlist the help of a trusted family friend to take part.

7. Educate.

If you sense that the caseworker seems open to a little education, take the opportunity. A helpful piece of information to share, for example, is how some interview questions may unintentionally guide the disordered child to misleading answers.

8. Document, document, document.

Take notes, pictures, and videos of everything possible. You never know what you may need for legal purposes down the road.

9. Consider getting an advocate.

Never hesitate to ask for support from experienced and knowledgeable people. It is always useful to have someone stand beside you and provide education, reason, and accountability. Here at RAD Advocates, we’ve had the honor of doing so for many families over the years (learn more here).

Reactive attachment disorder parenting is exhausting and traumatizing. Some parents become jaded. Some forget what life once was. Some give up. But don’t let that be you.

Remember that living in crisis is not normal. To ask for help is okay. To ask for help is necessary. But how you do so makes all the difference. Do not give in. Do not give up. There is a way through for your family.


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