When an abused child becomes the abuser

Updated: Mar 2

My heart pounded as I lay in bed. Just like most mornings, I feared the day ahead. I lived in a hyper-vigilant and sleep-deprived state. I never dared to close my eyes for too long.

I had come to terms with the fact that our 7-year-old adopted daughter Ella* was dangerous. Abused and neglected as a young child, she developed severe reactive attachment disorder—an affliction that changed the way her brain developed. Out of an innate need to survive her own early abuse, she had become abusive herself.

But my husband and I had not been prepared for it.

Ella came to us from the foster care system with a serious disorder for which we lacked substantial knowledge and education. Over the years with Ella in our home, we had done everything we could. We implemented every tool and therapy suggested to us by teams of therapists and psychiatrists to no avail.

And so there I lay each morning, thinking and plotting about how to keep my family safe again that day. I had no formal training for that sort of thing—I’m a mom and a pediatric nurse.

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We had alarms and security cameras everywhere in our home and walked on eggshells in anticipation of Ella’s next rage—the next round of screaming and punches in the wall.

I dreaded the next time I’d see my 11-year-old son’s eyes when I told him to get himself and his other sister Laila, age 5, to safety. I saw the sadness, the conflict, in his eyes. He wanted to stay and keep me safe. But that was not his job.

I now realize it wasn’t my job either.

It is a parent’s duty to keep her family safe. But I couldn’t protect us from the severity of violence in our home. We needed professional help. I could not act as both mom and police officer in my home.

Yet, that is what was expected of me.

People don’t like to think about calling the cops on a little girl. So the community-based services our family relied upon gave us a “safe line” number to avoid the authorities at all costs. A trained mental health worker would de-escalate my daughter over the phone instead, I was told.

But we needed far more than a safety line most of the time, including when:

  • My husband Joe took Ella and our other daughter Laila ice skating. As they drove home, Ella cracked Laila over the head with an ice skate. She told Laila she planned to slice her into pieces. I will never forget the stunned look on my husband’s face when he got home with the girls. It had been his first time alone with them during one of Ella’s attacks. As a pediatric nurse, I quickly took care of Laila and then rushed Ella to the emergency room for a crisis evaluation. Ella had only been out of psychiatric inpatient care less than two weeks. She was then readmitted for another three-week stay. And then released back to us just the same as she was before, if not worse.

  • Laila was standing in front of the fireplace one winter day after playing in the snow. I was in the kitchen making hot cocoa for everyone. Suddenly, I heard Ella screeching. I ran out to see Ella racing straight toward Laila, arms fully extended and palms facing out. Laila stood stunned, frozen. I dove over the side of the sofa and threw myself in between the two of them, pushing Laila into a bean bag on the floor. Ella ran into my extended left arm which caused her to fall on her bottom on the rug as I hit the floor. My face hit the brick hearth. Laila was still stunned, not speaking or uttering a sound. Ella screamed, “Why would you do that to me?” I said, in my own shock and disbelief, “You were trying to push Laila into the fireplace. I can’t let you hurt her.” My words were slow and tense but quiet. I still couldn’t believe they were even coming from my mouth. “But I wasn’t doing anything to you at all,” she said. “I was just attacking Laila. You shouldn’t have touched me. You should be letting me do whatever I want to her.” I was frozen. I had no thoughts, no answers for this type of thinking. This wasn’t part of any parenting class I had ever taken. And we continued with the day.

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  • Ella attempted to set the house on fire in the middle of the night. She tried to light several papers on a coal that was still hot from the fireplace. Thankfully, she couldn’t catch anything else on fire. When we brought up the evidence we found the next morning, she didn’t have much to say about it. Much later, Ella casually brought up the event during a residential hospital stay. She told the staff that she tried to kill us one night by burning the house down. “It didn’t work though,” she said, disappointed. “My plan now is to choke them.” And then she was released back to us.

  • Joe was in the pool with both Ella and Laila one day. He had gone over to the side of the pool to clean out the filter while the girls were on the pool steps. While Ella was a very good swimmer, Laila was still just getting used to the water. When Joe turned around, he saw Ella holding Laila under the water completely submerged. Even with Laila thrashing around and Joe yelling for Ella to stop, she continued. He swam as fast as he could and pulled Laila up from the water, choking and sobbing. They all went inside, Joe stunned.

Every time I reported our scary situations to Ella’s caseworker, she replied in the same way. "You are just doing so great with these two girls, hang in there,” she’d say. “It’s not that bad. It could be worse.”

The more adamantly we asked for help from the mental health and social services professionals, the further we were pushed aside.

I knew we were truly sunk in a sad, scary, disconnected-from-reality system when staff from various entities—community-based programs, psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment centers, and social services—bristled when I said my daughter was manipulative. They were far more concerned with correcting our language about Ella’s disorder than with her fixation on physically harming her sister (photo below).

Everywhere we turned, it seemed the answer was “no”. There were no open beds in the residential treatment center. Or there was no more help social services could offer. There was no concern for our family as a whole whatsoever.

Most people would not believe, nor want to believe, that a small child with a beautiful smile and infectious laugh could do the things Ella did.

But it was very real. Some of our animals did not survive. Others were terribly injured. Our children were suffering severely. Our grandchildren stopped coming over as a safety precaution. My husband and I were hit, bit, and beaten with anything within reach.

My family lived in an abusive situation and we deserved protection.

Sibling on sibling abuse is not readily recognized. Nor is the extreme traumatic effects of this abuse. As parents, we cannot water the garden while simultaneously put out raging fires. The fires demand full attention. Every other need of our children—aside from their basic safety—went by the wayside.

In nearly every other institution, we as a society teach our children to speak up. To not accept abuse from anyone. Yet, we accept and teach our children that abuse is acceptable from family—especially from other children. We make exceptions. They don’t mean to hurt us, they love us, we say.

This mentality sets a very dangerous precedent.

Simply because a perpetrator is a child does not diminish the effects of abuse. Those who fail to acknowledge the child as an abuser also fail to properly treat the child. They cause further harm to the child by allowing him or her to manifest the cycle of abuse.

We were finally left with only one choice—to relinquish our rights as adoptive parents for the safety of our other children. Many parents face this one and only decision. I pray that the system will finally step up and do right by these children—children that have been repeatedly failed since birth. It is an immense, ever-present tragedy in our world that few know of.

But, at least, my other children are safe now. It is all we had hoped for as we prayed, wished, and pleaded for help with Ella’s healing. But over time, that hope had depleted.

I do not believe the answer is for people to avoid adoption. On the contrary—these children need loving homes. But in order for the adoption to be successful and safe, adoptive parents need full disclosure and effective help from the system for the abused child before entering an adoptive home and throughout the adoption.

Because if a child abuses a family and moves onto another home—as children with reactive attachment disorder often do—the abuse follows there too. And throughout the child’s life into adulthood.

Will the system do the right thing eventually?

Or will they continue to blame and ostracize the adoptive parents, next of kin, or other adults who step in? Will they keep denying effective resources and training to the families who need it most? Will they continue to perpetuate the cycle of abuse, neglect, and violence in our world?

Only time will tell.

RAD Advocates can help you navigate the system while parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder. Become a member.

*pseudonym to protect identity

Cheryl Ruzzo is a registered nurse with a certification as a pediatric clinical specialist. She has worked with families of many backgrounds and with various needs, including safety planning for medically at-risk clients. Most recently, Cheryl has spent a number of years as a stay-at-home parent and full-time advocate for her children’s needs and to educate about reactive attachment disorder. She and her husband Joe have three grown biological daughters, a biological 14-year-old son, six grandchildren, and have adopted two children.