An alert to NJASP officers

From Jean Mercer, Ph.D. and Linda Rosa, R.N.
SOURCE: New Jersey School Psychologist, Fall 2002

New Jersey Association of School Psychologists
203 Towne Center Drive
Hillsborough, NJ 08844-4639

Dear NJASP Officers:

We are writing to you because of our concern about misinformation that may be provided to teachers. We hope you will pass on all or part of our comments to your association's members.

We have become aware that there is available on the Internet a draft letter that parents may give to teachers when the parents believe their children have certain emotional disorders. The letter contains much misinformation, even disinformation, and was apparently prepared by practitioners with a commercial interest in selling certain fraudulent techniques. Teachers who are well-trained in child development should have no trouble recognizing the inaccuracies in this letter, but we are afraid that less-experienced or less-attentive teachers may be taken in.

You will see that the letter, which we enclose and which may be found at www:attachment-, purports to discuss a type of emotional disorder called "Attachment Disorder" or "Reactive Attachment Disorder." The writers present this problem as having a high prevalence among adopted or foster children and as being of extreme seriousness, culminating if untreated in violent criminal behavior like that of Charles Manson. The writers claim that there are no accidents and that these children's failures of all types are deliberate and symptomatic of their mental illness. Teachers are asked to contribute to the child's treatment by suppressing all sympathy, disbelieving any claims made by the child, and carrying out specific actions like forcing eye contact (a move that would be especially distressing to minority children). The philosophy and practice, often referred to as "Attachment Therapy" or "therapeutic parenting," may seem like trivial eccentricity on the surface, and it may not immediately be obvious why the statements in the letter need to be countered. However, this approach has been injurious and even fatal to children; you may recall news reports two years ago of the death of I0-year-old Candace Newmaker at the hands of Colorado practitioners of Attachment Therapy. Several other children have died in related ways.

In any case, the greater part of the letter involves serious inaccuracies and should not be taken as correct by teachers. The diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder is vaguely defined in DSM-IV and has been criticized as difficult to apply. The frequency of disorders of this type is very low, and most early-adopted children develop as well emotionally as a family's biological children. Current research suggests that children who grow to be violent adults have both a specific genetic predisposition and an experience of severe physical abuse. There is no evidence that the treatments advocated by Attachment Therapy have any positive effect on mentally-ill children. The forcing of eye contact and constant disbelief are not part of any established psychotherapy and are potentially harmful to children.

One of us recently spoke to a psychologist doing post-adoption services work in another state. He described with feeling the families who came to him after expending all their resources on Attachment Therapy and being forced down to the Medicaid level, then finding that Medicaid will not pay for or countenance this form of treatment. To say that Attachment Therapy victimizes families by playing on their fears is by no means too strong a statement.

Whatever we can do to discourage the use of Attachment Therapy will be to the good of children and families throughout the country. Teachers can help by gently correcting parents who offer the Internet letter and by understanding that cooperating with the parents in this way could actually be harmful to the children they teach. It is important for teachers to understand that many parents are attracted to Attachment Therapy because, unlike conventional family therapy, this philosophy puts all blame on the child and does not ask parents to do their own painful emotional work. Teachers also should be aware that several states are working on legislation to curtail the use of Attachment Therapy, and the American Psychiatric Association has recently issued a policy statement disapproving of some of these techniques.

If members of your association are interested in further information on this issues, we can supply Two publications already in peer-reviewed professional journals, as well as two others in press. Our book on the Candace Newmaker case will be published by Praeger in a few months. We would be more than pleased to answer any questions or to arrange to speak to your association or to other groups.

Yours sincerely,

Jean Mercer, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Richard Stockton College
Pomona, NJ 08240
President, NJ Assn. for Infant Mental Health

Ph.D Linda Rosa, R.N
Professor of Psychology Board of Directors and Colorado Coordinator
National Council Against Health Fraud
711 W. 9th Street
Loveland, CO 80537

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