A Personal History … “Attachment Therapy”

This submission is a brief history of my involvement within the attachment and bonding treatment “community.”  What I will represent is a reflection my experience as a treatment provider, and make an attempt to demonstrate how fear and prejudice have affected the development of science as it relates to mental health treatment of a complex disorder.  This piece is the first in a series dedicated to presenting a model for repairing the damage that is caused by parental abandonment at birth or early in a child’s life.

This Blog and ensuing submissions are intended to refute many of the claims about attachment therapy as presented at www.childrenintherapy.org/essays/, as well provide a model for effective interventions based on accepted theoretical principles.  

In April 2000 a little girl named Candace Newmaker (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candace_Newmaker) died as a result of a treatment provided by an attachment therapist, an assistant, the child’s adopted mother, and therapeutic foster parents.  Candace’s death led the way to an uprising against the use of “intrusive” therapies to promote attachment and bonding with children who are adopted.  Since that time the use of “Intensive Therapy” (sometimes referred to as Attachment Therapy) has been abandoned by attachment therapists, and any type of “intrusive” therapy is forbidden by licensing agencies and third party payers for work with adopted children.

The truth, however, with regard to Attachment Therapy is this:  Candace’s death had nothing to do with Intensive Therapy.  Candace Newmaker died because of neglect; the procedure which she had undergone was only loosely related to intensive therapy.  Ms. Watkins was a skilled and experienced interventionist who made a serious mistake; she failed to take seriously the pleas of a child who was deemed “attachment disordered.”  Sadly, it was and is common for adults and even treatment providers to suspect that children who are attachment disordered are either lying about or faking various symptoms and complaints.

So, after devoting her career to working with high risk children, Connell Watkins served seven years of a sixteen year prison sentence.  The rest of us (Attachment Therapists) were more or less forced to stop “Intensive Therapies.”  This had the effect of preventing the possibility of scientifically examining the practice of Intensive Therapy, and developing accepted protocols for its use.

It is interesting to note that Connell Watkins was third in a line of therapists who were  sanctioned by governing bodies for use of high risk approaches to high risk patients.

The first was Robert Zaslow, a California psychologist who pioneered holding therapies through the advocacy of the “Z Process.”  Such was Zaslow’s popularity and acceptance within the treatment community, that he supervised scenes in the movie “Change of Habit” starring Elvis Presley (a young doctor) and Mary Tyler Moore (a nun).  In the movie a mother brings an unruly, out-of-control child to Presley who uses holding techniques (i.e., rage reduction) to work the child through the child’s aggression, and returns a “healed” child to his mother.  Zaslow had to surrender his license due to allegations of impropriety in treating a patient with his technique.

Following Zaslow was Foster Cline.  Cline dedicated his book Hope for High Risk Children to Zaslow indicating that Zaslow’s genius was not appreciated.  After founding and heading the Attachment and Bonding Center in Evergreen, Colorado, Cline was ordered to stop using [intensive therapy] methods as a result of allegations made against him.  He moved to Utah where he continued to write books and give lectures to up-and-coming therapists and parents of attachment disordered children.

Connell Watkins was Cline’s protége´ and supervisee at Evergreen; it is my understanding that she was, at one point, the clinical director of the Attachment Center.  She was mentioned as a practicing therapist in Cline’s book mentioned above.   She was never licensed by the state, but had a Masters degree in Social Work.  She left the Attachment Center and went into private practice.  She conducted intensive therapies in the basement of her home in Evergreen.

I worked with Connell Watkins on several cases in the mid-1990’s.  We worked intensive therapies together; I copied her technique and brought it back to Ohio.

Upon my return from Colorado I attempted to use intensive therapies with the Attachment cases I had been treating.  After a relatively short time, I abandoned the practice because I did not see the outcomes I believed should have been possible, nor did I feel comfortable deliberately antagonizing children into rage.  What I did do was this: I developed a treatment strategy that used a variation of the US Military model for training and transforming recruits.  I named it “modified intensive experiential therapy.”  I worked with children in individual and group therapies by employing the persona of a military Drill Sergeant with an empathetic heart (i.e., therapeutic sensitivity to thoughts and feelings).  This therapy gained me a local reputation of being a therapist who got results.  Children’s parents were calling years after treatment indicating that their children were thriving.  I received graduation announcements from kids who hated me at the time of their treatments.  Several of the kids I treated in the late 1990’s went on to serve in the military.  In early June of 2016 I was notified by one mother that her adopted son had the RAD diagnosis removed from his mental health profile.

The model included the use of written assignments, push-ups as penalties, physical discomfort, bold talk, and most importantly, empathy.  Parental involvement and education were mandatory.  The interventions brought forth emotions that became the springboard to the children’s inner worlds.  The goal was to humanize children who had no sense of conscience nor concern for anyone other than themselves, and to simultaneously give parents a more compassionate and confident way to view their damaged children.  Through the interventions, the children were coming alive.  It was a beautiful thing to do and see.

I quietly employed my techniques for nearly twenty years.

As fate would have it, in March of 2014 I became the fourth in that line of therapists who were sanctioned for the manner in which they treated High Risk Children.  A disgruntled, divorced father reported me to the State Board for employing a technique that had no empirical evidence to back up its use (i.e., push-ups as penalties for rule infractions).  The child had been asked to do five push-ups in the presence of his mother (the custodial parent) for forgetting to sign his summary for the previous session.  Fortunately for me, there were no formal actions brought by the Board, however, I was instructed to “cease and desist” the use of punitive push-ups in my treatment of children.

The efficacy of my treatments diminished immediately.  I petitioned the Board with testimonials from parents (current and past cases), and I provided various rationale for the continued use of the push-ups.  I asked the Board to allow me to develop and initiate a study of the practice.  In the end my pleas were futile.  Gym teachers, athletic coaches, martial arts instructors, and the USMC can continue doling out penalty push-ups, but, alas, I cannot, at least not without risking my license.  “Modified Intensive Therapy” is no more.

It is my belief that working with unconscionable children is a highly complex affair that requires knowledge and skill in the area of employing strong limits and controls in an attitude of compassion and acceptance.   Parents and providers must understand that these are damaged CHILDREN, not young criminals.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is a real malady in our society., and to date, there appears to be no science for implanting a conscience where none exists.    Standardized treatment protocols are needed to address the problem, and expertly skilled treatment providers are necessary for employment of such protocols.  As I see it, there should be no real difference for getting treated for a medical condition and receiving effective treatment for RAD.

I am nearing the end of my career.  It is my intention to generate enough practical and theoretical material that someone will contact me with a desire to formally develop treatment strategies that can be scientifically evaluated, then presented to the National Institute for Mental Health for universal implementation.  A treatment protocol for a childhood malady that is effective, and can be learned and applied with safety and confidence.

Author: Ray Messer

Veteran Therapist and Parent Educator (since 1978). Currently holds an Independent Social Work License in the State of Ohio. Operates a limited private practice in Kettering, OH. Originally trained as a Chemistry Teacher (1968-1972); Religious degree received from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH 1982; received Masters in Social Work in 1991 from the University of Cincinnati. Married and living in Cincinnati, OH.

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