Saturday, February 25, 2012
The Hardin and Chritton Cases: Where Did These Abusive Parents Learn Their Methods?
Two recent child abuse cases-- one fatal— raise a question: was it chance that the abusive adults chose the methods they used? Were they simply repeating punishments that were generally accepted in the past? Was their bizarre and harmful behavior symptomatic of mental illness? Or are abusive actions encouraged by quasi-professional “therapists” and “parent educators”?
The fatal case, that of a 9-year-old Alabama girl, Savannah Hardin, is shown at www.dailymail.uk/news/article-2106370/Savannah-Hardin-9-run-death-lying-eating-candy.html as well as posted elsewhere. Savannah told her grandmother she had not eaten a candy bar, when she actually had done so; as punishment, she was made to run for hours, until she collapsed and later died of dehydration. One article notes that, as well as running, she was to gather wood and add it to a pile. Savannah was said to be under medical care and receiving medication for a chronic condition that was not named.
An Alabama attorney quoted in a piece at www.cbs42.com stated that “a lot of parents do this as punishment”, apparently referring to the forced running, but that they would not expect it to end in death. Older people may remember this type of punishment from their own childhoods, and those who have been associated with the military will recall similar punishments involving running or marching with full packs (and the old British expression, “no names, no pack drill).
Punishments of this kind are part of a vernacular or popular belief system about appropriate treatment of children and are more likely to be favored in rural areas or by “old-fashioned” families or individuals. However, they also form part of a popularized system associated with so-called “Attachment Therapy” or “Holding Therapy”, unconventional treatments intended to make children compliant. The system, which some call “Attachment Therapy parenting”, involves an emphasis on unquestioning and uncomplaining obedience, to be brought about through limitations of diet and tedious repetition of heavy or difficult work, or of tasks like holding objects over the head with extended arms before meals may be eaten. This approach has been suggested and described by the “parent educator” Nancy Thomas in a 2000 Academic Press book edited by the “attachment therapist” Terry Levy. (I would note that the techniques of holding objects over the head is not included in Thomas’s work, but has shown up in the practices of parents using similar methods.)
Was Savannah Hardin’s grandmother, Joyce Garrard, familiar with the advice of “attachment therapists”? Was she simply repeating methods she knew from previous experience? Or was some degree of emotional disturbance responsible for her fatally-flawed judgment in this matter? It’s to be hoped that investigators and prosecutors will explore these issues thoroughly. Although Ms. Garrard’s actions are her own responsibility, if “therapists” or “parent educators” in the area are encouraging this behavior, the public needs to be informed of their involvement and its potential outcome.
The second case, non-fatal but highly injurious to the child, can be seen at http://www.channel3000.com/news/30475617/detail.html. A Madison, WI family is accused of years of maltreatment of a 15-year-old girl who was found weighing 70 pounds. Her condition requires very careful care and may end in her death. Her father, Chad Chritton, and stepmother, Melinda Drabek-Chritton, are said to have kept her in the basement of their house most of the time for the last 6 years, to have limited her diet to oatmeal and peanut butter sandwiches (as recommended by the “parent educator” Nancy Thomas), supplemented by garbage and, sometimes, her own feces, to have made her do housework in the nude, and to have failed to provide adequate sanitary facilities. Their reasons for mistreating the child are not yet clear, but they are said to have told her that she is autistic and to have claimed that she has Reactive Attachment Disorder (a claim that is, of course, a specialty of “Attachment Therapists”). It has been suggested that this post http://groups.yahoo.com/group/HopeForADKids/message/3118 may have been written by Melinda Drabek-Chritton, and it appears that the description of the surveillance cameras is accurate. (Readers may notice that the URL above uses the term “AD” rather than “RAD”. This refers to the “Attachment Disorder” posited by “Attachment Therapists” -- sometimes used interchangeably with “Reactive Attachment Disorder” by them, but also said to have different symptoms and claimed to culminate in serial killing.)
Did the girl’s father and stepmother pick up these techniques from their own past experiences? The serious harm done to the child makes it seem unlikely that this was the case, or at least that they had ever seen such severe treatment go on for long. Is their behavior symptomatic of mental illness? This remains to be seen, of course. Have they learned to use these methods as advised by “therapists” or “parent educators”? This is a very real possibility, as a document available from the organization Adoption Resources of Wisconsin repeats misconceptions claimed as true by “Attachment Therapists”. This document does not in itself suggest maltreatment, but cites as sources and recommends materials by Nancy Thomas and by Connell Watkins, one of the therapists convicted in the 2000 suffocation death of Candace Newmaker. Such dangerous misinformation has been circulated in Wisconsin by a number of groups.
Again, it is to be hoped that investigators and prosecutors will thoroughly explore all these possibilities. If, in fact, state or local organizations are encouraging the practices and belief systems that seem to have been at work in the Wisconsin case, it is essential that families be made aware of the dangers of following this kind of advice-- advice that is protected under the First Amendment, so that punishment of the advisers is not as likely as punishment of those who followed their counsel.