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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

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.  


  1. The first link isn't working. Here's another. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2106370/Savannah-Hardin-9-run-death-lying-eating-candy.html

    On the second case - here's an earlier post from the same contributor. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/HopeForADKids/message/3102 Interesting about the 1 months hospitalisation with multiple possible diagnoses (including "RAD") but no actual diagnosis. The demonising description of the girl is sadly all too familiar from the RAD boards. I also wonder where the "hope" comes into HopeForADKids as the methods certainly don't seem to lead to anything but misery (and sometimes death).

  2. Thanks, Fainites-- but as usual I have no idea why two links that appear to me to be identical don't work in the same way!

  3. Neither do I. Maybe it's a UK/USA thing. Here's some photos of the starving parents. http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/crime_and_courts/madison-man-and-wife-arrested-for-allegedly-torturing-starving-man/article_b0c5405e-5756-11e1-819b-001871e3ce6c.html How long before a defence "expert" claims the girl had RAD and was deliberately starving herself in order to cause trouble for her parents?

  4. My crystal ball gives the same prediction as yours, about the defense-- the same old "RAD expert" claim, dating back to when David Polreis was argued to have beaten himself to death with a wooden spoon, at the age of two.

  5. There was a case about a year ago where it was argued a "RAD" child was deliberately not eating. Can't recall the name.

  6. Are you thinking of the Salvetti case in North Carolina, where the Russian-adopted child was locked in his room and dietary limitations were advised-- but his weight loss was said by the "therapist" to be due to food refusal? Unfortunately for those who want to know more about it, the parents did an Alford plea, so there was no real defense offered.

  7. An interesting point in that one was that the injury to the child was referred to as starvation, but the defense attorney insisted on conflating "starvation" with "death caused by starvation" and essentially argued that because the child didn't die, he couldn't have been starved. We'll see if this also appears in the Chritton case-- unless she actually does die as a result of refeeding syndrome.

    1. I predict the defense will claim that this poor girl is gaining weight in the hospital just to spite her parents and get them in trouble.

      Wisconsin has long been silly with Attachment Therapy (AT).

      Remember the organization called WARN that promoted AT for years in that state. Their leader spoke on behalf of Connell Watkins at Watkins' sentencing hearing and even raised money for her defense. It appears than many Wisconsin children have been shipped to Evergreen, CO, for AT "intensives."

      The Wisconsin state government also appears greatly involved in the funding of AT. For years, Advocates for Children in Therapy had been after the authorities to cease promoting AT, but nothing was done. Reggie Bicha, when secretary of the WI Dept of Children and Families, wrote ACT that he would at least get the definition of RAD in line with the DSM-IV, but even that didn't happen.

      This is the document that Dr. Mercer refers to above:


      It appears to have been recently removed from the website of Adoption Resources of Wisconsin (ARW), but this state-funded organization still recommends many AT materials in its lending library as *Must Reads,* it hosts pro-Attachment Therapy speakers, etc.

      Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin, a state-approved mental health provider, has many treatment centers around the state. Its staff was trained in Holding Therapy by staff from Greg Keck's Ohio clinic.

      I only hope that the Chritton case brings the chickens home to roost for Wisconsin DCF, ARW, various pro-AT academics in the state, and others who have *knowingly* promoted this abusive practice.

  8. The "Hope" blog post contains clues as to what was going on. This kind of thing " We have lost all our friends and family due to us venting about her to them no one wants anything to do with us anymore. I feel so
    alone and crazy................

    The social worker we talked to about her and the peeing and pooping
    said oh she is fine that is normal of a 11 yr old................
    ugh I feel helpless and so alone........."

    It looks like the hospitalisation was some years ago. I suspect no proper professional advice has been sought since.

    What really puzzles me though is how the step-sons probation officer who did three home checks (he has 3 years probation for sexually interferring with a 13 year old girl) didn't notice a 15 year old girl living in the house - nor the conditions in which she lived.

    1. This is always the issue, isn't it-- how the probation officers and home visitors just don't notice-- as in Victoria Climbie's case. Is it pure carelessness, or conformity with the parents' beliefs? The Barahona grand jury used the telling term "bias of trust and complacency". My question is whether the bias goes farther than that, to a shared allegiance to the teachings of a quasi-professional fringe group.

  9. One of the big issues in the Climbie case was an underfunded and undermanned Children's Services department and an overloaded, inexperienced social worker. (The other big issue of course was excessive cultural sensitivities). Mind you - to be fair to CS, I think this was the case where they did get the child to a paediatrician who diagnosed cigarette burns as impetigo or something. It wouldn't surprise me to discover that the probation officer monitoring sex offenders in the case we're discussing has a ridiculous case load. It's just that the home of a registered sex offender should be checked out and they should have known a teenage girl was living there even if she didn't go to school, because there had been previous referrals to Social Services. Unfortunately it's probably the case in the US as much as it is in the UK that Social Services are the bottom end of the market. Child neglect and abuse is not politically important. It's easier to demonise the feckless parents and slate the social workers.

  10. Having got a bit off topic, in reply to you question "whether the bias goes farther than that, to a shared allegiance to the teachings of a quasi-professional fringe group" I suspect the answer is partly yes and partly that the teachings of this particular group actually chime very deeply with existing cultural beliefs and the more extreme end of parenting norms. There is always a problem with certain children being seen as bad, naughty etc and then scapegoated and made to carry the burden and blame for the adults internal miseries and anger, whether it's west African religious beliefs about children being witches or the quasi-professional beliefs you are talking about. I suspect what happens is that the finding of RAD forums validates their beliefs and feelings. They may not need an actual therapist at all. There's enough of it on the web to enable such parents to justify their actions to themselves.

  11. I'm sure you're right, that no more than a resonance with their own assumptions may be needed to convince these parents. And in the U.S., at least, local newspapers regularly refer to the "fringe" RAD theories and strengthen existing assumptions. There may be no specific therapist involved at all, although some of the RAD forum material suggests that there was one in the Chritton case.

  12. In the Chritton case, Wisconsin social workers may have sympathies with any parent claiming a child has RAD-like symptoms and be more tolerant of harsh parenting. I would suspect this to be the core problem more than child welfare workers being over-worked.

    AT beliefs could be quite convenient for social workers, because then there is less call for thorough evaluations. The CS can assume birth parents are abusive, and feel assured that being critical of a foster/step/adoptive parents is potentially damaging.

    On another issues, isn't being a step-child a potential risk factor that should make child services even more alert to problems?

  13. We need to remember that child protective services would not even be in the picture unless someone (parents, teachers, whoever) had reported a problem of some kind, at some time-- risk factors like step-parenting or other arrangements would best be considered in the context of the reported problem. I'm just saying this for readers who might not understand that these things are among many possible risk factors, not necessarily determinants of poor outcomes in themselves.

  14. There's very little tolerance of harsh parenting methods here from CS in the normal run of things, "cultural sensitivites" aside. The problem is first knowing and then proving it's going on. There is often a higher tolerance amongst the population at large, especially when exposed to demonising stories about feral kids. It's much easier to spot inconsistent parenting where the kids run wild one minute and get walloped the next.

    It's a statistics thing isn't it? Risk factors I mean, including step-parents. Never determinative nor probative in any particular instance nor a cause for referral or investigation. (I don't think foster or adoptive parents are a risk factor).

  15. Actually, in the U.S., foster parents are a risk factor-- although, as you say, this is speaking statistically. Physical illness of the child and developmental delays are also risk factors for abuse. As is so often the case in child development, "good things go together" and "bad things go together".

  16. Are adoptive parents a risk factor? Statistically speaking? We hear a lot about the scandalous ones but how does it compare?

    1. Interesting that you should bring up the issue of risk factors associated with parents. The documents available through www.myfoxal.com/story/17029263/savanjudge-orders-savannah-hardin-files-unsealed indicate that the woman who was present but failed to stop the grandmother's treatment of Savannah Hardin was her former, now-divorced, stepmother. I haven't made my way through all these documents, but it seems that there was a therapist of some kind involved, but the psychological evaluation of Savannah was not unsealed.

    2. I was wrong about the divorce-- although they went through divorce proceedings, they apparently reconciled. and a new baby has just been born. The father, who had custody after a suit against the biological mother, was working overseas, so Savannah was in the care of her stepmother and her father's mother.

  17. There's surprisingly little about this, but this is useful: Van IJzendoorn, M.H., Euser, E.M., Prinzie, P., Juffer, F., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2009). Elevated risk of child maltreatment in families with stepparents but not with adoptive parents. Child Maltreatment, Vol. 14, 369-375.

    They report the following order of child maltreatment rates, from highest to lowest, with large differences between them:

    Large families; one-parent families; step-parents; adoptive families (the last having a very low rate).

    Of course, one would want to predict that adoptive families would have virtually no maltreatment, because of screening, services, etc.

    Also writing in Child Maltreatment, Miller et al discussed 17 cases of abuse deaths among foreign-adopted children; they referred to post-adoption depression as a factor in these, but did not discuss a mechanism for the outcome.

  18. Presumably 17 abuse deaths amongst foreign-adopted children is significant or they wouldn't be writing a paper? Or is it just a hot topic.

    Where did two parent families fit on the list of maltreatment rates?

  19. Certainly it's significant in the sense that it's meaningful, but they didn't deal with the statistical significance... this was written at about the time the Russians were first saying they'd shut down foreign adoption.

    I don't think they looked at two-parent families in general, but large two-parent families had the highest abuse rates. this was in the Netherlands, by the way. (Wonder if the large families were immigrant families?)

  20. Some updates from the first Chritton trial in WIsconsin:
    Wisconsin State Journal
    March 02, 2012 - Ed Treleven
    Social worker testifies that parents were indifferent to offers of help...
    WKOW Madison, ABC channel 27
    Posted: Feb 28, 2013 9:35 AM CST
    By Jennifer Kliese
    UPDATE: Victim's mother testifies in Chritton trial
    [Please note that this link also includes the name and testimony of the victim's former psychiatrist]

  21. Thank you for sending these, Frances. I can't find much about the psychologist, Maureen Rickman.
    But I wonder where else they were getting advice.

  22. Your welcome Jean,
    it seems that there is a Maureen Rickman who works at Psychiatric Services, S.C., in Madison.

    The most current new of today's proceedings are here:
    a few other social workers are mentioned.

    1. Yes, I saw that about Maureen Rickman, also that she has been associated with the university psychological clinic (someone thanked her for supervision there). What I don't see is a CV or publications that would help to understand her orientation.

      Of course, the Chrittons' advice (if any) may have come from someone they consulted informally or by telephone, or from the many available websites, books, and videos that recommend seclusion and food limitation. They would not necessarily reveal this to a conventional therapist.

  23. Of course, Jean,

    Also, recap of trial news from yesterday - the Deference has called a few witnesses. Of note is Dr. David Thompson of Burlington WI. According to the WSJ article by Ed Treleven, Thompson talked about the victim having Reactive Attachment Disorder.

    WSJ article:

    local CBS:

    local ABC

    1. A tricky bit is that in fact she may have Reactive Attachment Disorder, but that would have nothing to do with her growth failure. Unfortunately, the way it's stated in these reports makes it easy for people to get the idea of cause and effect at work, with RAD causing growth failure. In fact, it's more likely to be: someone says she has RAD, the parents apply methods they are told are therapeutic, including limiting food, and then her growth is affected.

  24. The field of psychology depends on accurate observations and descriptions of human behavior... So choice of language is everything. If a psychologist recommends using a 'door alarm' to alert a parent whether a child is where they are supposed to be (such as safely tucked in their bedroom)it does not mean that the psychologist recommended 'locking' that child into a room. Baby monitors are also sometimes suggested to parents to improve their ability to supervise their children at night or on different levels of the house. Hmmmm......

    1. Very true... and there are really two issues. One is what the practitioner told the parents or wrote about this, and the other is how the parents interpreted the message. However, some messages are a lot easier to misinterpret than others, and the context may be important. If someone suggests that children with a certain disorder are likely to be killers, that would encourage misinterpreting the door alarm to include locking the child in, for instance.