Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, July 7, 2014

You Wouldn't Treat a Dog the Way This Woman Tells Social Workers They Should Treat Foster Children

I was surprised to find out some years ago that some people were disciplining their children with methods like limiting or forcing food and drink consumption.

I was even more surprised when I discovered that Nancy Thomas, a former dog trainer and present foster care educator, has a large Internet following for her advice about confining children to their rooms and demanding that they sit immobile for lengthy periods of time.  Thomas recommends what she calls “basic German Shepherd training”, in which children learn to come, stay, or stop what they are doing instantly on voice command, or receive “consequences” for noncompliance. The kind and amount of food they get may be part of the consequences.

I was astonished when I discovered that a presentation by this same Nancy Thomas had been approved for the award of continuing professional education units by the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and other groups. I received an ad for the presentation by accident, and as a member of APA I immediately contacted the office that deals with sponsorship of continuing education credits, which most clinical psychologists must earn in order to keep their professional licenses. Knowing that APA works with a system of “approved providers” rather than approving each continuing education workshop individually, I did not really think that anyone at the top of the organization had made this decision—but someone close to the top had to refuse to give the credits that licensed psychologists need to maintain their professional standing.

I was delighted and relieved when I learned that APA was cancelling the credits that had been planned for Thomas’s presentation—but less than pleased when I saw on the workshop website that social workers and other mental health professionals who attended would still receive credit toward continuing licensure from their national organizations.

What is the story here? Who is Nancy Thomas and what is the “Nancy Thomas parenting” that she teaches?  Yes, Thomas was a dog trainer, and as such she learned about the functions of reward and punishment and the goal of obedience to authority. When she became a foster parent, she put the same ideas to work and did “treat children like dogs”.  Under many circumstances, Thomas would have received little approval and probably would have moved on to a different nonprofessional job—perhaps back to dog training.

By chance, however, Thomas was in touch with a Colorado psychiatrist (later admonished by his medical licensing board following harm to a child) who shared her views about authority and parenting. This man, Foster Cline, had learned how to do “holding therapy” from a mentor who had surrendered his psychology license after hurting an adult patient. Cline believed, and still believes, that “all bonding is trauma bonding”. He likened the emotional attachment of a toddler develops for a parent, to the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon in which a captive “falls in love” with her captor.  Attachment, he claimed, was shown by obedience and gratitude; if a child was disobedient, he was “unattached” and needed to have parental authority demonstrated until he changed. Otherwise, according to both Cline and Thomas, first we see a bad kid, and later we see--  Ted Bundy!

Cline’s impressive though incorrect argument, and his use of the painful and frightening “holding therapy”, jibed perfectly with Thomas’s methods. In the 1990s, she developed a technique of “therapeutic foster care” in which children received a diet limited in quantity and variety, were required to ask adults for everything they needed including use of the toilet, and spent their days in tedious, pointless labor like moving all the rocks from one side of the yard to the other, and then moving them back again, or like cutting the lawn with nail scissors. Children received “holding therapy” several times a week, and spent the rest of their time being “therapeutically parented” according to Thomas’s rules, one of which was (is) that they receive no answer to their questions about going home or seeing their parents.  Schooling was considered a privilege, not a right.

This idyllic arrangement (from the viewpoints of Cline, Thomas, and their colleagues) halted abruptly in 2000, when a ten-year-old girl, Candace Newmaker, died in the course of a therapy session. Those who had supported “holding therapy” and its theory backed off, and some later returned advocating a “gentle, nurturing” treatment that involved physical holding said to involve no pain or fear. Cline began to put all his energies into a commercialized program for parents and schoolteachers (Thomas, too, has made a minor specialty of instructing teachers). But Nancy Thomas continued to recommend the same practices for children as she had learned for use with German Shepherds—practices that are disturbing to many people concerned with child welfare, and that are in no way supported by research evidence.  In fact, she built something of an empire, with “attachment camps” to which mothers and children may go, and invitations to speak in Russia on issues of adoption and fostering.

How can a person like Thomas become a success as she touts cruel and pointless child-rearing practices? The first reason is probably her extraordinary charm. Youtube pieces and training videos show her as cute, warm, responsive, and infinitely supportive of the parents who consult her. She mothers the parents in a style diametrically opposed to her recommendations for treating children. She praises the parents, and blames the children and the culture for any problems that occur, including the children’s failure to be affectionate enough when the parents want them to be. Her audiences love this stuff.

In addition, Thomas tells some quite exciting stories. In one of her books, she recounts how a badly disturbed preschooler would take a younger child around and around a grassy field on their tricycles while the adults sat out in their lawn chairs. Each time the children would pass behind a clump of grass, the older child would take the opportunity to sodomize the other, then they would emerge again into adult view. This was how Thomas told it, and it’s difficult to know how to interpret it. Was the preschooler the fastest sodomist in the West? Or does Thomas not know what sodomy is?

Stories like this one underline Thomas’s position that foster or adopted children are evil. Their wickedness is not exactly their fault, because it results from their early traumatic experiences, but nevertheless it is demonic in the literal sense. She has counseled against allowing foster or adopted children to say grace before meals, because “you don’t know who they might be praying to.” This level of evil presumably cannot be dealt with by standard child or family psychotherapies, but Thomas states that her methods have been successful with the children she works with, of whom “80% have killed” (the question “killed what?” is not answered). For over ten years, the dramatic made-for-TV movie “Child of Rage”, purporting to show how Thomas’s own adopted daughter was transformed from a potential murderer into a respectable citizen, has served as unpaid advertising for Thomas’s methods, and has convinced many a na├»ve viewer.

One factor in Thomas’s success is her current care to avoid direct responsibility for what may happen when families take her advice. She simply states her opinion, as the First Amendment allows her to do. If a child is hurt or undernourished or even killed, Thomas wasn’t there; it’s the parents who are the responsible parties and may lose custody of all their children or even go to prison. Thomas cannot be prosecuted for this, and because she is not a licensed mental health professional, she cannot be disciplined by a state professional board. Even when there are tragic outcomes for families, they cannot easily be traced back to Thomas’s influence. In an Oregon case presently under investigation, a 12-year-old attempted suicide after a period of “Nancy Thomas parenting” advised by a local mental health professional; the outcome of this case may be important to the whole issue of responsibility of “coaches” and “educators”.

Finally, the systems that allowed Thomas’s presentation to be approved for continuing professional education units also helped her build her empire. “Approved providers” for the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers have benefited financially from making decisions that draw large and enthusiastic paying audiences like Thomas’s, and they do not suffer in any way if wrong information has been presented. The professional organizations, too, make money from the fees charged for certification of continuing professional education. Some clinical psychologists and social workers may have been pleased to find an easy and exciting continuing education workshop whose content would appeal to their clientele. So what’s not to like? Only the impact on children and their families, and the adverse events that are someone else’s fault, not the workshop instructor’s.

It’s time for professional organizations to take a stand against “treating children like dogs”. To begin, NASW can follow APA’s lead in cancelling continuing professional education credits for Thomas and her ilk.





28 comments:

  1. Nancy Thomas is right up there with Empowered to Connect --- the lovely, lovely Dr. Karyn Purvis who employs Lisa Qualls of onethankfulmom.com as a "hard places" parenting expert to give talks, write books, lead seminars, etc. on parenting traumatized children.

    Lisa Qualls is a woman who adopted a gazillion older kids from Ethiopia who struggle in large part because she's got so darn many other kids. She's also (in)famous for how she's treated her adopted at age 6 daughter "Dimples".

    More speciifcally, Lisa:
    - banned Dimples from all fun family holidays (she couldn't 'handle' them)
    - did not homeschool Dimples (but homeschooled the rest of the kids)
    - arranged after school + weekend "respite" for Dimples while she was living at home, i.e. spent ZERO time with the kid.
    - shipped Dimples off to an unlicensed "Ranch" for "Kids" in Montana, where there are no on-site licensed medical professionals available to treat Dimples, who supposedly has a severe case of RAD.
    - Lisa also blogs about how well her adopted kids do with one on one attention... which they pretty much never get due to too her having so darn many other kids:

    http://www.onethankfulmom.com/attachment-and-trauma/an-only-child-for-a-short-time/#.U7rNAZJxR8E

    Last but not least, banishing Dimples from the family home is presumably a FABULOUS way to keep the rest of the aodpted kids in line. All the rest of LIsa's kids know that if they misbehave, they too could be EXILED from the family

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    1. Thanks, Carlee-- this is a good example of why it's important not to focus too personally on NT, however much she may get up one's nose. There's a whole gang of similar people out there.

      Your point about the example given to the other children by "Dimples" (poor child) is a good one. I think these actions can be seen as scapegoating and have the same impact on the other children that scapegoating within the home has.

      More on Purvis: she was (perhaps still is) a great pal of Ronald Federici, champion of prone restraint methods. Also, several years ago, she co-authored in the Journal of Child Custody an article about whether you could measure attachment by examining the urinary cortisol of a child following a visit to a parent. They thought it was a pretty good idea. When I looked into information about her co-author, I found two interesting things. One was that he had been threatened with deportation because of misuse of research grant funds. The other was that he owned the company that manufactured the urine test kits-- a point that was not disclosed as a conflict of interest in the journal publication. I told the JCC editor about this, but answer came there none. (For those who don't know, authors submitting a paper to a professional journal are asked whether they have any conflicts of interest and are expected to disclose this kind of thing. It's a matter of professional ethics to do so.)

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  2. I doubt if the Humane Society (or anyone else) would approve of how Nancy Thomas treats dogs either. Here's her advice on treating both dogs and children in an online continuing education session. (Keep in mind that Ms. Thomas, though short, is of considerable girth.)

    "I have had instances where a kid is so out of control that they refuse to stay. When that happens, I will sit on the child. I have had to do this with dogs as well, and they are generally more dangerous with their teeth and claws than children. … I pick a good book and read while I sit on a child and that really seems to upset them because they feel that I should be miserable like they are." — Bonding & Attachment Workshop (Chatsworth, CA: Foster Care & Adoptive Community, Online Training Program, nd, 2 parts) [Material currently available for CEUs]

    This is apparently how to deal with a child who doesn't "stay" as in Attachment Therapy's "Basic German Shepherd Training." Apparently immediate and unquestioning obedience is required of the child.

    She also claims that should a child fail to "Go!" as in go to their room, that is grounds for sending the child permanently away from the family.

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    1. Which is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I had my kids the "old-fashioned" way, they've been loved since the instant that they were conceived, they've experienced no trauma, do nor have any special needs (beyond being nearsighted) and I can think of about a million times when they refused to go to their room when told to do so -- because, ummm, that's what 3 yo and 10 yo and 17 yo do when they do not want to go to sleep / make their bed / etc.

      Heck, it's a developmental stage -- refusing to what they're told is what 2 yos DO!! When mine had their seemingly-endless "no" stages, they said "no!" to pretty much everything, including "would you like an ice cream?", "would you like to go to the park / granny's".

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    2. If you can accept that raising children involves negotiation and compromise and preservation of relationships,you can cope with these developmental issues. If you believe that children who don't obey at once will go to hell, so it's your job to make sure they do obey-- you don't find it so simple, I guess.

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  3. A selection of Nancy Thomas' advice to parents can be read here. It is difficult to understand why government agencies have long invited Thomas to speak.

    http://www.childrenintherapy.org/proponents/thomasn.html

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  4. I can't fathom what would happen if you sat on a dog. One or both of you would get hurt, it seems to me. I wonder whether her claim here is about as accurate as the story of the sodomist on a tricycle.

    As for the government agencies, I can only imagine that some poor clerk gets told off to make a list of possible speakers, goes to the Internet, and hands over a random collection of whom one or two are invited without further ado. A chunk of content is wanted-- and it's a lot of trouble to look at backgrounds.

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    1. One child welfare worker in Colorado told me that her county DHS asked Thomas to speak every year "because she is popular." I found that the most depressing of all possible answers.

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    2. It does take the breath away...

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  5. You didn't include the story about the boy (nine or ten years old) who would sneak out of his bedroom at night to molest the other children in the neighborhood. She uses this to argue in favor of alarms on bedroom doors.

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  6. Thanks, DL-- somehow this sounds as businesslike as having a paper route-- so much for her concerns about the impulsiveness of "these children", if she thinks this happened regularly.

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  7. And the ever-popular UNLICENSED "parent coach" for mommies with difficult kids:

    http://adriennebashista.net/parent-coaching/

    Who would hire an unqualified unlicensed "coach"?

    Who would hire a woman whose adopted kid with FASD is an out of control terror?!

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    1. Why do people accept or even prefer unlicensed, untrained individuals with "life experience"? This is a really important question that applies not only to "coaches" but to "lay therapists" of many kinds, and to amateur midwives as well.

      I believe that one of the reasons is the fear of some parents that they will be criticized (i.e., asked to behave somewhat differently) by a trained, authoritative professional, and that this will be not only uncomfortable but actually unbearably humiliating.

      Such people often want a counselor who will disclose much about him or herself, thus making the relationship one between friends rather than professional and client, and this is something that licensees know they should not do.

      "Coaches" may also share the educational level and religious beliefs of their clients in a way that licensed professionals often do not do, and the shared characteristics make the clients feel comfortable.

      As for whether a coach's child is a terror or not, clients are often quite attracted by the idea that there are some children that even a very good person (i.e., the coach) cannot help, so if the parents themselves continue to fail to help the child, this is in no way to their discredit.

      But candidly, Anon, I have no idea whether you were asking these questions seriously, or simply taking advantage of this blog to attack a particular person!

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  8. i just checked out Lisa Qualls' blog. i can't BELIEVE the PRIVATE information some people put out about their children for all the world to see. how do you explain this to your children when they are adults? it's out there for anyone to see! talk about a complete and total invasion of a child's privacy. if you want to write about yourself, okay, but your children? i see this too often.

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    1. All of us at times tell things about our children that they wouldn't like to have told-- unfortunately, when we do it on the internet, the outcome is as you say.

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    2. Poor Dimples is dead - her real name was Kaikadan and she died in a car accident last week. Her vile adopters survived with barely a scratch & promptly set up an account to beg for money for a replacement car.

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    3. This is so sad, but thanks for the update.

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  9. I wish I was already a LCSW. Or hell even a BSW. I'd love to attend one of her "classes" just so I could ask questions directly to her at the end. Unfortunately, I would be financially contributing to her.

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    1. That's the problem-- I hate even to buy their books-- however, once you buy one, they send you e-mails about things, and that can be useful for seeing what they're up to.

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  10. This is my new favorite Trauma Mama back to school letter for teachers. It contains more misinformation (references to nonexistent "attachment disorders" and "C-PTSD"), as well as a strange belief that her two adopted sons (with low IQs and FASD) are unable to connect cause with effect yet are somehow super-manipulators of teachers, doctors and administrators with graduate degrees:

    http://www.fromsurvivaltoserenity.com/2014/08/educating-about-rad.html

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    1. It is quite amazing, isn't it, that these kids are supposed to have an island of competence that allows them to understand cause and effect only when they can manipulate others-- and under all other circumstances they lose that skill! If it weren't so pitiful and maddening, this belief system would be a fascinating topic of study.

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    2. Good lord there's a lot of garbage there. A fetus knows when its mother is considering abortion? No, it doesn't.

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    3. I love how someone asks point blank in the comments how you can manipulate without cause and effect thinking and she redefines the meaning of cause and effect.

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    4. One of the consistent principles of development is that until old age sets in, people usually have better cognitive skills as they get older. So, we could hardly expect a fetus to have cognitive abilities that a toddler does not have-- i.e., recognizing an adult's wishes for all but the simplest future events. NT and her ilk attribute very mature thinking to unborn babies, presumably following the lines of Wordsworth's "Trailing clouds of glory I come, from heaven that is my home."

      Then there's the whole question of telepathic communication!

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  11. Could you do an entry about cause and effect thinking, how it develops, and how that blog comment redefines the term?

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    1. Good idea, D.L., but I can't do it instantaneously. It's in the queue.

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  12. " nonexistent attachment disorders "
    It's good that you are Anonymous...
    But if you're going to put that kind of statement you should be more accurate with your title...
    I don't know, maybe try ass hat?
    Read a book

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    1. Not sure who you are addressing here-- I guess not me, because I'm not anonymous.

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