Monday, January 25, 2016
Ordinary Child Abuse versus "Nancy Thomas Methods": What Investigators Should Know
However similar their results may be, two forms of child abuse are different in their motives, and to some extent in their methods. “Ordinary” child abuse can result from parental mental disturbances, from stress and frustration, from misunderstandings about discipline, or from a range of other factors like impulsiveness. Ideologically-motivated child abuse results from belief systems that claim that ill-treatment is beneficial for children and for their families, especially for adopted and foster children who have been neglected or abused in the past. In spite of some discussion in professional circles of coercive parenting based on an authoritarian belief system—often called “Nancy Thomas methods” after the former foster parent who has established an instructional empire claiming that coercive adoptive parenting creates child attachment—child welfare and criminal investigators may not realize that such ideological methods exist.
When questions are raised about a child’s care, investigators look for evidence of abusive or neglectful treatment, and because ideology-based coercive methods like limiting diet and threatening abandonment are correctly construed as abusive, they are likely to stop the investigation when they find those. But what happens next? Adoptive parents may present an appearance quite different from what investigators sometimes expect in abuse cases, and this may lead to questions about the need for, or the accuracy of, the investigation. Adoptive and foster parents have passed screenings for their health, education, solvency, and living conditions—otherwise they would not be permitted to adopt or foster (except in the shady circumstances of “rehoming”). They are likely to have extensive support systems in church and community groups as well as in adoption or foster care organizations, giving them plenty of character witnesses. If they are using coercive methods, they may have learned them from others in these organizations, and at least will feel supported by knowing that other people they like are doing the same things.
When the apparent respectability of the parents, their list of character witnesses, and their support systems are in place, and if no little or no direct harm has been done to a child so far, an investigation may come to a halt prematurely. A strong potential for harm will still be in place, because the experiences of the child in “Nancy Thomas parenting” are equivalent to the adverse childhood experiences shown to cause both physical and emotional damage over the long term (see “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study”, www.acestudy.org). To protect children in these situations, investigators need to know what information is required to decide whether abusive coercive methods are being used by a family. That information will include not only what the parents do, but what instruction or encouragement makes them do it.
In cases of ordinary, non-ideological child abuse, investigation and evidence of abuse can lead to a range of outcomes, all presumably improvements of the child’s situation. At one extreme, children may be placed outside the family; at the other, stresses that have caused abuse may be ameliorated by improved housing or medical care and treatment by methods such as Child-Parent Psychotherapy. When abusive treatment occurs because of a shared belief system, and when abuse is assumed to have a beneficial effect on the child, it is much more difficult to think of ways the family can be helped-- and for that reason it is especially important for an investigation to reveal these factors in abuse. Abusive parents who believe they are doing the right thing are likely to continue their actions, but to become very careful about being detected by anyone outside their belief system.
Several years ago, an adopted 10-year-old girl in Georgia ran away twice from her adoptive home. On the second occasion, the deputy sheriff who brought her back made an excuse to get inside the house, where he noticed that there was an alarm on the girl’s bedroom door. He knew enough to be aware of what this might mean, and an investigation of the situation was launched. Here was the complicated story: when a local couple (not the adoptive parents at the time of the runaway) had gone to Russia to adopt a boy from an orphanage, they had yielded to requests to take the boy’s sister as well. But, it seems, they did not like her very much. They enlisted a couple of local practitioners of holding therapy to put her straight and periodically sent her to a “respite” foster home in the area. During one of the respite home visits, the first adoptive parents decided they did not want the girl any more, and they left it to the therapists and the foster parents to tell her this. The foster parents then said they would adopt her, and this was managed legally and bureaucratically-- not too hard, probably, because the people were already licensed as foster parents.
When the deputy reported what he saw in the house, a child abuse investigation followed. The adoptive parents’ fundamentalist church weighed in with many character references and statements that the couple could not possibly be abusive. In a lengthy hearing, both the character references and the facts of the girl’s treatment were considered-- but, it then transpired, the second adoptive parents had already sent her out of the state to the Seventh Day Adventist Miracle Meadows School in West Virginia, an organization frequently accused of abusive treatment of children (and recently closed down). This, of course, placed the case outside the Georgia jurisdiction.
What did the Georgia deputy know he should look for? What alerted him to the fact that this was not a simple runaway situation?
Here are some items that may give away the use of coercive parenting methods that reach abusive levels:
1 . Alarms and locks on bedroom doors
2. Minimal furniture in child’s bedroom
3. No lights in bedroom
4. Alarms and locks on refrigerators and food cupboards (unless there is medical evidence of an eating problem)
5. Evidence that a child’s diet has been limited; low weight for age; neighbors or teachers have seen child look in garbage for food
6. Evidence that a child has been put to tedious, unnecessary physical work, like moving stones from one side of the yard to the other and back again
7. Literature and videos by Nancy Thomas or similar authors in the home
8. Computer searches for organizations like radzebra.org, attach-china.org, attachment.org
9. Claims that the child suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder, or simply “Attachment Disorder”
10. Claims that the child is dangerous but the parents want to keep him or her with them
11. Evidence of treatment by holding therapy
12. Evidence that a child past the toddler stage has still been fed with a baby bottle
13. Evidence that a child has not been enrolled in school or that homeschooling has been irregular
14. Family membership in a fundamentalist church that encourages adoption as part of the “Great Commission”
15. Multiple adoptions; evidence of use of “rehoming” for informal changes in child placement
Few of these facts or parent statements will be associated with non-ideological child abuse (although the two forms of abuse may overlap in their use of cages or similar restraint devices and of “hot-saucing” as a punishment). Even when there is evidence of abuse, the existence of a single one of these items does not demonstrate that investigators should pursue the case as one of ideologically-motivated mistreatment. When there are a number of these items noticed, however, it would be wise to understand that the parents in question may not be innocent simply because their character witnesses say so, nor may they be inclined to stop the abusive treatment of the current target child. Neither will they be unlikely to treat other children in the same way, because they believe it is the right thing to do.