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 naïve 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.