Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Power Assertion and Child Guidance: Spanking and Other Acts

 Not only the American Psychological Association, but various other groups with an interest in child development and parenting have been expressing concerns about spanking for many years. Such concerns are felt not only about physical punishment that reaches the level of injury and abuse, but about spanking itself—usually defined as a matter of one or two smacks with the adult’s bare hand on a child’s buttocks or legs.

One reason to be concerned about physical punishment by spanking is that there may be a “domino effect”. Caregivers who feel free to spank may respond to stress and anger by escalating to more intense or frequent blows, or to using a weapon like a switch or electric cord that will cause more pain. With such escalation, the possibility of real injury increases; when no physical punishment at all is used, escalation cannot occur.

A second reason for concern is that among some subcultures, spanking is associated with more rather than less antisocial behavior by children and adolescents. It’s possible that children learn to be more violent by imitating violent adult models. However, the issue is much confused by the fact that in other subcultures spanking is associated with better child development and achievement. All of these points are based on correlational studies that find statistical correlations between children’s experiences and their development, but do not allow us to conclude that an experience causes a developmental change. Children’s experiences of spanking or other punishment do not stand alone, and caregivers who spank may also provide other experiences that influence children.

The emphasis on spanking often focuses on the child’s experiences of pain and potential physical injury, but in fact spanking, as properly defined, probably does not hurt as much as a skinned knee or many other accidental childhood experiences. Perhaps what we need to do, to understand the potential effects of spanking, is to consider the act not as a source of pain, but as a type of power assertion.  Power assertion techniques attempt to create behavior change by associating unwanted behavior with pain, fear, or both.

Although spanking is not considered an abusive act in the United States (at least for children older than a year and not yet in adolescence), there are many other power assertion techniques that may be classed as abusive for research purposes. These may or may not be specified under state laws about child abuse and may simply be considered as aspects of harsh parenting. They include isolating the child by keeping him or her locked in a room alone, depriving the child of food or drink, forcing the child to eat or drink, shouting at or refusing to speak to the child, and restraining the child physically by hand or by binding. Because power assertion techniques may operate through threats that frighten the child, adult threats of any of these experiences can be counted as examples of power assertion, even though the threats do no direct harm and do not even cause pain.

Why might we expect power assertion techniques to have worse outcomes than other forms of child guidance? One reason is that frequent experiences of fear and general anxiety are associated with difficulties about learning and thinking in both children and adults. (Although it may be true that knowing one is to be hanged “concentrates the mind wonderfully”, the concentration is on the hanging and not on other matters to be learned or remembered!) A second reason is that the normal course of development of attachment and social relationships involves increasing levels of compromise, bargaining, and negotiation, which are almost impossible when one party is constantly asserting his or her power over the other. A third reason is that parents who emphasize power assertion techniques with their children must by definition spend less time than others using techniques like humor, playfulness, rewards, and goal-setting, all of which support language and cognitive development as well as positive family relationships.

It does seem as if children can benefit from decreased experience of all of the power assertion techniques, not just of spanking. But there is a paradox here. Is not power assertion implied in all interactions adults have with children? We are big and they are small; we are skilled at punishments and threats and have the power to carry them out. We have the food and can withhold it. We can lock them in a room, we can turn out the lights with a switch they can’t reach. Even if (one hopes) we never do any of those things, we do have the power and they don’t. What’s more, we assert that power for various necessary reasons in the course of their early lives—changing diapers that they don’t want to have changed, snatching them out of the busy street, carrying them kicking and screaming out of a store, taking them to the doctor for shots.

The power differential is unquestionable, and we can never escape it. But we can limit the use of power assertion to times when it is really necessary, and that should go not only for spanking but for other power assertion methods. The reward? Better developmental progress, and probably more young adults who  know how to compromise with others.





Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Aggressive, Disturbing Child Behavior? Think Conduct Disorder, Not RAD


Very young children, sometimes even infants, accidentally hurt other people or pet animals. They may do this by sticking their fingers up your nose or in your eye, yanking on earrings, biting when they are teething and have itchy gums, whacking you in the mouth or on the nose with their hard little heads—and of course they have not yet learned the advice given by Dave Barry, “never put your finger in that part of the doggy”.

Generally, young children learn not to hurt people or animals as a result of the experiences that follow the infliction of pain. These may (but do not need to) include punishment, but they usually do include sudden withdrawal by a person or animal, exclamations of distress, and admonitions not to do that any more. Pets learn to avoid toddlers, and adults develop skill in moving their heads away from glasses-grabbing and earring-yanking, so children who unintentionally caused pain simply don’t manage to do those things after a while.

All children begin in the early years to act aggressively when angry, and adults spend a good deal of time working to teach them to speak their anger rather than to hit or bite. Most learn this lesson well, although all human beings retain throughout life the ability to express anger physically. Good development in young children means that they are less likely to hit or bite, but that they can still carry out forceful actions toward other children, like grabbing a toy that has been taken away.

 However, a small number of children move from accidental harm to others toward frequent intentional, aggressive acts when they are angry, or even for no apparent reason. Unlike most children, they do not learn between ages 2 and 4 to modulate their aggressive behavior to an acceptable level, and they are on a developmental pathway that leads to later antisocial behavior, including violence. Their problems are not part of Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is not itself associated with aggressive behavior, but are aspects of conduct disorders.

 According to a discussion of this issue by Daniel Shaw and Lindsay Taraban (“New directions and challenges in preventing conduct problems in early childhood”, Child Development Perspectives, 11(2), 85-89, 2017), family and child risk factors help to determine children’s developmental progress toward conduct disorders and later serious antisocial behavior. Living in poverty, with its attendant stresses and emotional responses, is a major factor connected with the development of conduct disorders, and is especially associated with living in “projects” where gang and other interpersonal violence is probable. Maternal depression (also associated with poverty) is a second important factor in the development of childhood conduct disorders.

Is it possible to reach families with aggressive young children and help them avoid serious antisocial behavior in later life? Shaw and Taraban suggest that this can be done, and that in fact early intervention can be most effective. (Although it is questionable whether very early treatment is always the best answer for problems of development, this may be a case where parents and children are most optimistic and most malleable while the children are quite young. )

Treating maternal depression seems to be one of the most effective ways to reduce child conduct disorders. Depressed mothers may be harsh and overcontrolling in their parenting style, but at the same time easily give up on efforts to find resources the family and children need—employment, appropriate housing, and good-quality child care outside the home. General family stress and angry interactions result from maternal depression combined with poverty, and are major causes of unusual child aggressive behavior culminating in conduct disorders and antisocial attitudes and actions.

These facts suggest that it is important to note and address aggressive behavior in the preschool years, but that treatment needs to involve not just the child, but the family and even the community. Conduct disorders are not caused by attachment problems and cannot be solved by efforts to create secure attachment. Maternal depression and poverty can also cause atypical emotional attachment (for instance, by moving an abused or neglected child into and out of foster care multiple times), but the effects of this are separate from conduct disorders.


When the preschool period has passed, an unusually aggressive child has been exposed to additional factors that are likely to increase the probability of antisocial behavior. These include  rejecting attitudes on the part of adults, such as expulsion from preschool or from community activities like library read-aloud sessions, often accompanied by further harsh behavior from embarrassed and stressed parents who need to find new child care arrangements. By school age, aggressive children are likely to find themselves rejected by more typically-developing peers and accepted only by other aggressive children, who encourage oppositional and defiant behavior toward adults. The influence of peers soon becomes paramount, and improvement of the family situation has less effect on child conduct than it did earlier. By this point, efforts to influence attachment have become not only ineffective but irrelevant to the child’s developmental stage, and labeling aggressive behavior as a manifestation of RAD, rather than as a conduct disorder, is counterproductive as well as incorrect.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Proposing a Pattern of Child Abuse: Maltreatment Syndrome


When a number of medical or psychological symptoms tend to be seen together, that group of symptoms is referred to as a syndrome. Not every symptom that belongs to a syndrome occurs in every case, and symptoms can belong to more than one syndrome. (For instance, having a fever can be part of many medical syndromes, and being anxious can be part of more than one psychological syndrome.)  In some cases, more than one cause could create the same pattern of symptoms.

Usually when people talk about a syndrome, they are referring to the symptoms experienced by a person suffering from a problem. But it makes just as much sense in some cases to talk about a syndrome of behavior shown by people who are not experiencing, but causing, someone else’s discomfort.

I’ve referred a number of times on this blog to a pattern of behaviors of parents toward children, a pattern often described in journalists’ reports of child abuse and neglect cases. This pattern usually includes some or all of the following: keeping children isolated or secluded in a less-used part of the house like a basement or attic, removing or not supplying furniture like beds, limiting the food children are given, claiming homeschooling but in fact not providing education, limiting toilet access, and requiring tedious and unnecessary physical work or exercise. There may or may not be physical punishment, and when there is it may include or be confined to “hot-saucing” or forcing other kinds of noxious food, or forcing liquids.

I propose to call this pattern of parental behavior maltreatment syndrome. Please note that I am simply proposing the existence of this pattern as an identifiable syndrome; I am not claiming that this is a well-known term or one that can be used authoritatively or diagnostically. However, it seems to me that the pattern crops up so often that it would be fruitful to regard it as a syndrome.

 Although discussions of many syndromes include references to causes of the syndrome, in this case a specific cause may be difficult to pinpoint unless we have a good deal of detailed information about a case. However, I would suggest that there are two major causes of maltreatment syndrome. One involves learning or personal experience of some “old-fashioned” punishment methods, and implementation of those methods by parents who may be intellectually challenged or suffering from some form of mental or physical illness that limits their capacity for empathy and for recognition of consequences of their behavior. The other possible cause of maltreatment syndrome is direct instruction, through classes, reading, or personal contacts, about the parenting methods advocated by Nancy Thomas, the former dog trainer and currently self-identified trainer of foster parents. Thomas’s ideas, like those of her mentor Foster Cline in the 1990s, emphasize  goals of child obedience and complete parental authority, to be achieved by whatever means of child control are necessary. These goals are presented as essential ways to prevent a child from becoming a serial killer or a prostitute (these being seen as equally evil by Thomas and Cline).

Which cause is at work in any specific case? This is something we could only know by examining the beliefs and experiences of the maltreating parents whose children have been found to be injured or killed by elements of maltreatment syndrome. Unless law enforcement and child protective services investigate these issues, it is impossible to know why parents chose the actions they did—and it is rare for the authorities to do this kind of investigation, possibly because they see the maltreatment as a series of undesirable acts rather than as a pattern.



In this case, a Utah couple by the name of Waldmiller have been identified as maltreating their three adopted sons, ages 7 to 11. I would identify their behavior toward the children as maltreatment syndrome. The Waldmillers kept the children for as much as 13 hours a day in a room with no lights, with windows screwed shut and painted black. They bound the children with zip ties and sometimes duct-taped their mouths. If they cried when beaten, their clothes were taken away. They were given limited food and had been punished for searching for food in the dumpster of a nearby school. They were sometimes punished by being made to eat heavily- salted rice with cayenne pepper and having water limited. To complete the maltreatment syndrome picture, the boys were not given access to toilet facilities and used a heating vent instead. They were also required to do exercises like squats to earn permission to read, and reading was required for them to be permitted to eat.


The Waldmillers did not go to trial but pled guilty to reduced child abuse charges. This means that there was no opportunity for full investigation of their motives and no public discussion of the beliefs behind their actions—whether these were simply what they remembered their parents doing, or techniques they had learned through Nancy Thomas instruction. Given the expense of investigations and trials, this is a common occurrence in cases of this kind, which in turn makes a fuller understanding of maltreatment syndrome impossible.  Without a trial, there is no complete public record of the proceedings, and people concerned with the abusive pattern must rely on journalists’ reports of cases.


The lack of information about this parental behavior means that I can only suggest that the pattern be called maltreatment syndrome; I can’t say confidently that there is such a thing. I base my suggestion on years of journalists’ reports and on the reports of a small number of adults who experienced this kind of maltreatment pattern as children and are willing to talk about it. Unfortunately, not much more will be known until law enforcement and child protective services staff are aware at least of the concept of a maltreatment pattern that overlaps only slightly with other known patterns. Considering abusive acts one by one meets the requirements of the law, but misses the insights that can come from consideration of a syndrome.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Looking for a Child or Family Psychotherapist? Here's a Great Place to Start

When family members feel that a child’s mental health is problematic, they may often delay finding treatment because they don’t know how to find a good therapist. Blogs like this one may even have scared them by pointing out that not all practitioners are helpful, and that some have even been harmful!

Here’s a newly-furbished website that provides a lot of helpful information about choosing a therapist and figuring out whether a treatment is effective: http://effectivechildtherapy.org. This website is created and maintained by the Society for Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP), a division of the American Psychological Association.

Effectivechildtherapy.org offers some links to groups that list names and contact information for professional psychologists, but even more importantly, it offers information that is hard for parents to find, about how people decide whether a treatment is effective and whether a therapist has the training needed for the job.

Psychotherapies can be evaluated in terms of the evidence for their effectiveness. The issue is not simply whether a treatment IS or IS NOT effective, but how confident we can be that a claim of effectiveness is correct. Very few practitioners would decide to keep using a treatment if they thought it didn’t work—but how certain can they be that their decision for or against use is the right one? That decision should depend on evidence, but what kind? The evidence people bring forward may range from the highest level of systematic investigation down to a few anecdotes or testimonials. All of these are in some broad sense evidence, but they are not all equally supportive of confidence in a treatment choice.

Effectivechildtherapy.org includes a section  that describes the levels of evidence (and therefore confidence) that may apply to particular therapies. There are a lot of different ways to describe levels of evidence, but effectivechildtherapy.org uses a method that ranks treatments from 1—the highest level of evidence and confidence—down to 5.

 Level 1 treatments (sometimes referred to as Evidence Based Therapies, EBTs) have been supported by at least two studies that meet certain criteria. The studies are independent—not carried out by the same group of researchers. They involve randomized designs, in which child or adult clients who seek help are assigned randomly (i.e., without regard to their choices or other characteristics) to a treatment group or to some other comparison group; the other group could receive the usual care they would get in their community, or  another treatment known to be effective, or some other arrangement. The use of a comparison group is especially important when studying child psychotherapies, because children’s moods and behavior may change as they mature, whether they are receiving treatment or not. Without a comparison group, researchers might accidentally conclude that the treatment caused any changes the children experienced; with a comparison group, it’s possible to tell the difference between effects of a treatment and effects of growth and maturation.

Effectivechildtherapy.org describes level 2 treatments as involving less evidence than was the case for level 1. Level 2 treatments are described as “probably efficacious”. There may be only one study showing that a level 2 treatment works better than an established treatment, or there may be two studies showing that it works better than no treatment. (Keep in mind, though, that there are general factors shared by various therapies, such as a warm relationship with a therapist, and that these tend to be helpful to people receiving treatment. For a treatment to work better than no treatment may mean that there is nothing special about the particular treatment, just that it shares those general factors.)

Level 3 treatments are described as “possibly efficacious”. One of these treatments might be supported by one study showing  that the treatment worked better than no treatment, or by several small studies that did not include design factors like randomization.  

Level 4 treatments are untested or experimental methods that are being used but cannot be claimed with confidence to be effective.

Level 5 treatments have been tested and either not shown to work, or have been tested and shown not to work but  to actually make problems worse. More evidence from further research in the future may lead to a more encouraging conclusion, but at this point it is better not to choose a level 5 treatment.

Please notice that none of these levels of evidence depends on anecdotes or testimonials. When proponents of a treatment try to use testimonials to argue that their treatment is effective, they are admitting that they do not have the kind of research evidence that would get their methods listed at effectivechildtherapy.org.

So how do parents know which treatments are evaluated at which level? To do this would  require reading all the research studies related to a treatment, and that’s a task that most parents will have neither the time nor the expertise to do. That’s exactly the reason why effectivechildtherapies.org was developed, and why it lists a variety of specific treatments  which  research evidence has placed at level 1. Effectivechildtherapies.org is directed primarily to parents of school-age children and of adolescents. ( The treatments listed are usually not focused on infants or toddlers.) The site has a helpful search function that enables users to look for information about specific problems or treatments and to find videos that are useful for parents.

If you are thinking about finding treatment for a child or family problem, have a look at http://effectivechildtherapy.org. It’s really helpful.








Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Nancy Thomas, or "Old-fashioned" Common-or-Garden Child Abuse?

So hard to tell why people do the things they do—and when it comes to child abuse, their actions can be especially hard to explain. Everyone who has brought up children knows that there are risk factors for mistreatment. A bad day, an argument with another adults, a child who suddenly acts up, more stress than usual, a headache—these can all add up to at least the impulse to hurt a child. Fortunately for children, most of us, most of the time, have enough self-control to resist that impulse. And, having experienced the impulse, we recognize what might happen when an adult is overwhelmed by life and the intense desire to lash out at a child.

What’s much harder to understand is the systematic abuse and neglect that in some cases go on for years, and in other cases end with the child’s death. These situations are very different from the impulsive smack to the head or the rear. They would seem to require strong motivation and intentions to mistreat a child on a daily, even hourly, basis. Rather than from a momentary lapse in impulse control, these surely stem from a lack of empathy or concern, from a belief that children are property with no rights as human beings, and/or from a conviction that only a stern and painful upbringing can create “character” and insure a productive adulthood.  The latter two points may result from the adults’ own childhood experiences and their unexamined acceptance of the views of their own families, sometimes expressed in phrases like “I was always brought up to…” or “My daddy always [fill in blank] and I turned out all right , didn’t I?” (by the way, it is never advisable to point out to that person that he did not actually turn out all right!).

When people who mistreat children point proudly to their family history as justification for their actions, we should be reminded of the fact that historically, children have been punished, or simply brought up, in ways that we now regard as abusive. Locking children in dark closets, washing out their mouths with blistering lye soap, making bed-wetters wash their sheets in icy cold water, withholding food—all of these are part of traditions that go back hundreds of years (although not every family or culture did any or all of these things). People alive today may have experienced such treatment, and if they did not, they probably heard of it from grandparents or other older relatives who passed along their own narratives. These mistreatments may be recognized as “old-fashioned”, but that may or may not make parents avoid them. They may decide that using “old-fashioned” methods is the socially conservative thing to do and therefore admire those practices, which are basically methods of power assertion.

But there are other possibilities too. Whether or not parents have heard of abusive methods through their own family history, they may be instructed to use such methods by other people. For example, as some readers know, the self-appointed foster parent educator Nancy Thomas has for years recommended power assertion techniques such as limiting the amount and variety of food given to a child, removing most furniture and decorations from the child’s bedroom, and requiring that the child ask permission for the simplest self-care actions like drinking water or using the toilet. Thomas is a persuasive speaker, to the point where a licensed psychologist listened to her suggestions and subsequently had her license revoked after a 12-year-old patient attempted suicide ( see https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2015/03/psychology-license-revoked-become.html). And Thomas is apparently not the only one with a taste for power assertion as a child psychotherapy (see https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2010/12/federici-v-mercer-story-behind-lawsuit.html), as another psychologist’s suggestions seem to have jibed with a couple’s decision to treat their adopted son by limiting his diet, keeping him isolated in his room, and painting his windows black.

There are cases that crop up weekly in which authorities have found children harmed as a result of being treated by “old-fashioned” or Nancy Thomas methods of power assertion. Here are two recent ones:

In this case, the adoptive parents of three boys ages 7-11were said to have kept them isolated for  as much as thirteen hours a day in a locked room, to have tied or bound them with zip ties and to have duct-taped their mouths, and to have limited their diet. The windows in the room were screwed closed and painted black, and the room had no lights, There were no toilet facilities  available to the children while they were locked in the room, and they used a furnace vent for sanitary purposes. (A point to be kept in mind when children are described as intentionally urinating in inappropriate places.) The children were further punished at times by having to eat heavily-salted and cayenne-peppered rice; they were not permitted to drink water after 2 P.M. in spite of this.

If these parents had gone to trial, it might have been possible to find out why they thought these methods were appropriate, but a plea bargain means that we will probably never know any more of the background of this case. My own speculation is that these parents went beyond the “old-fashioned” approach by combining so many elements of power assertion, and adding some nontraditional punishments, for example, painting the windows black. I would guess that this behavior pattern was learned either through some formal instruction or in imitation of others who had been instructed.

In this case, adoptive parents kept a boy, then 5 years old, in an unlighted basement room for 12 hours a day for some months. He had a mattress and a blanket to sleep with. There were no toilet facilities, and if he had to defecate he would put the stool into a hole in the wall. The boy’s diet consisted primarily of carrots, which he had to eat before getting any other food, and if he did not finish the carrots within a time limit he was not allowed other food. The mother stated that she did not know it was against the law to lock a child in a room.

In this somewhat similar case, most of the elements seem to be “old-fashioned” ones , and it is possible that the parents had heard about such treatment of children and imitated it in an informal way. The carrot part is highly unusual, however, and suggests some belief about nutrition derived from an “alternative medicine” source, perhaps on the Internet or through some community or word of mouth communication. The mother’s comment about the legality or otherwise of locking the child in a room suggests a belief that anything that is legal is acceptable in parenting--  or perhaps simply a good deal of confusion about life in general.

Are these cases evidence of Nancy Thomas parenting, or just the “trailing edge” of some old practices? Is Nancy Thomas’s success (and she has had some!) due to her ability to ride the coattails of “the way my granddaddy did it”? Plea bargains and the failure of investigators to follow up on these issues has made it impossible to answer these questions with any certainty. If we knew the answers, though, it might be a great help in preventing these cases.
    





Friday, July 28, 2017

Bringing Good Out of Tragedy: Rita Swan and CHILD

Almost forty years ago, Rita Swan and her husband, then devout Christian Scientists, prayed and watched as their toddler son died without the medical treatment that could have saved his life. Many people would emerge from this experience embittered or self-loathing and turn to drugs or alcohol to sustain them in a lifetime effort to avoid their memories.

Instead of succumbing to bitterness, Rita and her husband created an organization that has worked ever since to help educate parents and to push for legislation and law enforcement countering religious practices that bring suffering and possible death to young children. The organization is CHILD--  Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty. Rita has maintained two websites, www.childrenshealthcare.org  and www.idahochildren.org. Childrenshealthcare.org contains material about all the work of the organization over the years and describes a multitude of cases in which mistaken beliefs caused harm to children. The most recent newsletter from CHILD recounts events of faith-based medical neglect in Idaho, and the position of one group of parents that children have no rights, that there are many medical errors made, and that medicine is in any case “of Satan”. This group apparently reports neither births nor deaths of children, so it is impossible to know how many children have died unnecessarily, but there are many child graves on the group’s property.

Rita Swan is now retiring as president of CHILD and the work of the organization is being taken over by the legal scholar Marci Hamilton  of the University of Pennsylvania. The new organization’s website is www.childusa.org. Much remains to be done, and in a final letter Rita Swan states that she will continue to work on issues in Washington State, where Christian Scientists are exempt from charges of criminal mistreatment, second-degree murder, and failure to report abuse.

No one says that it is always easy to know when it is right to give children medical treatment and when it is right to withhold it. The recent case of the infant Charlie Gard has shown some of the many conflicts over decisions that no more can be done for a child and that further attempts simply prolong suffering. However, arguments based on the ideas that children have no rights, or that a supreme being will be insulted by parents’ lack of faith if they seek medical help, really cannot be allowed to influence either difficult or easy decisions about children’s health care. Nor, in spite of all respect and concern for parents’ relationships with their children, can a community allow parents to make decisions alone while under the enormous stress of caring for a very sick child. We all have a stake in these decisions and the precedents they set for the future.

Rita Swan has done so much to clarify personal and legal thinking on these issues. Thank you, Rita, from everyone concerned with children’s welfare!




Friday, July 21, 2017

CALO and the Transferable Attachment: Love Your Dog, Love Me


From time to time I see advertisements for a residential treatment center known as CALO (www.caloteens.com), or for programs apparently related to this model. The programs provide residential treatment for children and teenagers who, the proprietors claim, are difficult to parent because they suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder. RAD is said to make them lonely and miserable, unable to “bond” with others, uncooperative, poor school achievers, etc., etc. As occurs all too often, these proprietors note their belief that adoption even at birth is likely to result in these undesirable outcomes.

Let’s have a look at one CALO website, where “our proprietary treatment” is described at www.caloteens.com/message2.html. I want to note first that “proprietary treatment” is a term generally reserved for methods whose details are considered to be trade secrets, statements about which are protected as commercial speech in the United States. Unlike information about research-validated, evidence-based treatments, for which details are easily available if you know where to look, proprietary treatments are difficult and usually quite expensive to learn about--  as a rule, you have to sign up for workshops or seminars or buy material from a suggested reading list sold only through the proprietors.

Material at caloteens.com suggests that a major CALO concern has to do with a rivalry with behavioral modification programs. As is typical of non-evidence-based, commercially driven proprietary treatment programs, the CALO discussion argues that behavior modification, which is seen as a rival, replicates harmful situations that have already affected the children, and that recovery from childhood problems must begin “with the heart” and be followed later by behavior change. It is not stated with any clarity how any “heart” changes can be detected before they are followed by behavior change, and therefore it is far from clear how CALO’s claimed (but unlisted) research basis could have been established.
      
The CALO website also stresses the need for specialized treatment of childhood mental health problems, and notes that their staff are specialists in treatment of attachment and trauma disorders, as described and trained by groups like ATTACh and the Attachment & Trauma Network. These comments are red flags for the possibility of two difficulties often associated with proprietary treatments.

One is the assumption that some single factor, such as attachment, is the single most important cause of a wide range of developmental and emotional problems; like the bed of Procrustes, this assumption compresses or stretches problems caused by combinations of biological and environmental problems so that they “fit” the chosen bed—in this case, the attachment bed. As has been pointed out by the British psychologists Woolgar and Scott, this sort of single-factor explanation opens the door to choices that ignore not only complex causes, but even simple factors that differ from the chosen cause.

A second red flag has to do with the assumption that the details of a CALO program are of necessity essential for treatment. However, serious work in clinical psychology has for years focused on general or shared factors that contribute to good outcomes achieved through treatments that are different in details. In some cases, such as EMDR, specific details (like eye movement) may have nothing to do with positive outcomes, which probably result from general helpful factors like empathic responses. The CALO claim to uniqueness of its program is thus not likely to be a strong argument for people with training in understanding therapeutic approaches—but it is quite likely to appeal to worried parents.

However, let’s go on to my favorite bit of the CALO website. This is the part about golden retriever therapy and the transfer of “attachment lessons” learned from dogs, to human relationships. Kids in CALO programs take care of dogs; they are said to “learn trust” from the dogs, therefore to understand attachment, and therefore (with some additional, undescribed help) to transfer the attachment they have learned from the dog to a human being. This is quite an interesting idea, but one that makes a common but mistaken assumption about emotional development, and also one that betrays considerable confusion about how attachment works and what an attachment relationship is.

The first issue here is one that I have often termed “ritual reenactment”. The basic idea is that if certain events lead to a positive outcome for infants and young children, those events, reenacted in some way in later life, will recapitulate normal development and correct any problems that occurred when they were wrongly experienced earlier on. This belief has appeared in many forms from Sandor Ferenczi’s “babying” of patients to the methods of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann as fictionalized in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden  to Nancy Thomas’s insistence on bottle-feeding older children. None of these methods has ever been shown to be effective, but somehow the thought of a “do-over” continues to have a strong appeal to the public.

But--  suppose that just for the sake of argument we accepted the idea of the “do-over”, would caring for a golden retriever be a way to do this? A comparison of the ordinary and the “treatment” situations says it would not. In typical early development, a child is cared for by a consistent and responsive small group of adults. The adults  care for the infant physically, but they also spend much time showing their positive feelings about him or her, working toward communication of child to adult and adult to child, and enjoying play and social interactions that bring pleasure to both adult and baby. The outcome of these experiences is that the toddler stays close to the familiar adult if anything is scary or distressing, can be comforted by the adult hen distressed, and explores new things best if allowed to have contact with a familiar person at will. (This set of behaviors has been summarized as “trust” or as “attachment”, although those terms really apply to a hypothesized inner state that guides the behavior. ) Well before school age, children put their social experiences to work to build a set of ideas about how people interact socially, sometimes called an internal working model of social relations (IWM). The IWM continues to develop, sometimes along new lines, as the child grows and has new social experiences.

How does that set of events compare to caring for a dog? First of all, the roles are reversed. The human being acts as the “parent” and the dog as the “child”. If the boy or girl does a good job of nurturing and playing with the dog, the dog will develop trust in the boy or girl—but certainly not an exclusive trust, especially if the dog is a very sociable golden retriever. The CALO website says that the child learns empathy for the dog and therefore becomes more empathic toward his or her parents, but it is far from clear how either of these things could happen. If a child is a callous, unemotional individual, in what way will doing the work of caring for a dog teach or motivate empathic skills? And, if the child did become able to empathize with a dog, read the dog’s signals, become aware of the dog’s usual needs, even realize that any golden will convey that he needs yet another roast beef sandwich because there really wasn’t any meat in the one you just gave him—how do any of these skills relate to the more complex needs and messages of human beings, the facial expressions, the body language, and all the other factors that influence empathic responses?  How do any of these enter into the IWM’s further development? Indeed, if trust and attachment were transferable, there would presumably be no attachment disorders in adopted children, as all (according to the CALO website) must have been attached to adults in the past, even at birth, so they ought to be able to hand that attachment package over to a new caregiver, just as they are claimed to “transfer” attachment from a dog to a human.  

Since the relatively new developmental trauma disorder fad came on the scene, I’ve been expecting to see fewer extravagant claims about attachment, but it seems that CALO and similar groups are getting all the juice they can out of the mythology of attachment. And, of course, therapy dogs, emotional support animals, etc. are now in fashion, so why not bring in the golden retrievers too?

Perhaps we’re lucky that they haven’t decided to create attachment through pot-bellied pigs.







  

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Exporting Pseudoscience: Attachment Therapy Comes to Russia

Communications and interactions between the United States and Russia are marked by suspicions and sanctions these days. Some commodities that used to be readily available in Russia are no longer imported from the West.

Regrettably, sanctions have not prohibited the export to Russia from the United States of various pseudoscientific ideas about psychology and child development. In particular, we are seeing the spread in Russia of the theories and practices of “attachment therapists” and their helpers who subscribe to the use of “Nancy Thomas parenting” with vulnerable children.

Some readers will already know exactly what I am talking about, but for those who do not, I’ll supply some brief definitions. “Attachment therapy”, sometimes known as “holding therapy”, is an implausible, non-evidence-based treatment claimed by its proponents to be effective for certain childhood mental health problems. Advocates of “attachment therapy” (AT) also claim that their principles are derived from the work of John Bowlby, the originator of attachment theory, a framework for understanding the feelings and behavior of young children with respect to familiar and unfamiliar adults. As I have pointed out in other posts on this blog and in various print publications, the beliefs about attachment employed by AT proponents share almost nothing with Bowlby’s theory, but are instead essentially retrofitted to provide a rationale for AT practices such as restraining children physically, shouting at and intimidating them.

Two other points to define here: AT proponents describe adopted and foster children as suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder, a real though rare psychiatric syndrome described in DSM-5 and ICD. However, the alarming symptoms they list, including eventual serial killing, have nothing to do with the symptoms of RAD. They form instead a pattern that I have referred to as faux-RAD , resulting in a counterfeit disorder to be treated with a counterfeit therapy. Finally—and to my mind perhaps most importantly—AT advocates claim that their restraint treatments need to be accompanied by adjuvant methods sometimes referred to as “Nancy Thomas parenting”, created and taught by one Nancy Thomas, a self-identified instructor of foster parents, who recommends limiting the amount and variety of a child’s diet, withholding information as well as food from the child, requiring the child to ask permission for “privileges” like a drink of water or use if the toilet, and so on. These methods, joined with rocking the child like a baby and hand-feeding him caramels (yes, really, but I don’t want to take time to explain her reasoning right now) are said by Thomas and her followers to correct attachment problems that adopted and foster children may have experienced, and as a result to render the children docile, grateful, and affectionate. (The actual results of this kind of  treatment in one case may be seen at http://www.wbay.com/cotent/news/Wrightstown-couple-accused-of-starving-adopted-son-mentally-abusing-him-433665943.html --- and this case is not an outlier.)

AT and “Nancy Thomas parenting” (NTP) had their beginnings in the United States, and they have always seemed to me to have a peculiarly American, pioneer spirit, rough frontier justice, snake-oil salesman flavor to them—like something out of Mark Twain. Other countries have their own ways of abusing children (as witness the old German “black pedagogy”), but AT and NTP seem to be genuinely “made in America”. Our British cousins have picked AT up a bit, but on the whole their [former] EU membership made them somewhat wary about legal concerns related to maltreatment.

Now, however, we see Russia picking up AT and NTP with apparent great enthusiasm. For some years. American advocates of authoritarian child treatments have flirted with Russia, occasionally being invited to speak, and occasionally being prevented from speaking. In the last few years, an influx of AT proponents and AT ideas has penetrated Russia—in spite of the very clear fact that Russian adoptees who were harmed in the United States, leading to the ban on foreign adoptions, were in many cases harmed by AT and NTP practices! This connection appears to be invisible to groups of Russians who have hurried to encourage adoption of large groups of children from orphanages and have sustained the belief that they can “fix” these children by following AT and NTP precepts.

What exactly has happened in Russia? I have been receiving a series of descriptive comments from Mihail Able (see comments at childmyths.blogspot,com/2017/07/the-russian-adoption-ban-magnitsky-act.html; scroll down to the comments section, and please understand that Mihail is doing this with Google Translate). Mihail discusses specific families’ problems resulting from their acceptance of AT and NTP principles and practices.

In addition, my friend and esteemed colleague Yulia Massino has been following with distaste news of tours in which Nancy Thomas herself has come to instruct the Russians how they should deal with adopted and foster children. She has made her usual claims of “curing” 87% of children who have come to her as crazed future killers. (For some reason, the numbers 80%, 85%, 87%  have great power in AT circles, although of course there have never been systematic studies either of the children’s initial conditions or of the outcomes of NTP or similar treatments --  much less any randomized trials, and much less any detailed publications.) Interestingly, Thomas describes this trip as a “missionary” trip without mentioning the country visited (http://www.facebook.com/ntparenting/posts/1322659427848500).

Following Thomas, there has recently been an exporting trip by staff of the Attachment Institute of New England, an organization that has for many years pushed AT principles and practices. Yulia Massino wrote about this trip on her own blog, http://yuliamass.livejournal.com/232733.html   and http://yuliamass.livejournal.com/235689.html    (in Russian; use Google translate to read). She pointed out the activities of the two AT visitors, Ken Frohock and Megan “Peg” Kirby, who raised money from sympathizers for their trip and now describe it on the AINE Facebook page and announce lectures at their website http://www.attachmentnewengland.com.

A 2007 press release from AINE (www.attachmentnewengland.com/press.html ) referred to their therapy as utilizing parental eye contact and parental holding of children. The same press release mentioned a presentation by Nancy Thomas and referred to her training with Foster Cline, probably the best-known proponent of intrusive, authoritarian treatments targeting adopted and foster children. AINE has never recanted publicly from these positions; they have in the last few years picked up the most recent terms having to do with trauma, but have not stated any changes in their treatment methods. Although I do not know exactly what they said or did on their trip to Russia, if they were horses I would bet that their track record of AT and NTP involvement would be the best predictor of their performance there.

It seems that a fruitful new market has opened in Russia for the export of pseudoscience manufactured in the U.S. Interestingly, Yulia Massino has told me that the concept of emotional attachment, which “everybody knows” (not always correctly) in the U.S. and U.K., has not been discussed much in Russia. This may leave many Russians open to the impression that attachment, and therefore AT, is a brand new discovery of ingenious Western scientists. Fortunately a new article in circulation by Michael Ivanov may help counter this impression—but I am very much afraid that Russians are not learning from observation of the ill effects these beliefs have had for children in the U.S. You would think they might remember the harm done to Russian adoptees in the U.S. some years ago…

You can see Michael Ivanov's new article at https://www.researchgate.net/publications/318420576_Harmful_Treatments_in_Child_Psychotherapy.



















Monday, July 10, 2017

The Russian Adoption Ban: Magnitsky Act, or Attachment Therapy Problems?

On July 9 and 10, 2017, the New York Times published articles by Jo Becker, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman on the subject of meetings between Trump campaign representatives and a Russian lawyer during the 2016 election campaign. These articles reiterate a common belief about the Russian prohibition of adoption of Russian children to the United States—they claim that Putin put this restriction in place when infuriated by the Magnitsky Act of 2012 and the sanctions it put on Russia.

It may well be that Putin was annoyed by the restrictions, but concerns about the fates of Russian children in the United States had started rather earlier in both countries. Russian-adopted children had appeared repeatedly in news reports of ill-treatment and even child deaths. In 201l, I commented on this at https://childmyths.blogspot.com/2011/11/nathaniel-craver-case-many.html. In the same year, www.childrenintherapy.org/news.html discussed the USA-Russia Adoption Treaty, with reference to child maltreatment; at that time, Pavel Astakhov, the then-ombudsman for children in Russia, had been asking for continued contact with children adopted from Russia to the U.S. and for continuing their status as Russian citizens. Also in 2011, this issue was discussed at https://phtherapies.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/reactive-attachment-disorder-rad-dispelling-the-myths/. The Beagley case in Alaska, involving mistreatment and “hot-saucing” of a Russian-adopted boy, caused much horrified discussion in both the U.S. and Russia.

All of these very genuine concerns about inappropriate treatment of Russian children in U.S. adoptive families were under discussion before the Magnitsky Act. There is no question in my mind that Russian adoptees, as well as children adopted from other places, were in many cases badly mistreated by adoptive parents who had bought into mistaken beliefs about attachment and about Reactive Attachment Disorder.  These parents had been told by “attachment experts” that emotional attachment of children to parents occurred because of power assertion by the parents, and that such attachment was essential to prevent later vicious criminal behavior. The parents believed this, and they did assert power by physical means including withholding food and exposing children to cold and other discomfort. In some cases, they countered disobedience by forcing children to eat or drink large amounts, sometimes causing death.

Pavel Astakhov investigated these problems carefully and recommended prohibiting adoption of Russian children to foreign countries. One part of his reasoning about the U.S. is that this country has never ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children, a distinction that we share only with Somalia.

The point I am making here has nothing to do with the Trump campaign or any election events, of course. I simply want to remind people that the ban on Russian adoption is not a simple tit-for-tat reprisal created by Putin in response to the Magnitsky Act. It was based on very real events in this country, and I could only wish that Americans could ban adoption of American children to persons who are likely to use attachment-therapy related power assertion methods that have harmed children in the past—and are still harming them today.    



   

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Attachment Spandrel: A Speculation

When people talk about evolution of structures and functions or of behaviors through natural selection, they sometimes use an intriguing metaphor. They suggest that human evolution can have a an aspect that can be compared to a spandrel—an architectural feature like an arch that was originally developed as a way to support a building, but that later was liked for its attractive appearance and put to work as a way to decorate a structure. It seems possible that human evolutionary change involves spandrels too, with traits that began with one function later becoming useful in other ways. For instance, eyebrows might originally have been useful for keeping sweat out of our eyes, but now are used in facial expressions and gestures that convey our moods and intentions to people we encounter.

Can young children’s emotional attachment to their parents be considered as a trait that can be “spandrelized”? (Maybe there’s a proper word for this but I don’t know it.)   This would certainly not be the way that many people, including quite a few unconventional psychologists and counselors, think about it.  It’s commonly, but incorrectly, assumed that once an attachment relationship develops in early life, that attachment stays the same unless something happens to stop it. For example, the death of a parent and subsequent mourning would deactivate that attachment; some “parental alienation” advocates hold that one parent can destroy or at least suppress a child’s attachment to the other parent by emotional manipulation. People who believe in these ideas apparently miss the fact that both attachment behavior and cognitive abilities that are part of thinking about attachment change in the normal course of development, and this contributes to changes in the nature of relationships that originated in toddler’s emotional connections to familiar adults.

So where does the spandrel part come into this? What I am going to say is speculation, just like most of the Just-So stories that are put forth as ideas about the evolution of behavior. But it is possible to make the case that attachment began as a result of natural selection for certain advantageous behaviors, and then later was put to work for other purposes.

Many birds and mammals show some form of “attachment” to parents. Ducklings and goslings, for example, follow moving objects that they see soon after hatching, and those objects are most likely to be their mothers. Whatever kind of object they initially follow, they will during early life follow that same object, and in adulthood will court and attempt to mate with a similar object. This initially serves a protective function and encourages survival, because although a mother duck might not be able to fight off a fox, her behavior against a predator does increase the young duck’s chances of escape. The same consideration applies for young humans, whose curiosity and exploratory behavior could lead them straight to an enemy if they were not “attached” so that they stayed close to familiar adults and avoided strange creatures. Whereas ducks and some other animals form their “attachments” shortly after birth or hatching, humans, who are very immature at birth and cannot move independently for many months, do not show attachment behavior until roughly the time when they might be able to wander away.

Looking at it this way, we can see the enormous survival value for the young of preferring to stay near familiar adults and being wary of strangers and unfamiliar creatures. But within a few years after birth, human children become much more able to judge danger and to keep themselves safer (perhaps not in today’s high-speed traffic, but in the environment of early adaptation). They don’t need attachment for survival in the same way, yet they retain strong relationships with familiar adults under many circumstances, and do this right up until their own adulthood, often modulating into a “reversed” relationship when an aging parent needs the adult child’s care.

Feelings and thoughts about attachment thus lose much of their survival value after the child gets to “school age”, but those feelings and thoughts can be seen as serving new, useful purposes for both the individual and the group--  in other words, attachment has become a spandrel. For the individual, behaviors learned from experiences in the attachment relationship can provide a foundation for understanding other social relationships—that is, they form the internal working model (IWM) of relationships that John Bowlby proposed. The IWM allows the older child and adult to participate in any social relationship with some confidence in assumptions about how social interactions work. The individual does not have to develop new rules from scratch about interacting with any new person he or she meets, and this saves time and energy.

The community also benefits from the attachment spandrel for several reasons. One is that the social rules learned in the early attachment relationship help young adults care for their own children effectively and enlist other community members to help in this task when needed.  In addition, the community survives and thrives better when social interactions among members are orderly and constructive, when conflicts and aggressive impulses are modulated by attachment-influenced social rules. For just one more, community values and beliefs are more easily shared and passed on in the context of existing close relationships where they are modeled and implied, than if they had to be taught through direct instruction.

Thinking about attachment after the toddler period as a spandrel can be a helpful way to understand how some aspects of attachment work. But the really basic point is that attachment changes through the course of development, and that toddler attachment, fascinating though it is, cannot be considered to define the nature of attachment later in life.






Monday, July 3, 2017

Too Little or Too Much: Bringing Complaints About Patterns of Child Maltreatment

Now and then I encounter questions about some abusive practices that are done as part of unconventional “attachment therapies”. Adopted and foster children are often the targets of practices advised by non-mainstream therapists, counselors, and coaches of various stripes. The suggested methods can include all or some of the following:

·         Limiting the quantity and variety of children’s diets
·         Requiring children to “strong sit” tailor-fashion for periods of time without speaking or moving
·         Insisting that children ask permission for everyday actions that are normally handed independently after age 2 or 3, such as using the toilet or getting a drink of water
·         Punishing children who eat or drink without permission by forcing eating or drinking of large quantities
·         Confining children to a bedroom or a basement for many hours, sometimes providing only a bucket for sanitary purposes
·         Placing alarms on bedroom and cupboard doors
·         Removing all but minimal furniture from the bedrooms where children spend much of their time

These methods are claimed to be directed at creating parent-child attachment and preventing children from becoming murderers in later life—claimed goals that would certainly get the attention of most parents and make them likely to work zealously to do as they are told.

The first problem, of course, is that these methods have nothing to do with creating attachment, attachment has nothing to do with murder, and thus the methods do not treat either mental illness or criminal tendencies a child may have.

The second problem? Well, this is what I want to get at. I hear from worried people who tell me they have seen a sister or neighbor or someone else who seems to be using methods like those above. Sometimes they have reported to child protective services, sometimes they haven’t but wonder if they should—don’t want to get anyone in trouble unnecessarily but don’t like the looks of the situation, etc. What would happen if they reported?

Generally speaking, nothing would happen.

Unless a child is injured or killed as a result of an adult action, using methods like the list above is not illegal. Research definitions of child abuse contain categories that most of those items would fit into, but laws about child maltreatment do not. Like most laws, those laws have the goal of covering as much territory as is needed without getting into too many details.  We don’t have laws that say not to lock the child in a bedroom, because such a law could easily be evaded by locking the child in the basement, woodshed, broom closet, or garage instead. A law can’t include all the possible places a child could be locked up. And, we don’t want a law that will punish parents for child abuse if they accidentally shut a door and leave a child locked in until they hear him yelling five minutes later. Many of the things on that list are actions that a parent might carry out unintentionally or in a very mild form. (“You took that extra pancake that your sister wanted, now I want you to eat it!”)

Because we do not have such very detailed laws about child abuse, and because most parents might occasionally do something that was a bit like the items on the list, it would generally be assumed that any parental act that would be considered abusive must pass a pretty high bar--  one that could not be met by insisting someone eat the pancake he swiped or ask permission before eating something specially prepared for a party. As a result, a complaint about one incident of a listed action  would not—and probably should not—be given much attention by a child protection agency. Even a set of complaints about many items on the list would probably not contain any one item that would reach that high bar. The items on the list would not even be picked up by a checklist of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are known to be associated with problematic developmental outcomes.

Each item is too little to trigger official action, but many repetitions of many items  are likely to form a pattern of experience that includes too much adversity to foster good development. Just as an accumulation of small injuries can lead to untoward physical consequences, it seems possible that repeated psychological injuries can have an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, there is usually no way for a concerned observer to report a pattern of problems; an outsider sees only the occasional event and has no way to know what happens between times. Even if the pattern were carefully recorded, child protective staff may have no mechanism for interfering when each incident, standing alone, looks unpleasant but minor. The parent’s actions may not be “best practice”, but which of us can claim that we always make the best choices? There is plenty of evidence that we just need to be “good enough parents”, and we do not really have clear standards about what is “good enough”.

I would like to propose that agencies and organizations move toward recognizing the patterns of multiple, apparently low-impact, possibly cumulative, but risky, parenting behaviors. At the least, such an approach could prevent some of the child deaths from slow starvation and exposure that crop up in the news with relentless regularity. At the most, such an approach, coupled with parent education and supervision, could improve the chances of excellent developmental outcomes for large numbers of children now at risk.

  


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Who Should Be Punished When Maternal Mental Illness Kills Children?

In 2014, a young mother who had been evaluated and given prescription medication for a mood disorder killed her two young children (as described in http://www.oxygen.com/blogs/mom-suffocates-her-two-kids-to-death-with-plastic-bags-and-duct-tape; see also Lynh Bui, “Mother who suffocated children with plastic bags and duct tape sentenced to 45 years”, Washington Post, June 7, 2017). She had initially threatened to kill herself and her daughter, and her own mother called the police, who took the younger woman to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. Against her mother’s objections, the young woman, Sonya Spoon, was released with a prescription for antidepressants four days later. Hospital staff apparently did not have information about her threats to the children. A day and a half after that, Sonya Spoon killed her 3-year-old and 1-year-old children by suffocating them, and put the same plastic bag and duct tape around her own head, but then went to get her mother to help remove the suffocating material. The children were unconscious and died later. Sonya subsequently said she did not know what was wrong with her and apologized to her dead children.

Arguments about mitigating circumstances for Sonya Spoon’s actions included the off-base claim that she suffered from an attachment disorder because of having been abandoned as a young infant by her Russian biological family, spending several years in an orphanage, and finally being adopted to the United States. This experience, although very sad and distressing , might well have interfered with her cognitive and language development, but attachment disorder is less likely and in any case would not make her likely to be either suicidal or harmful to others. A factor with a more probably connection to her behavior was a traumatic brain injury from and accident when she was 18—an event likely to interfere with her cognitive abilities and possibly to produce post-traumatic stress disorder. At least one of her children was fathered by an abusive man, who wanted custody, which she resisted. Either in addition to or because of these experiences, Sonya Spoon had perinatal mood disorder—often called post-partum depression, but sometimes continuing well after the post-partum period.

Shifting and negative moods are typical of the days soon after childbirth, but most women experience only “baby blues” in which they feel easily overwhelmed and ready to cry. Many traditional cultures have made sure that new mothers are honored, cared for, and petted during these days, which do not last long. A small number of women experience much more profound anxiety and depression, often focused on whether there is something wrong with the baby, and this may not begin at once. Whenever depression and anxiety are in the picture, suicidal thoughts and actions are very possible, and these may be part of the more severe perinatal mood disorders. Finally, a very small proportion of women experience a post-childbirth period of psychosis which again may not begin at once. They may have delusions of hearing voices that tell them to harm themselves or their children, and some obey. In the famous Andrea Yates case of some years ago, Yates drowned her five young children in the bathtub in obedience to “voices”; she also gave the rationale that she felt they should die and go to heaven at once rather than risking the sins of childhood and adulthood.

Andrea Yates had experienced perinatal mood disorders with each of her five children, but her husband was said to have encouraged further pregnancies. She was found competent to stand trial, a very low bar for which it only had to be shown that she could understand the charges and could work with her lawyer, but she was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity (the death penalty had been sought). Sonya Spoon was also found competent to stand trial and convicted; the judge said some of her actions had been “selfish”.

Yes, it’s true that the children did get the death penalty, and their terror and pain as they died hardly bears thinking about. But who is really in the wrong here? Does Sonya Spoon deserve 45 years in prison, but the child’s father who did not pay attention to her state of mind is not to be punished? How about hospital staff who did not explore her situation far enough to know that she had threatened the children? For that matter, what about insurance and other regulations that limit the amount of mental health care available even to those who desperately need it? And what about a judge who brought a trivial view of the human mind to the trial by declaring Sonya Spoon “selfish” because she asked her mother to release her from the suffocating bag before seeing to the children? Just like Andrea Yates’ husband and family, these people contributed much to the tragedies, but punishing mentally ill mothers alone is a fine old tradition that apparently must be kept up.