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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Astakhov Called It: Closing Ranch for Kids

 Discussion of current events shows that there is still much confusion about the relationship between the U.S. Magnitsky Act of 2012 and Russian prohibition of adoption of Russian children to the U.S. It’s commonly said that the strictures on adoption were a “tit for tat” response to the Magnitsky Act, and some private discussions with Russians have been claimed to be about the adoption prohibition when in fact they were apparently about something else entirely.

In fact, in 2012, the Russian children’s ombudsman at that time, Pavel Astakhov, was already seriously concerned about mistreatment and even murder of Russian children adopted to the U.S. He attempted to visit the “Ranch for Kids” in Montana, a facility that had received a number of Russian adoptees who were placed there by their adoptive families. But he could not get in and was told that the children had gone away for the day. That and other experiences moved Astakhov to require that adopted Russian children should remain Russian citizens and should be in contact with Russian consuls while in the U.S. Eventually, the practical difficulties with this idea and resistance to it led to a blanket prohibition of adoption of Russian children outside Russia (and not just to the United States).

The concerns about Ranch for Kids expressed by Astakhov and others appeared for a long time to have been ignored by the Montana authorities. However, as of July 1, 2019, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services took over regulation of facilities like Ranch for Kids. As of July 23, Ranch for Kids was closed down with its license suspended(; my thanks to my colleague Linda Rosa for this reference). The reasons for the license suspension were described as “egregious abuse”. Ranch for Kids staff were said to have hit, kicked, body-slammed, and spat on children. Other concerning actions, according to this report, were using inappropriate harsh discipline like requiring 15-20 mile walks in harsh conditions with improper or no shoes; withholding food; prolonged isolation of children; shooting a nail gun at a child; and failure to give needed medical attention or deal properly with medications. Runaways were not consistently reported to law enforcement, even in harsh winter weather.

Why would Ranch for Kids staff mistreat children in these ways, especially after attention had been drawn to their methods after Astakhov’s abortive visit? It is easy to assume that this situation resulted simply from the kind of people staff members were, and it may well be true that an isolated facility like this one may not draw staff from an ideal pool of people who ought to be working with at-risk children. However, to conclude that adult personality characteristics alone drove the child maltreatment is to commit the fundamental attribution error, a mistake of critical thinking that ignores multiple factors that affect any behavior.

A clue to the factors contributing to Ranch for Kids mistreatment is found on the facility’s website, which declares that their program is directed toward children who have Reactive Attachment Disorder (FASD is also mentioned).   The RAD reference suggests reasons behind the abusive behavior, with a belief system and a set of misguided principles that encourage mistreatment.
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is indeed an “official” diagnosis found in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This disorder, which must be diagnosable before age 5, is associated with inconsistent and insensitive early care and is shown in withdrawn behavior and failure to seek comfort from familiar people when in distress. Effective treatment for RAD involves working with parents and other caregivers to help them become more sensitive and responsive to a child’s communications.

When organizations like the Ranch for Kids use the term RAD, however, they are not actually referring to the social and emotional problems described in DSM-5. Instead, they are indicating their commitment to an “alternative psychology” in which children’s symptoms of RAD are those which conventionally would be classed as conduct disorders, oppositional and defiant disorder, or obsessive and compulsive disorder. Instead of using those disorders as frameworks for discussing a child’s problems, alternative psychologists use an unconventional, non-evidence-based system in which behaviors like aggressiveness, disobedience, and lack of affection are all attributed to attachment problems and described as symptoms of RAD—which in fact they are not.

When facility staff are committed to the idea that undesirable child moods and behaviors are caused by failures of attachment, they readily accept two other propositions. One is that adopted or foster children are likely to have difficulties with attachment even if their placement occurred before they were 6 months old, the age at which emotional attachment to adults and attachment behaviors really begin. Adopted and foster children thus become the special focus of the facility. Second, staff also tend to accept the belief that “fixing” the child’s problems is a matter of “fixing” attachment, and that this is to be accomplished by methods that establish the absolute authority of adults over the children. Such methods, often known collectively as attachment therapy, are without any evidence basis but have been promulgated and encouraged by people like Foster Cline, Nancy Thomas, and Forrest Lien. The writings of this group propose that attachment problems (and therefore disobedience etc) are cured by the same methods used at Ranch for Kids—difficult physical tasks, limiting food, social isolation, and use of physically  and emotionally stressful conditions and punishments (usually referred to as “consequences”).

Mistreatment of children at Ranch for Kids was based on a disturbing unconventional belief system. It would have been possible years ago to examine this fact and to prevent the resulting harm to children, but it has only been with the recent changes in regulation that facilities that claim religious connections or purposes have become open to this kind of examination.

An important question: what is going to happen to the 27 kids removed from the Ranch? The news reports mention placing them elsewhere (but where?) or finding their families and achieving reunification. But what would be the results of reunifying children with families who presumably share the belief system of Ranch for Kids or they would never have placed their children there? Ranch for Kids is appealing the DPHHS decision; is it possible that some or all of the children will end up back where they started?  
****More on this subject—my colleague Yulia Massino has sent me the following:

In the article, published (in Russian)  in July of 2013, in Kasahstan Today   (     ), one can see such remark by Pavlov Astachov as regards his investigation of this ranch (the quote, translated by Google):
"P. Astakhov noted that the authorities of the state of Montana checked the ranch (Ranch for kids) at the request of the Russian guardianship authorities twice and twice found violations there. "The fire alarm system is not arranged on the ranch, and the houses there are wooden, there is no fire extinguishing system," said Mr. Astakhov after meeting with the Ombudsman of the Republic of Kazakhstan Askar Shakirov. 
According to him, ranch specialists in the past were engaged in a completely different activity. 
“We looked at these specialists, for example, the procedure of cultivating attachment.   You know, this is more like torture, it can be seen on Youtube. These specialists are licensed. There’s such a woman (I can’t remember her name), in the past she has been training dogs during 20 yerars, and for the last seven years she has been raising difficult children. She comes, teaches how to educate a child,   to raise child’s attachment. There are such specialists", - he said."

 Yulia has suggested the wonderful term “RAD-ranch” to describe this kind of place! 

N.B. Yulia has written a further analysis of the Ranch for Kids on her Russian blog
 This can be translated with Google Translate. Some important additional information Yulia has provided shows the links on the Ranch for Kids website to Nancy Thomas and to Ronald Federici, both proponents of alternative therapies that have abusive components. Thank you, Yulia, for your work on this and for your demonstration of similar beliefs and practices in Russia! 

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