Several weeks ago, my Russian colleague Dr. Yulia Massino alerted me to the fact that the American Psychological Association had given an award for international humanitarian achievements to the Danish psychologist Niels Peter Rygaard. Rygaard is the head of the Fairstart Foundation, an organization devoted to help and training for foster parents and others working with parentless children.
While fully recognizing and applauding the aims of Rygaard’s work, some of us were most concerned about recognition of an organization whose website and history show connections with some disturbing fringe beliefs about emotional attachment. These beliefs include the idea that children who have had little consistency of early care and have experienced many separations in infancy and toddlerhood will have antisocial tendencies. Such fringe beliefs are shown through the misinformation shown about characteristics of 5-7-year-old children and by a link given to the Attachment Disorder Network.
The ADN fosters, and has long fostered, the mistaken view that a problematic attachment history is expressed in hostility, cruelty, and a preoccupation with harm to others. That view has been responsible in the past for inappropriate treatments like “holding therapy” that have caused documented child deaths and probably undocumented psychological injuries to children. I hear from time to time to adults who recall and still suffer from the harms they experienced as a result of such fringe beliefs and practices.
Dr. Massino was especially concerned about the APA award because of the influence Rygaard and some of his associates have in Russia, where there is continuing discussion about appropriate rules for adoption, foster care, and orphanage care.
After hearing about the award to Dr. Rygaard, I contacted the co-chair of the APA committee that chose the recipient of this award. He was very pleasant and receptive and, I think, paid attention to the material I sent him and to my complaint that this was an ill-judged decision.. However, I soon received a message from APA to the effect that the award would stand.
This was not surprising, and I did not really expect any concrete result from my complaint. It would certainly be exceedingly awkward to retract an award of this kind, and I had not argued, nor did I think, that Rygaard himself had done anything harmful to children. I was simply concerned that the APA committee had made the award without sufficient consideration of the background and with the groups that Rygaard was allied with since the publication of his 2006 book, if not before. Without at all wishing to assume guilt by association, I nevertheless did not want APA inadvertently to provide support to a view of attachment that is not only incorrect but potentially harmful to children. Although APA is not in the usual sense an international organization, it should take some responsibility for the effects of decisions on children in other countries.
I do not want to take away praise for the hard work of Dr. Rygaard and the Fairstart Foundation. It may seem to some readers that I am splitting hairs when I express concern about fringe beliefs in the background. But in fact decisions and practices often derive from background assumptions, and those assumptions can be strengthened by approval of groups that share them. I wish the APA awards committee had paid more attention to the background in this case.