On Tuesday, April 17th, an organization called the Institute for Attachment and Child Development (IACD) was scheduled to present information about attachment therapy, a controversial treatment offered for a rare condition called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Caregivers of foster children exposed to abuse and neglect are common targets for this therapy. While the scientific community continues to struggle with questions about the RAD diagnosis, national organizations involved in the care and welfare of children (e.g., American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children) have consistently identified attachment therapies as physically and emotionally harmful to children. Early versions of the treatment (e.g., “rebirthing therapy”) involved forcibly restraining children to break resistance to authority, presumably to correct problematic attachment bonds. Unfortunately, holding techniques resulted in several documented cases where children were injured, suffocated, and killed. Practitioners of these therapies claim that holding and compression techniques are no longer used. However, the ideas underlying the approach — that children exposed to abuse are inherently manipulative, controlling, and deceitful and must be “broken down” to build appropriate attachments — remain problematic. Foster parents taking part in these therapies are told to use the following techniques on their foster children — constant monitoring, limited contact with people outside the home, conditional access to basic needs (e.g., meals, bathroom facilities, affection), which would be considered abusive in other settings. Mental health providers may disagree on the best approach to treatment; however, we oppose the techniques advocated by the IACD over concerns of the basic safety and ethical treatment of children. As such, faculty in the University Department of Psychology are collectively opposed to treatments advocated by the IACD. Working with child survivors of systematic abuse is hard. Therapeutic gains are slow, and caregivers endure tremendous emotional burden. Overstated claims about the benefits of unconventional treatments — coupled with testimonials and catastrophic warnings about passing up IACD services — are compelling when parents feel hopeless. We encourage members of the public to be informed consumers and remain wary of programs making bold claims despite wide condemnation in the larger professional community.
Robin Barry, Karen Bartsch, Josh Clapp, Tara Waddell Clap, Kyle DeYoung, David Estes, Scott Freng, Matt Gray, Cynthia Hartung, Alison Looby, Sean McCrea, Christine McKibbin, Narina Nuñez, Carolyn Pepper, Benjamin Wilkowski, University of Wyoming psychology faculty