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Therapy that did more harm than good

March 6, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Slate has an interesting opinion column this week about a $2 million civil suit won by the 11 adopted children of a couple who made them sleep in makeshift cages coinstructed out of wood and chicken wire that were wired with alarms. The couple were eventually convicted of child abuse back in 2005 and sentenced to two years in prison; the children were placed in other foster and adoptive homes. The kids sued Stark County, Ohio for placing them with the adoptive couple, Michael and Sharen Gravelle, in the first place. The column can be found here:—x/doublex/2014/03/attachment—therapy—at—the—center—of—many—high—profile—adoption—abuse—cases.html?wpisrc=burger—bar

The Gravelles claimed that they needed to use the cages to protect the kids from themselves and each other. The kids were supposedly special needs and were also receiving so-called attachment therapy for "reactive attachment disorder" from an "attachment therapist." Besides being made to sleep in cages, the kids also underwent a number of other unusual punishments. According to, the Gravelle kids were given only peanut butter sandwiches to eat for weeks after they were caught sneaking food and hosed down with water in the winter. One kid who wet the bed was forced to sleep in the bathtub for 81 days. At least some of the kids were required to ask for permission to use the bathroom. Some of these practices are advocated by so-called attachment therapy experts.

Reactive attachment disorder is an extremely rare condition that makes it hard for a kid to become emotionally attached to another person. Kids at risk were abused or profoundly neglected in early childhood. According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, kids with the inhibited type of reactive attachment disorder display "persistent failure to initiate or respond in a developmentally appropriate fashion to most social interactions as manifest by excessively inhibited, hypervigilant, or highly ambivalent or contradictory responses (e.g. the child may respond to caregivers with a mixture of approach, avoidance and resistance to comforting, or may exhibit frozen watchfulness." Kids with the less common disinhibited type exhibit "diffuse attachments as manifest by indiscriminate sociability with marked inability to exhibit appropriate selective attachments (e.g. excessive familiarity with relative strangers or lack of selectivity in choice of attachment figures.)" These behaviors should appear before age 5.

Nothing is said in the DSM manual indicating that kids with the disorder are violent, lack a conscience, engage in "crazy lying" or any of the other symptoms listed on various popular websites for adoptive parents. While sometimes kids who have been traumatized do act out in these inappropriate ways, their behavior is probably caused by things other than reactive attachment disorder. Perhaps some of these children also have other mental illnesses that are co-morbid with the attachment disorder. Some of them may simply have a difficult time adjusting to their new adoptive homes and act out as a result. Kids who act out in disturbing ways should receive appropriate treatment from licensed therapists. The Gravelle children did not.

The Gravelle children, placed in normal, loving homes, are all doing well. Attorney Jack Landskroner told the Associated Press, "These kids were good kids," who had been wrongfully maligned by their abusive parents. "It's amazing the positive results you see on children who are placed in a loving, caring home."


Article Comments



Mar-13-14 2:02 PM

"It's amazing the positive results you see on children who are placed in a loving, caring home."

Couldn't agree more. Children NEED to be loved.


Mar-13-14 10:19 AM

I would love to see the treatment plan and credentials of the so called "experts" that are referred to in this article. The terms therapist/therapy are often used irresponsibly by the public and media. The "experts" were in all likelihood uncredentialed money grabbers that had an agenda that is not clear by the information in this article. This wasn't therapy, this was abuse.


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