The mental health professionals told Julie she had one option left – to give her daughter to the state of Kentucky.
From the time Julie received custody of her six-year-old niece, she tried everything to help McKenzie with her reactive attachment disorder. Despite in-home care services, numerous hospital visits and two residential treatment centers, McKenzie only grew more aggressive—both verbally and physically—over five years. But Julie wasn’t giving up.
When McKenzie’s biological mother had died, Julie didn’t know anything about reactive attachment disorder. Julie knew her niece had a traumatic childhood—her parents both had untreated mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and anti-social personality disorder. She knew that her niece never smiled. She knew she was angry and violent. She knew McKenzie had night terrors about murder, sexual assault, demons, and vampires and feared the shower, solitude, and shadows.
From the moment McKenzie was born, she saw far too much. She saw her father beat her mother. She was there when her father attempted suicide. She witnessed drug dealers holding guns to her father’s head. She was in the middle of gang violence. Her parents didn’t bother to shield her eyes from violent and sexual movies. She saw her baby sister taken away from her the day her mother gave the baby up for adoption. She saw many homes—none of which were her own. During her parents’ frequent break-ups, her parents shuffled her amongst friends and family members.
After McKenzie’s mother died suddenly during an outpatient surgery complication, it was another new home for six-year-old McKenzie—that of her aunt Julie. When Julie was granted custody of McKenzie, she vowed to be the stability in the little girl’s life.
Standing for McKenzie— always
When six-year-old McKenzie first moved in, Julie knew her niece needed help and intended to provide it. She hadn’t realized at the time how difficult simply finding effective services could be. Although she did everything professionals had recommended, nothing had worked, even after five years.
But Julie wasn’t going to give up and relinquish her parental rights to the state as therapists suggested. “How could I accept that as a parent?” said Julie. “I refused to give up on my child and hand her over to the state so they could simply control her behavior,” said Julie.
Because no one knew about services outside of Kentucky, Julie intended to find them herself. She began to search for more information about reactive attachment disorder and resources online. “What I learned is that you have to be your own advocate for your child,” said Julie. “I just started calling places, hoping someone could help us.”
Finding McKenzie’s Smile
After many phone calls without success, she called the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. That was the first phone call in which she found a place that truly understood reactive attachment disorder. “It was such a relief,” Julie said. “When I talked to Forrest, I found someone who actually understood what I was going through, what McKenzie was going through. He could completely relate to our experience. I didn’t hit a brick wall like I had done so many times before.”
After Julie provided extensive background on McKenzie and the IACD staff completed their evaluations on McKenzie in Colorado, Forrest told Julie they could help McKenzie. “After I brought her here, met Forrest, and her therapy mom, I really felt like a weight had been lifted, said Julie. “I felt like I had done the right thing. And I have. It’s obvious in her behavior now.”
Julie no longer has to hold her breath in anticipation of one of McKenzie’s outbursts. If McKenzie does get upset, she can communicate with Julie now. She can control her own emotions and have healthy behaviors instead of having dramatic meltdowns like she once did.
McKenzie also smiles, laughs, and tells jokes these days—something that Julie never saw before. “She didn’t seem like a carefree, innocent young child should be before the Institute,” said Julie. “It seemed like there was a dark cloud over her.”
A forever home (moved to higher elevation)
McKenzie has done so well in the program at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development that Julie decided to make that home permanent as well for McKenzie. They moved from Kentucky to Colorado so McKenzie could continue outpatient therapy at IACD. “She’s developed such a strong rapport with Bev, her therapist here, and with Linda, her therapeutic house mom. I wanted to keep the same stability for her,” said Julie.
When Julie reflects upon her long journey with McKenzie, she’s sad yet grateful. “I wish I had known before that there just weren’t the resources where we lived to really provide the help that she needed for her reactive attachment disorder,” said Julie. “But I’m still grateful that I found the Institute. That’s a blessing. I have a much healthier feeling about what McKenzie’s future will be.”
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT REACTIVE ATTACHMENT DISORDER AND HEAR FROM FAMILIES AT THE INSTITUTE FOR ATTACHMENT AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT, PLEASE SEE OUR VIDEOS PAGE.