When their adopted son, Dante, stepped off the airplane from Ethiopia, Rick and Karen were like most people – they didn’t know a thing about reactive attachment disorder. And they didn’t know much about Dante either.
All they knew was that he had lived on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He had no family to care for him. When the police found 5-year-old Dante, he was eating out of garbage cans and begging on the streets. He didn’t know how old he was or even his name. The women at the orphanage said little Dante cried—all the time—for the several months in which he lived with them.
When Dante stepped off the plane, he immediately charmed Rick and Karen with his wide grin and big eyes. When they brought Dante home, Rick and Karen felt prepared. After all, he was the second youngest of six kids—four of whom were also adopted.
They hoped their love for Dante would help him to overcome past hardships he’d endured before them. But it didn’t. They thought the parenting strategies that worked for their other kids would pull him through. But they didn’t.
Four years after they brought Dante home from the airport, Rick and Karen still felt as though they knew little about their son. Dante kept an emotional distance from them.
Although Karen and Rick still didn’t know a lot about their son, they did know something was very wrong.
The heartache of distance from their son
Dante couldn’t form relationships with anyone—not Rick or Karen, his teachers, siblings, or other kids at school. He spent most of his days in the principal’s office rather than in class.
Karen remembers one of the first conversations she had with a teacher who called home. “In my 25 years of teaching, I’ve never encountered a child like Dante,” his teacher said. “He absolutely ignores everything I say. He disrupts my class in ways I can’t even fathom.” That was the first of many similar calls, year after year.
Karen and Rick sought professional help. “Dante burned through several private therapists who didn’t have a clue what to do with him,” Rick said. Not a single one brought up the term reactive attachment disorder.
Karen learned about attachment disorder through her own research. The behaviors of RAD fit Dante exactly. Even when they sought help from therapists who claimed to specialize in attachment therapy, those professionals couldn’t help Dante either.
By age 13, Dante was doing drugs and constantly ran away from home for days at a time. He had frequent encounters with police and was in probation through the court system. He threatened to physically hurt Karen. Rick and Karen sent Dante to a day treatment school. The school couldn’t handle him either.
One step forward
And then, hope. At yet another court hearing one day, a therapist suggested to Karen that she call Forrest Lien at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.
Shortly thereafter, Dante began therapy at IACD. “Forrest realized something about Dante no other therapist had noticed,” said Rick. Yes, he obviously had attachment issues. But the IACD psychologist also diagnosed Dante with bipolar disorder and provided him with medication. With his brain calm, he could finally accept therapy.
Three months later, Dante returned to court. The judge, probation officer, and other court officials were shocked. He was not cussing at the court police like he had in the past. He had a good report from his teachers. They saw a distinct difference in him. The probation officer invited Forrest to give a presentation to all of his colleagues.
The judge discharged Dante and the court officials gave him a standing ovation.
But Karen and Rick knew that Dante still had a long road ahead. Forrest had told them that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. The medication gave Dante the opportunity to accept therapy but he needed more time. Karen and Rick had to be patient while Dante continued to live with an IACD treatment family. So they were.
Two steps back
But social services professionals were not patient. They wanted Dante back in Karen and Rick’s home and out of their system quickly. After another month with IACD, social services told Karen and Rick to pick Dante up from the Institute treatment home, despite Forrest’s recommendation to let Dante continue his time with them.
Karen and Rick followed the social services professional’s request and brought Dante back home one Sunday morning. He was extremely quiet. That afternoon, Dante asked to go listen to music in his room. Five minutes later, he escaped out of his bedroom window, got on a bus, and didn’t return.
Nine days later, a police officer found Dante in another town.
A different direction at IACD
When the police brought Dante home, Karen and Rick rushed to embrace him. They cried with relief. And then they drove him right back to his treatment family at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.
“Everything about the Institute was entirely different than anything we’d tried before,” said Rick. One of those differences is the in-patient therapy with real families who truly understand the dynamics of attachment disorder. “Doing the same things wouldn’t have worked in our home or at a typical residential treatment center. Dante was able to get therapy with a well-trained “practice family” who didn’t have the same emotional baggage we did.”
And it worked.
After a total of nearly 12 months with the Institute, Forrest told Karen and Rick that Dante was close to ready. He’d be home to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
“It was a great day,” said Karen. “He was polite and helpful. He helped me peel potatoes, carried dishes to the table, and checked the turkey. He played basketball in the driveway with his friends.”
He didn’t run away. He didn’t want to.
Today, Dante is home for good. He’s doing well in school and sports. He has a different and more positive group of friends. And Dante has finally let his family into his life and into his heart.
Karen and Rick have finally brought home a son they now know. And Dante has found home too.
You can help parents find healing for their children with RAD.
Attachment disorder is a little-known diagnosis that destroys families in big ways. You can help to spread the word so that parents can access the information and help they need.
Here’s what you can do:
- Share this story with friends, family, or professionals via the social share buttons below.
- Invite Forrest to speak at your parent or professional group.
Rick and Karen’s advice to other parents of children with attachment disorder:
1. “Connect with the right people. Many psychiatrists and therapists, though well intentioned, don’t know enough about attachment disorder.”
2. “Get a thorough mental health diagnosis. Your child can’t begin to heal until his or her mental health is stable. Most therapists miss this element.”
3. “Don’t give up. If you can stick with it and keep looking, there’s a chance for hope for your child and your family. We certainly found it at IACD.”