adoption disruption, Attachment Disorders, family

5 Reasons The 20/20 Segment, “The Forever Family,” Failed


They failed as journalists. Call it what you will, but they failed. Investigative journalism has a responsibility to shed light on all sides of a story. Shedding light on RAD? Fail. Shedding light on the horrors of re-homing? Fail. Sensationalizing the pain and suffering of little children to boost ratings? Success.

Elizabeth Vargas and her team botched this past Friday’s segment “The Forever Family.” In the opening introduction, they ask the question, “If things don’t work out with your adoptive children, can you simply give them back?” This question was never answered.In my opinion, these are the 5 biggest errors in their show:

1. The lack of information on RAD.

There was a panel of parents discussing this disorder. 20/20 basically glossed over this part in 30 seconds. They describe RAD as “the inability to form attachments.” That is not correct. It certainly makes it very scary and difficult to form attachments, but it isn’t impossible.  There wasn’t any compassion shown to a little girl so drastically traumatized that she killed a guinea pig and wanted to kill her brother. She suffered from complex trauma and abuse. This girl deserved to have her story told with compassion.  Information about how and why a child could get to this point should have been brought to light. She deserved to have her story told with an explanation and with compassion. 

2. Where was the responsibility of DHS?

The segment have no information that DHS attempted to put supports in place. The social worker clearly had knowledge that the girls’ situation was dire before the adoption. What did they do to preserve permanency for these girls? Why would the Department decide not to investigate an “exorcism?!” The department suggested that these parents place cameras and motion detector alarms on the girls’ bedrooms. Does this creep anyone else out?! They must have been prepared for problems.

3. Mental health professionals

Where were they? Why is it that a psychiatrist or psychologist specializing in RAD and complex trauma wasn’t on the show? They did not shed any light in the fact that there are very few mental health professionals who specialize in complex trauma, particularly in adoptive situations like this. The lack of education and resources for adoptive families and traumatized children is deplorable. Children with these issues often slip through the cracks without getting the help they need. Superficially charming and sweet, they impress perfect strangers while manipulating situations. These are survival skills that mask huge depths of pain and grief. These children are hurting and they need help. They need permanency.

This segment showed a foster family who had these girls during the charming, or “honeymoon” phase. The oldest was already in intensive care. That is due to major trauma, not just “a few outbursts,” as the social worker stated. Putting the girls all together again without preparation and therapy was/is a huge DHS mistake. Why would their therapists not have any plan for this? It’s simple. They were probably not adoption specialists or complex trauma specialists. Putting them together again triggered their survival skills and memories of the abusive environment. Those poor children. A properly trained professional could have helped in this situation, but they are few and far between. Why not shed some light on that?

4. The Re-homing disaster

Often, due to the “abandonment” law, there is no hope or support for adoptive families. Without proper resources to treat this rare disorder, the children can become worse. The closer they get to caretakers, the more they begin to react. Love is terrifying to them so they try to destroy it any way they can. They are surviving the only way the know how. Adoptive families are woefully unprepared for children who are this hurt. So they seek help and relief any way they can. They are surviving.  20/20 did nothing to show compassion for the fact that families often cannot get proper mental health care for their children. Adoptive families often cannot get proper DHS support for their families. Left with little support, and fewer options, families re-home. By shaming these families, and leaving virtually no way out, we are dooming innocent children to scary and uncertain “re-homing” situations. Making it illegal? Yeah, OK, that’s good. Now how about making a legal requirement for DHS that would provide support for families post-adoption? ABC did nothing to inform about what I consider to be a national issue. They were too focused on the shame-and-blame game.

5. This family

I think many adoptive families would agree that we wouldn’t want the Harrises to be the face of adoption and/or adoption disruption. At first I was glad ABC was going to do a price on the problems of re-homing and RAD. But the segment that aired was worthy of just about any glossy gossip magazine at your local checkout counter. Yes, this family is strange. No, I cannot identify with them or with all of their choices. I was probably the most horrified by their continued reference to their biological children as “their own” children. Worse still was the mother who said, “My children were the ones we were gonna safeguard first and foremost.” What? How were these people confused about who their children were? Why didn’t they bond with their girls? Even worse, why finalize instead of waiting to get help and support in partnership with DHS for these girls?

ABC makes it easy for the rest of us to say, “I could never be like that family. No way. Not me.” They are so unrelatable that it makes it easier for the viewer to stay in the comfort zone of “I would never.” It makes the viewer feel better about themselves. Add to that the happy ending with the new family. I would hazard a guess that these girls are better off in a home without boys close in age. But, are they “cured” with a new family? Probably not. Instead, they are with a family that must have had the resources and training to stick it out. With trauma that deep it takes at least a year to see improvement. Sometimes, it doesn’t improve at all, no matter what the parents do. The Harris family or the Cleavers might have failed just the same. ABC just sent the message to struggling families everywhere that they are the problem. I want to state that RAD is the problem. The child’s past trauma is the problem.

It’s too bad that 20/20 did not use this platform to shed light on Reactive Attachment Disorder. It’s too bad that their platform was nothing more than a thinly veiled ploy to make viewers think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as those people!” 20/20 had the opportunity to touch upon the mental health crisis in our country. They could have, and should have, done a better job with this segment. Yes, Elizabeth Vargas, a six-year-old little girl can be terrifying. She can attempt murder, exhibit super human strength in her rage, and injure herself and others. It is not the fault of the child. Instead of asking if this could happen Ms. Vargas should have been asking how does this happen? And how can we make it better for these hurt, traumatized children?

**Pictures courtesy of ABC 20/20 official website


29 thoughts on “5 Reasons The 20/20 Segment, “The Forever Family,” Failed

  1. Dena says:

    As a former foster parent and adoptive mom, I am outraged at the incompetent journalism. We fostered a child with RAD. With the help of trauma specialists and lots of love we were able to change the child’s life.

    After months of therapy our foster son was able to form attachments. It was a long, hard road but we did it. Children with RAD are difficult to place and this article did nothing to help solve that situation.

    20/20 blew it. Period.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. I’m also hearing from a lot of readers that they stuck it out with severely traumatized children and the children healed. Good for you for helping that little boy to form attachments. Fighting the good fight!


      • Hi Kate1010. Which son? We had a sibling group of 4. They were 8,12,and 16 when we met them. They’ve been in family therapy, talk therapy, trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy (very successful!) attachment therapy, intensive outpatient therapy, in-patient psychiatric hospitalization, and art therapy. We also had in-home intensive therapy services (very effective) and mobile crisis psychiatric services on an emergency basis.


  2. Jan Johnson says:

    I agree with everything you said! I had the same thoughts when watching this. I adopted a child internationally with attachment issues, not nearly as severe but I was left feeling hopeless anything would ever get better, and I had no support from my social worker. I wanted to give her back, but I stuck it out because I had committed to being her parent.

    I felt for these children and my heart was broken for all they went through, and yes the family icked me out by saying “we had to protect our own children first,” but I did feel for them as they meant well, and they had the fear put into them that they would lose their biological children if they gave these children back – that should never be a factor as that is what will cause rehoming.

    But nothing was mentioned about therapy for these girls, help that was offered by professionals, etc. Everyone failed these girls and there was nothing to learn from this episode that could have been a valuable educational tool. All it did was scare people off of adopting older children. My heart is so heavy after watching this program.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Heather says:

    Excellent blog. I agree with all except for the harsh words about the Harris family. I just wish you didn’t have to be so harsh on the Harris family. Judgement of any kind isn’t attractive. I still love reading your blogs and appreciate you writing this for us mom’s who struggle with RADS.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We are adoptive parents and foster parents. We just had a placement disrupted because we do not have the training or skills to help someone with his issues…..but we want to move forward and become prepared. There are so many kids with deep hurts. Love may not “be enough” but paired with trust, it is the foundation for a good, healing relationship.
    The show was just a sensationalized view of a situation that was painful to everyone involved. Why did the Harrises agree to it? Surely they knew it wouldn’t be a fair presentation, even if all they wanted was the opportunity to speak their piece. They were taken advantage of.
    Those kids are victims of a system that is not up to the great responsibility they carry. Those kids, and many others.


  5. Amy garcia says:

    As the mother of 3 biological sons and 3 adopted daughters with severe RAD I can relate to this story, big time. However, no one ever warned us about what we getting involved with. I would never have gone through with the adoption if we had seen all the behaviors that came at the 9 month mark- 3 months after the grace period was over. Dcfs told us that we would be ok because we had love to give and family support. There are NO supports in place for families- the state is broke and services are gone. After the adoption, we heard from no one- the state disappeared.
    While I didn’t have to rehome my adopted girls, 1 was removed from our home because the state refused to get our family services for her after a hospitalization resulting from her attempting to kill me. Dcfs told us we could refuse to pick her up from the hospital and they would take custody and charge us with neglect and place us on the state child abuse registry for up to 50 years. Or, we could pick her up and bring her home but if she did anything to the boys, they would charge us with failure to protect the boys and remove all the kids. The police investigated us, went to the boys school, came to our home and we now spend every few months in court and will do that for the next 6 years until she turns 18.
    The other 2 are in residential treatment thru age 18 due to their violence and abuse against our sons and themselves. We spent $30k to hire a lawyer and sue to get them placed there. We had the girls in our home for 5 years and experienced the rage, violence, sexual abuse against our other kids. They killed the cat, raped the dog, abused the neighbors child. We were in therapy for 5 years, every Sunday for 5 hours.
    I don’t condone rehoming, at all. But I do understand the desperation fear and the desperate realization of knowing you have to choose who to protect first.


    • Amy, thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate all you did for your daughters without support! Not only that, but I commend you for referring to your bios as “our other kids” rather than “our own kids.” I wish peace and healing for all of you.


  6. Mechell Morris says:

    I have 4 bio children. One of which has RAD. There is very little to no help out there for her. She has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals over ther last 5 years. She started showing signs of RAD at 4 years old after her father went to prison. She has come after me and my other children with knives, she has pushed all of us down the stairs at one point or another, she has violent tantrums, etc. Of course as far as the state is concerned, it is all my fault. She is now 12 and I finally have a wonderful group of counselors and therapist. They seem to really have a grasp of what is going on. We are currently trying to get her placed into residential treatment. Over the past 9 months she lived with my mom, where she would be an only child. She managed to kill 2 family pets. Hoping and praying for the best for her. I was furious and disappointed with 20/20, for not making people aware of what RAD really is.


  7. Pam says:

    I did not see the 20/20 show, but have really come to trust your thoughts on this. I’ll try to see if I can somehow watch it online.

    I know we all complain about the “system” but how can we go about fixing it??? I’m not just talking about changing legislature which takes way too long and gets too caught up in processing and investigation, paying for votes, etc., and almost seems pointless in the end, but how do we change things now? I am completing my PRIDE class tomorrow night and I can assure you that they have told us all the things to scare us off from becoming foster parents, but have done nothing to tell us how we can change the life of a child. Our RAD teaching was less than 90 minutes long and while taught by a psychologist didn’t seem to really teach us what we can do to help a child with RAD (told us signs to look for and reasons behind it).

    This inefficient class seems congruent with the fact that our state has just now (September 1, 2015) contracted all foster care out to agencies and will only do kinship care. Our state seems in limbo with trying to figure out how they are changing the rules to shuttle the brokenness onto the agencies. These agencies are now overrun with potential foster parents. I contacted my chosen agency over six weeks ago, and after the initial paperwork sent, have not heard back from them even after leaving over eight messages. I’ve been told they have been looking for a social worker for over a year, and their adoption coordinator is doing double duty as a foster care homefinder. I have even said I would volunteer to do office work to help them if that would help at all, which they said they would consider but have heard nothing back regarding that. After a long conversation with the person answering the phone who assured me she would return my call the next morning, I have heard nothing back – that was four weeks ago. So IF I had a child in my home who was in a crisis situation the chances of me getting immediate help would be (I’m guessing) nil.

    How do we fix this really, really awful system? Where does one begin and is it even possible? How do we even begin to train parents on changing their parenting in order to keep their own kids? How do we keep this foster care system from being generational?

    It seems that our society has eroded the concept of family when it legislated “God” out of it. That’s my opinion, of course. Still, still…how do we fix such a broken system? These kids are the ones that are suffering the most from it, and we are raising a generation(s) of suffering children who become often times, broken adults.

    I could go on – I will shut up. If you don’t think this is something you want to add to your comment section, it is okay – I will understand – I’m ranting.

    Pray for me that in some way, some how, I can make a positive difference in the life of a child as I move forward to become an “official” foster parent. (Have been unofficially taking in kids for 38 years.)


  8. Pam says:

    I wish I’d waited to respond. I just spent two hours trying to download and watch this segment online and having finally completed watching it, I see how off base my comment was to topic. Please feel free to delete these two posts by me. I would if I could.


    • Pam, it is always nice to hear from you. I don’t think you were off-base at all. In my PRIDE class they talked about children having meltdowns etc. but never told us what to DO specifically to help. They told us that kids experience trauma, but never mentioned trauma therapy as being important. They didn’t tell us about death threats and rubbing away. They didn’t tell us about bonding and attachment. I don’t think they knew what to say because they weren’t trained in trauma. The most common response to a foster family in distress is to let them suffer through as long as they can. Then the kids end up disrupted and moved to “intensive” or “therapeutic” care. Each disruption just causes more trauma to a child. Why not train all FPs in trauma? The department is sometimes quick to place but slow to support. They should be doing everything possible to provide support and stability to foster and/or birth families. It would cost less in the long run. I will delete the post if you like but maybe you should write your own blog? About dealing with the system? It’s very interesting.


  9. L. Smith says:

    I am from their state. What was glossed over was the fact that he is currently a state representative that holds power over DHS. So despite recommendations for the adoption to not occur, it forced it through anyway. Is DHS always perfect, by far No. But, in this case Harris is the one that is ultimately responsible by thinking that he knew better than all of the professionals and former foster parents arguing against their adoption. It seems that 20/20 has glossed over this.

    This is from the publication that first broke the story.


    • L. Smith, thank you for reading all the way from AR! I did read that article recently. It does sound like Mr. Harris forced the issue, and possibly abused his position. However, I still see no evidence that DHS offered supports. I don’t see any evidence that 20/20 attempted to report on, or even understand, RAD. Maybe the story should have been about politicians and their shady political kickbacks? They didn’t tell that story either…


  10. DORA says:

    REALITY is….. I am an adoptive mother from the fostercare welfare system ….when you cant find mental health professionals, if you turn them back over to CPS/DHS your biological children get removed and rehoming to unskilled families is detroying another family. I have “abandonment and neglect” charges because I needed to put my adoptive sons in a secure facility only CPS/DHS could provide. In the Michigan’s Macomb County Community Mental Health providers are not skilled to deal with the Severe Emotional Disorders (RAD). But they admit they have many children with “MANY, MANY, MANY children with RAD.” I love my sons and have been trying for 10 years, advocating, appealing, grievances….NO one listens. My boys suffer, i am penalized. My family is shattered and broken!


    • Dora, I am so sorry that this has been your story. Often times insurance won’t cover these facilities. Then families are left to relinquish children, who are so traumatized they are unsafe, back to DHS. Then parents face neglect charges. Who can afford $40,000 and up a year for residential care? I feel for you and I’m sorry the department didn’t support your adoption.


    • jessica gonzalez says:

      This makes me sad. I understand and want you to know that I lived it and I get it! I had three sibs with RAD. It caused my divorce among other issues. I get it!


  11. jessica gonzalez says:

    Have you raised RAD kids? Unless you have then keep your opinions to yourself! Nobody can say what it’s like unless they have and especially having more than one at a time! Big difference! I’m tired of people’s opinions weather professional or not who haven’t lived it!

    Liked by 1 person

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