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