RTF: A bad option, that’s sometimes the best option

My son Devon was 10-years-old when I dropped him off at a residential treatment facility (RTF) for the first time. I knew almost instantly it wasn’t going to work. They didn’t believe in consequences. School work was optional. With unlimited dessert and no rules, it was more like a summer camp than a program for kids with severe behavioral problems.

I called my sister for advice and my words came out with a sob, “He’ll see this as a reward.”

“I don’t care if it’s Disney World,” she said, without hesitation. “You have to get him out of your house. Nothing else matters right now.”

“But he’s going to get worse here–“

“We’ll deal with that later. Leave him,” she said. 

And I did.

Devon’s behavior had been growing increasingly unmanageable and dangerous over the previous 18 months. He was having violent outburst every day and the stress level in our house was toxic for everyone. My youngest son, who was 4, was especially frightened and would tremble with fear when he sensed Devon’s anger mounting. I was suffering from PTSD—even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I’d been trying to get help for Devon for years. We’d tried outpatient therapy, intensive in-home therapy and partial hospitalization. He wasn’t getting better and I had no idea how to help him. I only knew what I was doing wasn’t working. 

As I’d predicted, Devon’s behaviors did become dramatically worse from the RTF. However, my sister had recognized what I could not – it was still the best option available to us. Unfortunately, if you’ve exhausted outpatient options and your child is becoming unsafe, it may be your only option too. 

Why RTFs don’t work

While an RTF may be the best – or only – option available, it’s important to have realistic expectations. These facilities are rarely effective for kids with developmental trauma disorder. In fact, they can exacerbate the symptoms, and here’s why:

1. The treatment is not specialized for developmental trauma. Your child will be placed with kids who have a variety of issues including anxiety disorders, eating disorders and PTSD. The coping skills they will learn – like taking deep breaths, playing with a stress ball and counting to ten – are not enough to heal the brain injury caused by developmental trauma.

2. The workers are under-trained, overworked and underpaid. Your child will work with a licensed clinician for therapy. Yet, the general supervision is typically provided by workers who have a high school diploma and on-the-job training. Our kids are very challenging to deal and the chronic understaffing and inadequate training results in inconsistent quality of care.

3. The staffing structure lends itself to triangulation. Because workers are rotated (and have high turnover) they are easily triangulated – especially against the therapist and parents. Unfortunately, your child is likely to gain a sense of control by behaving this way – a feeling they unconsciously crave – and will continue even when it sabotages their treatment.

4. The kids become institutionalized. In these facilities, your child will be exposed to and influenced by kids with sexualized behaviors, horrific language and physical violence. They’ll quickly learn the ropes and how to work the system to their advantage, for example, by making false allegations to retaliate against staff or peers. This is knowledge they’ll ultimately use to manipulate the staff and you as well.

RTFs are intended to teach your child how to cope and let them “practice” good behavior for when they return home. Yet, the artificial environment and behavior-based modification techniques do not help them to truly heal. 

“Kids with DTD learn to work within the external structure of residential treatment facilities. It doesn’t get internalized for them though,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Ultimately, most kids go back into their families and fall apart. Sadly, it’s oftentimes the only option for parents.” 

Sadly, unless you are able to send your child to a program that is highly specialized for developmental trauma, your child is unlikely to get better. 

When to consider an RTF anyway

Parents who are considering sending their children to an RTF often ask for my advice. It is a very personal decision and every child and family is different. However, the following are a few words of hard-earned wisdom I often share. 

1. Consider an RTF if your child is unsafe to himself or others. Remember to consider not only the physical, but also psychological well-being, of other children in the home.

2. Consider an RTF if you are at your breaking point. You cannot help your child when you are unstable yourself. An RTF may be the breather you need to regain perspective.

3. Consider an RTF if your child  engages in unlawful behavior. An RTF is likely a better option that juvenile detention where your child will get a criminal record and receive little treatment.

The decision to send your child to an RTF should be a last resort but you may be at that point now. You alone are not able to heal developmental trauma any more than you can set your child’s arm or cure his leukemia. The best you can do is access the best possible treatments available and support and love your child through the process. 

For us, an RTF was the best choice because Devon had become unsafe to himself and his siblings. And after years of giving it my all, I had nothing left to give. He’s now 17 and in his ninth RTF. It’s not the forever family I’d hoped for and not what any parents wants. Yet, it is often the best of the limited choices families like mine have. It is the best choice for us. And while my son doesn’t live at home, he’ll always be a part of our family.

First published by Institute for Attachment and Child Development here.

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