“Boy in a Box,” Trial: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

I have complicated and nuanced feelings about the Ferriter, “Boy in a box,” trial. As I write this post, Tim Ferriter has been found guilty of all charges, including aggravated child abuse, a first-degree felony. Ferriter could face up to 40 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines suggest he’ll likely receive about 3 years. His wife, Tracy Ferrier, is slated to face trial in the future.

The family presented an affirmative defense, claiming their actions were due to their child’s condition, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). RAD is a profoundly serious diagnosis, with some children exhibiting aggressive tendencies, and suicidal and homicidal ideations. I recently participated in a Crime TV panel discussion with Vinnie Politan to delve into this case. You can watch the discussion here.

It’s essential for the RAD community to acknowledge the Ferriters’ actions in confining their son in an 8’x8′ wooden box with no window and a bucket for sanitary needs. The box was equipped with cameras and could only be locked from the outside. At a minimum, this constitutes a fire hazard and is undeniably unsafe. RAD is never an excuse for abusing or neglecting a child with this condition.

Two truths coexist: the Ferriters’ actions in confining their son were dangerous and abusive, and yet they felt compelled to do so due to the system’s failure to support their child and family adequately.

Systemic failure

Once we acknowledge the wrongness of the Ferriters’ actions, we must turn our attention to the “why” behind this tragedy. The desperation of this family is not an isolated case. The mental health, child welfare, and judicial systems are failing tens of thousands of troubled children and the families who care for them.

The coverage of this case has perpetuated two myths about RAD: that treatment is readily available, and that it can be easily treated. Parents of children with violent behaviors struggle to get the help they need. They are not believed because their child’s behavior is genuinely unimaginable. They are blamed and shamed by mental health professionals who may understand RAD intellectually but lack lived experience. The intake process for treatment facilities is arduous, and the cost, ranging from 10K to 60K per month, is prohibitive for most families. Insurance restrictions often limit treatment to a few days or months per year, while many children need year-round care, often for several years. 

RAD is a spectrum disorder, similar to Autism. Kids on the moderate to extreme end of the spectrum, are resistant to treatment. In residential treatment facilities that claim to treat these children’s violent behavior, staff often resort to seclusion rooms and physical restraints, similar to the “box” used by the Ferriters. Despite having trained staff, cameras, equipment, and on-call psychologists, these children still harm themselves and others. Given these challenges, why do we expect the Ferriters, or any family, to keep their child safe and prevent them from causing harm?


Those observing the Ferriter trial should take a moment to consider what solutions could realistically have been offered to the Ferriters.

1. How can a family keep a child safe when they are exhibiting violent behavior every day? Even if this behavior is attention-seeking, how can parents, who also have jobs and other children to care for, maintain constant supervision to intervene? This is why treatment facilities have 24/7 line of sight supervision. Can a family manage this in the home?

2. How can a family ensure the safety of siblings when their RAD kid is trying to harm or even kill them? They can lock away knives, but anything can be turned into a weapon. How can they safety proof the entire house? This is why treatment facilities have padded cell like in treatment facilities. Can a family manage this in the home?

Even if a family and child have access to excellent therapy, there is no quick fix. Reducing violent behavior will require months, if not years, of therapy. What can a family do in the meantime? Remember that these parents have other children to care for, jobs to attend to, household chores, and numerous responsibilities. We are essentially asking them to provide 24/7 supervision and highly skilled interventions. Anything less may not ensure everyone’s safety, and even this level of oversight may not be sufficient.

So, what are the solutions? 

  1. Acknowledge that parents cannot safely manage violent behavior in their home
  2. Believe parents when they ask for help. 
  3. Reach out to families with support before they are in crisis.
  4. Provide accessible residential treatment options.
  5. Invest in research to develop effective treatments for RAD and children with violent behaviors.

Punishing the Ferriters may be justice, but it will not solve this problem. My hope is that trial watchers will educate themselves on RAD and become advocates for supporting families to prevent these tragedies.

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