Journey to the Son: One mother’s heart wrenching journey

Guest post by Carla A. Carlisle

On March 22, 2010, my life was forever changed when I became a first-time foster parent to a beautiful 10 day old, two-month premature baby boy. I knew that becoming a foster parent would mean major lifestyle changes, I didn’t know that my connection to this child would change me at the essence of my being. I was told that 99% of children taken at birth don’t go back to their birth parents, but this one fell in the 1%. At six-months-old, this dear sweet baby boy was returned to his birth mother. In the six months I interacted with his birth parents, I learned about what I can now call “generational trauma”.

Learn more here.

Years of work experience, degrees on the wall, and a tremendous support system meant nothing in the face of the next eight years. I almost immediately gave up my foster license since I couldn’t stay connected to the birth family that this precious son of my heart and be licensed by the county.  I tossed that license out like trash on Sunday because it paled in comparison to the life I knew was in the balance.

For the next six years, the birth parents and I had a tumultuous relationship. I felt, and continue to feel, such compassion for them both – as they grew up in survival mode without the foundation of love, life skills, and the village many of us take for granted.  I learned of horrific experiences the birth mother experienced. and at some point, I wondered how she could be expected to care for this child – or the other 10 she lost to the system long ago. 

At age 5, the child of my heart spoke of dying by suicide. I shouldn’t have been surprised because he heard it from his birth mom daily, but it broke my heart in a million tiny pieces. After an overnight observation, it was brushed off as bullying at school. This told me that the observation psychiatrist did not read a word of his file, did not look at birth parents’ mental health records, or even read what I shared despite my life being in danger at the hands of the parents.  At age 6, this big brown eyed angel attempted to die by suicide twice. The system told me he didn’t mean it.  They said his mom’s voice recorded death threat wasn’t made against him, it was made against me, so it didn’t matter. The son of my heart was now in patient at a behavioral health facility.  

Although I had talked to attorneys and child advocacy groups over the years, I was told there was no path to custody because there was no blood shared between us (and that meant there was no way to get him help).  But wait, I remembered my estate planning attorney shared the names of three family law attorneys and the next three days changed everything: 

Day 1 : I called all three family law attorneys and the last one was the charm. Talking to the paralegal let me know I was with the right person.  The same day, birth father terminated the service provider who was trying to provide therapeutic services. 

Day 2: I met with the attorney, he collected my evidence and made me aware of “in locos parentis” – in place of the birth parents – or simply I had been acting like his birth mother most of his life. The same day I received a call that the birth father withdrew him from school.

Day 3: We went to court and got domestic violence restraining orders on behalf of my son and me as well as emergency custody.  I took the protection orders to behavioral health immediately. Shortly thereafter, the birth father went to behavioral health to check this sweet, yet confused child out of behavioral health.  Due to the restraining order, he was not allowed on the floor.

My sweet, innocent child had experienced more trauma than anyone had imagined.  He had seen his birth mom try to kill his birth dad multiple times.  I was ashamed for a while, but he also saw his mom strike me in the face. This became a major traumatic event for him (and me). He saw drugs, domestic violence, porn and so much more.  He lived in two worlds: with me and then in a chaotic world with no boundaries – there was a mother, a father,  and a boyfriend in the house.  The husband was in prison.  My son was threatened, he was put in the position of an adult with adults who were emotionally frozen in their childhood, lacked maturity, understanding, and empathy.  But I can’t blame them; this was all they knew.  

Watch Carla read a chapter from her story below and check out her book here.

Since October 2016, we’ve been on the path to healing.  What worked best? Trauma Focused – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT).  He learned at a 6/7-year-old level, he trusted, and he able to share his trauma stories with me.  We had sessions together, we processed together, and we grew together. On the other hand, I had service providers who charged for services they didn’t do (yes I reported it), and underpaid/overworked Qualified Professionals who were there for a check.  Yet, I did meet people along the way who cared, who went above and beyond like that very special teacher we all run across at least once in our lifetime.  Intensive In-Home therapy was helpful once we got to the third service provider.  We had a plan that worked for my son.  

After two years in court, tons of money, and oh so much stress and fear, the adoption is final and my son is doing well.  Despite the diagnoses of PTSD, ADHD, DMDD, major depression and anxiety, I have a resilient child who is playing tackle football, thriving from music therapy, increasing his gross motor skills through day to day activities and occupational therapy.

I’ve been diagnosed with situational depression and anxiety.  I have to force myself to focus on self-care, but I do.  I have to focus on hope; although I have moments in which I’m discouraged. I pray.  I believe in prayer with works.  I have to work to make things better. I do vent, but I keep working.  Helping one child, one parent, one situation matters. 

We’ve added two older sons to our family, which has given him the big brothers he really wanted.  I can’t say I’m going to give him the dad, he may just be stuck with a family of four and two dogs for now. 

I share my journey to motherhood; the love, isolation, failure, disappointment, drama and trauma as well as the triumphs, small steps forward and love of my son in my memoir, Journey to the Son. If nothing else, I hope our story says you are not alone. Our struggles may be different, but it is exhausting, nonetheless. Take good care of yourself. 


Carla A. Carlisle is the author of Journey to the Son, an emotionally riveting memoir about a woman’s eight-year battle with the system for the child of her heart, who suffers from prolonged trauma caused by his birth mother, a victim herself of perpetual physical, emotional, and mental abuse. Carla is a child and mental health advocate who is leading a movement to educate community and faith-based leaders, public officials, and child and family services providers about trauma and its impact on abused children to provide safe and healthy environments to keep them alive, safe, stable, and resilient. For more information, visit https://carlaacarlisle.com or find Carla on social media at @CarlaACarlisle.

Surviving and thriving with RAD: In his own words

Jessie Hogsett was diagnosed with RAD at the age of 12 and grew up acting out of the hurt and trauma of his early childhood. Not only has he survived and thrived a childhood of horrific abuse and neglect, but he’s gone on to work in a treatment facility for troubled kids. Today he has a beautiful wife, five children, and a successful career.

Jessie understands the struggles of a child diagnosed with RAD in a way a parent alone never can.

His book, Detached: Surviving Reactive Attachment Disorder is an invaluable window into the psyche of a child struggling to overcome developmental trauma. His advice comes from personal experience and is invaluable to parents and clinicians alike.

Here’s a few gems of wisdom from Jessie:

  • You can’t walk forward if you keep looking backward. Keep helping your RAD child concentrate on the now and the near future. Keep reminding him he can do absolutely nothing about the past. Keep telling him he can do everything about the present and future though.
  • Tell him that taking responsibility for his actions makes him really powerful. After all, if he can create problems, then he can also create solutions. His choices determine success or failure. Blaming someone else for his problems saps his power because he has little or no control over other people. Tell him he can have a terrific future but it’s all up to him.
  • Drive him around to see the nicest house in the neighborhood. Tell him when he’s older, if he works hard, he could be living in that house, in that neighborhood, and enjoying a good life. tell him you can picture him growing up and living there surrounded by his own happy family.
  • Tell your child that you love him all the time. Even though love alone will never be enough to “cure” a RAD child, instilling in his mind every day that he is loved, will, over time, let him realize that someone does care for him. Keep telling him this even when you don’t get any response back and even if it seems he isn’t listening. He probably is.
  • Seek out comedies on TV, DVDs, and at the movies. Laughter alleviates stress and is clearly good for both body and soul.
  • When your child raises his voice to you, lower your voice. Speak to him in a calm reassuring “your behavior doesn’t phase me” tone of voice. He wants to hear what you are saying because he wants that attention. In order for him to hear you, he will have to lower his voice.
  • To build trust, tell the child the time frame in which you’ll be completing whatever you promised him you’ll do. Give yourself more than ample time so you can always do it within that time period.
  • Teach him step-by-step how to succeed at tasks. Write down the steps for him using numbers 1, 2, 3, etc.

These unconventional, practical suggestions are only a fraction of the 144 ideas included in Detached: Surviving Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Jessie is a huge asset to the parenting community and I’m looking forward to interviewing him soon. If there’s a specific question you’d like me to ask Jessie, please drop it in the comments.

Be sure to follow Jessie on social media for news and updates on his new upcoming book!

Find Jessie on Instagram or Facebook

Book Review: The Boy Who Built a Wall Around Himself

If your child has attachment issues, The Boy who Build a Wall Around Himself is the perfect book to cuddle up with. This lovely story by Ali Redford, an adoptive parent, gently describes the emotional wall some children build to protect themselves and keep safe after experiencing early childhood trauma. On one side of this “wall” is the caregiver, and on the other side the child.

The beautiful illustrations in this book will help even young children begin to reflect on how this “wall” is negatively affecting their lives, by keeping them from getting support and having fun with people who care for them.

This book will not only be thought provoking for children, but also paradigm shifting for caregivers. It’s a gentle reminder that our children’s behaviors are deeply rooted in trauma. Their unwillingness to attach to us is out of fear and the need to control everything around them because they view the world as an unsafe and uncaring place.

When I read this book I thought of my daughter Kayla. We adopted her out of foster care at the age of three and she’d been neglected. The she came to us, she spent hours screaming and could never get enough to eat. No doubt her needs had not been met up to that point and she was desperately trying to survive. She’s healed over the years, but the scars of early childhood trauma are forever etched on her core.

Kayla is now 15, but still my sweet baby girl. So I recently read her The Boy who Build a Wall Around Himself substituting “girl” for the word “boy.” It was a truly touching moment for us even though she’s a teenager and it’s a picture book. Always keep in mind that for traumatized kids, connecting at an earlier emotional level can be a powerful way to rebuild those connections they may have missed.

If you pick up this book and read it with your child please be sure to come back and share about the experience in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing about your beautiful moments.

RAD and Developmental Trauma in Fiction

These popular novels are twisty, psychological thrillers with surprise endings. They each feature a child with developmental trauma and/or RAD. Some details are true-to-life while others are just fiction…

Andy, a district attorney, believes his son Jacob, diagnosed with RAD, is innocent of the murder he’s been accused of. Andy puts all his efforts into Jacob’s defense despite mounting evidence against him. But is Andy really innocent?

Psychologist, Imogen, refuses to believe her new patient 11-year-old foster child Ellie, is dangerous. She’s determined to protect Ellie from the distrustful and cruel adults and children around her. But is she the one who needs protecting?

Hanna is a difficult, non-verbal child whose mother is chronically ill. She’s adored by her dad, but mistrusted by her mother, Suzette. After Hanna breaks her silence with whispers threats, bad things begin to happen. Is Hanna really dangerous?


What’s just fiction…and what’s not.

*** WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW ***


When 14-year-old Jacob is accused of murdering a classmate it seems impossible – especially to his father, Andy, who is the local district attorney. Jacob is evaluated by a psychiatrist who diagnoses him with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). The psychiatrist tells the family it is “unusual” for a kid to develop RAD without experiencing any abuse, neglect, or trauma. As the investigation gets underway, Jacob’s mother Laurie begins to question his innocence.
Jacob is ultimately exonerated of the murder. A few months later, however, his girlfriend mysteriously disappears. Andy again defends Jacob vigorously and will not consider the possibly he’s capable of these crimes. However, the truth dawns on Laurie as incriminating evidence mounts. Laurie is deeply conflicted by fear, guilt, shame, love, and desperation. To atone for herself, and to save Jacob from himself, Laurie purposely crashes her minivan into a concrete barrier, killing Jacob instantly.

What’s just fiction – It’s impossible to have with RAD without an underlying trauma per the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. The author could have incorporated one of the causes of RAD in a “typical” biological families into his plot. Also, it’s unlikely for a child with RAD to be homicidal, as Jacob is, unless he has other serious co-morbid mental illnesses.

And what’s not – The story effectively portrays the common RAD symptoms of extreme manipulation and how father’s often do not “get it.” Also, the conflicted feelings of the mother are realistic and true-to-life. While her ultimate actions are unthinkable – real-life mothers of children with RAD may understand her desperation.

Read Defending Jacob


Ellie, an 11-year-old foster child, the only survivor of a house fire that took her entire family. She’s a child with a trauma background, but is now in a nice foster home. Unfortunately, she’s facing bullying from peers and dislike from teachers. Idealistic child therapist Imogen immediately lays blame on those around Ellie and is certain they are projecting their distain onto her. Wanting to shield Ellie from the unfair treatment of others, Imogen oversteps boundaries in the therapeutic relationship.

All too coincidental “accidents” happen around Ellie. For example, her foster brother teases her at dinner then wakes up and his mouth is super glued shut. Imogen is the only one who believes Ellie is the victim, not the perpetrator. In an unexpected twist, it turns out Ellie’s foster sister, resentful of foster children coming in and out of the home, is to blame for many of the problems. However, in the final scene we find Ellie flicking a lighter and contemplating her future. We realize she murdered her family and was complicit in what happened in the foster home.

What’s just fiction – While these situations can be difficult for siblings, the foster sister’s actions seem highly unusual and unlikely. Also, the book portrays many of Ellie’s responses as involuntary which is not always the case for children with developmental trauma. They can be angry and act out quite willfully.

And what’s not – While Ellie’s behaviors may seem over-the-top, unfortunately, they are all to familiar to parents of kids with RAD. The story also effectively captures how a therapist can be manipulated and mislead in these situations complex situations.

Read The Foster Child


Hanna is a difficult, non-verbal, 7-year-old. Her mother, Suzette, has a debilitating medical condition that has left her distant. While Hanna is not formally diagnosed with RAD, the hallmarks are there and likely a result of having an unavailable primary caregiver. Hanna is highly intelligent, but has angry outbursts and is kicked out of kindergarten. Suzette must homeschool Hanna who grows increasingly defiant, rebellious and resentful towards her. Meanwhile, Hanna is charming and loving with her father, Alex. He sees only an obedient, clever child. Hanna’s first words are whispered threats towards Suzette. And as Hanna begins to target her mother with physical violence, Suzette grows increasingly fearful.

It’s only after the situation has grown frighteningly dangerous that Alex happens to witness Hanna’s violent behavior for himself and understands there is a problem. Husband and wife work together to send Hanna to a residential treatment facility and they quickly accept the reality that she will live there indefinitely. In a sinister final twist, Hanna realizes what she must do. She must follow the rules at the facility so she can go home, get rid of her mom, and have her father all to herself.

What’s just fiction – The ease at which the family finds residential treatment for Hanna, and how quickly they accept her need for long-term care does not mirror the reality of most real-life families in this situation.

And what’s not – Most children with RAD target their mother, as Hanna does. They also hide their behavior well from their father and this can cause serious marital discord. While Hanna’s behaviors seem too extreme to be believable, parents of kids with RAD know they are in fact not that far fetched.

Read Baby Teeth