6 Steps to protect yourself from false allegations

Published by Institute for Attachment & Child Development

A sweet little kindergartener, with a Blues Clues backpack and big brown eyes, Devon went to school every morning with a hungry belly. At least that’s what he told the bus driver, his teacher, and the cafeteria ladies. When I got the call from his school, I was positively indignant. Not only did Devon eat breakfast every day, but he usually had seconds.

Within a few years, Devon’s lies had become dangerously calculated deceptions. “I’m gonna hurt myself and tell them you did it. They’ll arrest you,” he’d say cooly, before punching himself in the jaw. Other times he’d twist the tee-shirt he was wearing round-and-round, cinching it against his neck until it left a puffy, red ligature mark. He’d accuse me of strangling him.

Unfortunately, many children with reactive attachment disorder are capable of false allegations. “Due to early trauma, children with reactive attachment disorder feel safe when they can control their environments and push away people who try to get close to them,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “False allegations are one way for them to achieve both.”

Even if we understand the diagnoses and social histories that prompt our children’s false allegations, however, being lied about can be infuriating and hurtful.

A child’s allegations, however outrageous or unlikely, will be investigated. This unwarranted disruption and family upheaval is collateral damage, necessary to make sure children who really are abused get the justice and safety they deserve. “By law, police officers or child protective service workers investigate all allegations of child abuse, as they should. Child abuse allegations need to be taken seriously,” says Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “On the other hand, it’s also harmful for children to falsely accuse adults of abuse charges.” The consequences of false allegations can be devastating if our children, master manipulators, manage to convince a guidance counselor, therapist, or police officer they’re telling the truth. Parents can unjustly face jail time and lose their children without reason.

Here are 6 steps you can take to protect yourself and your family if your child makes false allegations against you:

1. Keep a daily log. I use small notebooks that fit easily in my purse and document conversations with social workers and teachers, write notes after therapy appointments, and record details of any behavioral incidents. I also write down what my son eats for breakfast, what activities we do, and what time he goes to bed. The key is to be consistent and document even the mundane. Your log will be much less credible if you only log when an incident occurs.

2. Gather documentation. To establish a pattern of behavior, keep school disciplinary records, ask people to follow up on calls with an email, and, if your child is admitted to a treatment program, request their records when they are discharged. These documents may have mistakes or minimize your child’s behaviors so comb through them and request any corrections. Discuss false allegations with your child’s therapist. Your child may admit the truth to them and this can be documented.

3. Don’t lose your cool, or your credibility. When a therapist, teacher, or others bring an allegation to your attention, listen. Breathe. Keep the frustrated tone out of your voice,  don’t jump to defend yourself and never exaggerate. Sometimes you’re going to find yourself in a she said–he said and your credibility will be everything. A non-defensive response might sound like: “Gosh, I fed Devon eggs and toast this morning, but thanks for letting me know that he told you he hadn’t eaten. If he ever does miss breakfast, I’ll be sure to email you so we’ll be on the same page.”

4. Use video/audio recordings (sparingly). This is a tricky one that can backfire. First, remember that your words and actions on any recording will be judged, probably more harshly than your child’s. Second, you may be accused of provoking your child by recording them, especially if they scream at you to stop. In a few instances, I’ve been successful flipping my cell phone recorder on without my son seeing it. Give that a try.

5. Don’t go it alone. If things are spinning out of control, call a family member or friend to come over to act as a witness. Sometimes you may have to resort to desperate measures. For example, my son currently lives in a group home and I’ve refused to have visitations with him unless we are in a room with cameras and a staff member. We’ve had to cancel and reschedule visits because of this, but I cannot risk being alone with him.

6. Have a backup plan. Have a contingency plan so your other children do not end up in foster care if social workers remove them during an investigation of a false allegation. My sister and her husband have agreed to take my children if this should ever happen to me. It’s a worse case scenario, but you need to be prepared with a plan.

Though my son has hurled devastating false allegations against me, I’ve been able to avoid the worst potential outcomes by being proactive and meticulous about documentation. It’s extremely sad that I’ve had to do so. Yet, it’s a devastating reality that many parents of children with reactive attachment disorder must face to save their families.

Here’s a great resource with advice and information: Responding to Investigations Manual

Believing “children are resilient” may be a fantasy | Psychology Today

How did resilience become a standard? How did we come to view children almost as nuisances who just need minimal support? How did children’s needs become dismissable?

via Believing “children are resilient” may be a fantasy | Psychology Today

I’ve tried the system. It doesn’t work.

Here’s my op-ed on the Parkland shooting printed by the Sun-Sentinel (Feb 2018)

When my son, Devon, was nine he pushed his four-year-old brother down the stairs. It was one big shove that launched Brandon through the air and left him sprawled on the tile floor below. At 10, he punched his teacher and several classmates. At 11, he attacked a woman and dislocated her thumb.

Told a man had fresh dental work, Devon (for the purposes of this oped, I’ll call him Devon) promptly slugged him in the jaw. He was 12. At 13, he punched a young girl in the back of the head, unprovoked, and used his pencil to stab classmates. He still does. At 14, he grabbed a woman’s breasts and genitals threatening to rape her; using a jagged piece of plastic he stabbed a man in the cornea. At 15, he bit a man, breaking the skin and drawing blood; he did $3000 worth of property damage in mere minutes.

Devon, now 16, has verbalized detailed plans to torch the group home he lives in. He routinely threatens to kill himself, me, his siblings, his teachers, and other students.

Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland high school shooter, is a troubled kid, too. While I don’t presume to know Nikolas’ history or diagnoses, Devon and Nikolas are both teenagers, adopted males with behavioral and mental health issues. I adopted Devon from foster care in Broward County when he was four. Like Nikolas, his disturbing record of deviant behavior telegraphs worse to come.

The media is calling the Parkland massacre “preventable” and pointing to missed warning signs. But, I’ve heeded the warning signs. Devon’s received comprehensive mental health services for years. Running the gamut — outpatient therapy, day treatment, therapeutic foster care, group homes, psychiatric residential facilities, mental health hospitalizations — he’s received thousands of hours of therapy. He’s been dealt diagnoses like a hand of Go Fish and is on a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs.

All these mental health services, like water and sunshine, have unwittingly nurtured Devon’s proclivity for violence. He’s only gotten bigger, stronger, smarter, and more dangerous. I fear he could be the next teen paraded across the headlines in handcuffs.

When Republicans call for greater access to mental health services as a remedy to school shootings, they fail to recognize the mental health system has no meaningful solutions for violent kids like Devon and Nikolas.

Take a walk. Talk to staff. Hug your pillow. These are the coping skills therapists give angry teens to reel in their extreme emotions. The absurdity comes into focus when a teen like Nikolas opens fire on hundreds of innocent victims, taking 17 lives. Would tragedy have been averted if Nikolas knew to pull off his gas mask and take some deep breaths? To put down his AR-15 and hug his pillow?

Psychiatric treatment facilities are virtual incubators for violent kids. They focus on underlying mental health issues promising the negative behaviors will diminish. In these programs, Devon has no consequences for truancy, vandalism, criminal threats, and assault. Not even a time-out. Protected from criminal charges, he’s become desensitized to his own violence and indifferent to social boundaries. It’s normalized his violent responses to even the smallest triggers: waiting his turn, a snarky look from a peer, being served breakfast he doesn’t like.

It’s unlikely Nikolas’ trajectory would have changed even if he’d received the years of intensive mental health treatment Devon has. Mental health facilities are little more than holding pens for kids who are too dangerous to live at home.

I’ve tried the system. It doesn’t work.

Funding to offer these same ineffectual services to more would-be-shooters won’t stop tragedies like the Parkland shooting, especially since Trump nixed the Obama-era regulations making it easier, not harder, for mentally ill people to buy guns. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know a bad idea when I see one: giving these kids access to guns. If we’re not going to do something as basic as keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of mentally disturbed teens, what mental health interventions can possibly keep us safe?

Keri Williams, a former resident of Broward County, lives with her family in Charlotte, N.C., and is working on a memoir about raising her adopted son.

Why I use the word “rage” and not “tantrum” for my child with developmental trauma

What kind of parent calls the police when her kid has a tantrum? Or, even worse, tries to check him into a mental health hospital? Me.

Every time the cops arrived or we got to the hospital, my young son Devon transformed into an angel. I’d explain that he’d been throwing a terrible tantrum. Yet, his serene affect and puppy dog eyes would belie my words. It was hard enough to ask for help but to imagine the eye-rolls behind my back was humiliating. I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.

[bctt tweet=”I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

Time and again, I was turned away without the help I so desperately needed because we all know what a “tantrum” looks like—a kid kicking his or her legs, crying and screaming, for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. By calling Devon’s episodes “tantrums” I was unwittingly minimizing what was actually going on and no one was taking me seriously.

These were no tantrums. Devon was:
    • Screaming, spitting in my face, and making himself throw up
    • Ripping his bedroom door off the hinges, and putting holes in walls
    • Punching, kicking, and attacking his brothers and sister
  • Pulling out his eyelashes, and banging his head on the floor

These episodes of extreme behavior were happening several times a week and would often last for hours. I was in over my head and needed help, but because I was using the word, “tantrum,” people thought I was overreacting.

These weren’t “tantrums,” they were “rages.”

When I began to use the correct terminology to describe Devon’s behavior, health care and mental health professionals, even police officers, were more receptive. “Rage” was a magic word that made people pause, listen to my story, and try to help. Instead of brushing me off, they called in psychiatrists and social workers. They made referrals for local services. They stopped treating me like I was just a high-strung mother.

If your child’s behaviors are extreme, way beyond being a tantrum, your child may be having rages too. “Kids with developmental trauma can tantrum but they can also rage,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “A child has a tantrum to attempt to get his way but it is contained. A rage is out of control and stems from the child’s fear and anger. It’s irrational and almost dissociative.” It can be difficult to tell the difference between a rage and a tantrum, especially when your child’s episodes have increased in severity and length gradually over time.

Here are some distinguishing hallmarks of a rage:
    • Rages are explosive

    • Rages feel scary and out of control

    • Rages last longer than a few minutes

    • Rages become physically violent and aggressive

    • Rages may include acts of self-harm

    • Rages often end in destruction of property or harm to others

These behaviors are not normal for a child of any age. If children acts out in these extreme ways, they need real help. Parents need help, too.

So, how does a parent get help? How do they get someone to understand the seriousness of the situation? They need to adequately describe and use the word “rage” when talking to therapists, pediatricians, and other professionals. The word “tantrum” paints a picture that is nothing like the extreme episodes the child experiences. When they start with, “My child has rages…” and then describe specifically what the episodes look like, how long they last, and how frequently they occur, people seem to listen more closely.

“Rage” is a word that works.

Has this worked for you? Are there other words that “work” you can share?

Published by:

Williams, Keri. “Home.” Institute For Attachment and Child Development, IACD, 14 Mar. 2018, instituteforattachment.ong/rage-not-tantrum/.


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Don’t blame workers for psych center woes

Here in Charlotte, NC we’ve recently had a lot of news about Strategic Behavioral Center, a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF). You can read the full story from the Charlotte Observer here describing a disturbing riot on January 1st. Here’s an excerpt:

Patients at Strategic Behavioral Center — some wielding wooden boards — attacked one worker, barricaded themselves in a room and escaped through a broken window. Others fought with each other or vandalized the building.

Amid the mayhem, some hospital staff watched in fear and did not try to control the situation. They initially delayed calling for help because a former executive had erroneously told them to not call the police for trouble with patients.

Having dealt with workers at PRTFs and other mental health facilities, this article bothered me–or rather people’s response to it bothered me. I saw calls for the workers to be fired, and disgust by their behavior. What this article didn’t convey is the untenable position workers like this are in.

Here’s my op-ed response published by the Charlotte Observer:

Stripping naked is just one way my teenage son, Devon, thwarts workers at psych centers. Afraid of sexual misconduct allegations, they’re unlikely to physically restrain him despite the mayhem he causes. This trick has worked for Devon (an alias to protect his privacy) at multiple psych centers in Charlotte and throughout the state including at the Strategic facility in Garner.

The recent investigation into the Strategic facility in South Charlotte paints a picture of workers, afraid for their lives, standing by watching a riot unfold without trying to control the situation. While the workers’ actions are shocking to many, as the parent of a child who has been a resident of five different psysh centers, I understand why and really don’t blame the workers. Continue reading here.

What do you think?

Assumptions: The deck is already stacked against you

Navigating the mental health system on behalf of our children, especially those with extreme behaviors, is like traversing hostile territory. The assumptions mental health professionals make about us and our families are quicksand sucking us into a quagmire of misunderstanding and bitterness.

Here are just a few assumptions that have been made about me:

  • You need basic parenting instruction and training; forget your idea of common sense, and trust the ‘professionals’
  • You’re being selfish and need to snap out of it; you’re not putting your child’s wellbeing above your own
  • You treat your birth kids better than your adopted child; that’s why he’s acting out
  • You don’t feel affectionate towards your adopted child because something is wrong with you emotionally and mentally

Of course, the worst, and most pervasive, assumption I’ve encountered is, “You’re mostly, if not entirely, to blame for your child’s behavior.”

Ouch. This one is perhaps the most difficult to grapple with–don’t we often secretly believe, or at least wonder, if it’s true?

As parents we must accept responsibility where appropriate, but with some perspective. Blaming the parent–especially an adoptive parent–is way too easy of a fall back position for a therapist. Lack of progress with your child can be blamed, not on their methods and approach, but on you. It also removes any agency and responsibility from your child.

Trust me, mental health professionals are making assumptions about you from the moment you walk through their door. The deck is already stacked against you. So, forget being charitable, assume the worst, and keep your guard up.

[bctt tweet=”Blaming the parent–especially an adoptive parent–is way too easy of a fall back position for a therapist.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

Don’t overshare

Be very cautious about sharing sensitive information with your child’s therapist. It’s easy to think of them as objective. They’re not.  If it comes to taking sides, they are on your child’s side. Don’t do what I did and blurt out at your first appointment that you don’t feel maternal affection towards your child. If you do, that’s almost certainly the ONLY thing they’ll focus on going forward. They’ll immediately conclude this is the cause of your child’s extreme behaviors, not considering that it might be the extreme behaviors that has caused your lack of affection. I see a therapist myself now, and that’s where I blurt out everything and get the support I need.

Keep a journal

It is critical that you start keeping a journal. Start today. Every time you see a therapist or doctor–document the date, time, who you saw, and a summary of what was said. If your child’s teacher, foster parent, or caseworker calls you take out your journal and take notes. I once had a case worker insist my son hadn’t exhibited any behavioral problems in the last month to justify pulling his services. I was able to pull out my journal, flip it open and ask: “Well, what about last Wednesday when Juan called me to report that Devon was trying to stab a peer in the head with a pencil and had to be restrained?” I went on to list multiple incidents from the time period in question. His services were renewed.

Don’t believe it

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 6.49.58 PM

Your own feelings of inadequacy and guilt are likely to be your biggest weakness, especially when some of your most self-judgmental thoughts are affirmed by the assumptions underlying the advice mental health professionals give. You’ve been living under a great deal of stress and instability. You may be traumatized by what you’ve been through. 

Listen to the advice you are given and take what’s of value, but don’t automatically believe everything you are told. Just because they’re the “professionals” that doesn’t mean they speak gospel. You know your child and family best.

How have assumptions affected your ability to get help for your child?