No Ties That Bind It Has Been Found That for Foster and Adopted Children . . . . . . Attachment Is a Feeling They Have Never Known

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THE only reason Colorado homemaker Barbara Nolin says she didn't give her adopted children back was that no one would take them. After two years, she had lost all sympathy for the sisters, former street children who had been named Angel and Crystal for their birth mother's favorite drugs.

One made repeated false allegations of child abuse. The other had 10-hour tantrums and set a fire that destroyed her house. In years of traditional therapy, they seemed only to become more troubled.

Then last year, Nolin found a new therapist who diagnosed the girls' condition as "attachment disorder," an inability to connect, trust or empathize with other people caused in the first years of life. Through intense treatments, the therapist and sometimes Nolin would cradle each girl like an infant and talk about the past. The younger girl, now 6, has settled down; the older girl, 9, is still being treated. In the process, Nolin regained her compassion. She recalled one session with the older girl, who never expressed anger or fear. "She was telling this horrible story about how she was molested and there were no tears in her eyes, no emotion at all. . . . We sat there and we cried for Crystal," said Nolin, who lives in the Denver suburbs. "You cry for the people who can't cry." Such sensational cases of attachment disorder, usually involving adopted or foster children, may be familiar to viewers of daytime talk shows. Some experts believe milder forms - usually the inability to maintain relationships - also are spreading throughout a generation of young people raised by distracted or uncommitted parents with little cultural or social support. The diagnosis, which can cover behavior from erratic eye contact to substance abuse and violence, is becoming so popular some worry it will become "the ADHD of the '90s," appealing to desperate caretakers and attracting faddish therapies. Indeed, the disorder has some similarities to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a developmental disability that affects children's behavior, attention and learning, and has become one of the most common diagnoses in childhood. The field is in ferment over controversial treatments. Still, some call attachment theory the most significant idea in child psychology in the last 30 years and say research offers great potential for helping solve an apparently overwhelming problem. "We are turning out kids that, as a society, we don't know how to handle," said Michael Pines, a child psychologist and president of the Dallas-based Association for the Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children, or ATTACH. Over the last six years, the umbrella organization of therapists and child placement workers has grown from 30 to 350 members, he said. Diagnoses have increased dramatically, Pines said, partly because awareness is growing and partly because "there are more families that are disintegrating, more kids being born to drug-affected moms and more children having children." Also contributing is the rising number of children staying in foster care for longer periods of time, shuttling from home to home, awaiting adoption. Others blame the familiar scenario of exhausted, working mothers and fathers forced to place millions of children in mediocre day care or leaving them to raise themselves on TV. Pines said only 5 percent of children with attachment disorder are extremely violent. "We usually see kids who have difficulty making or keeping long-term friends, forming trusting relationships with parents and other authority figures, and accepting external controls. …

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