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Attachment disorder treatments wrapped in controversy
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - After suffering sexual and physical abuse at the hands of his father, John Trentalange grew up to be an adult determined to help people.
He’s helped the homeless, runaways and abused children, and found his niche as an attachment therapist who tries to repair and strengthen the parent-child bond.
But critics of the "attachment therapy" Trentalange practices at the Family Attachment Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., charge that it often leads to abuse instead of helping kids.
The therapy - based on ideas of how children attach to their parents - was founded in Colorado in the 1970s. The state has about 50 practitioners, making it the unofficial capital of the movement.
Most outside the psychological community first heard about attachment therapy after 10-year-old Candace Newmaker was asphyxiated during a "rebirthing" ceremony at an Evergreen, Colo., attachment clinic in 2000.
The therapists - who were later convicted of child abuse resulting in death - wrapped the girl in a flannel blanket to mimic a womb and pushed on pillows surrounding her to simulate labor. They kept going until she stopped breathing.
The incident didn’t stop attachment therapy. Evergreen is still home to the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center Attachment Treatment & Training Institute, where parents pay $10,500 for intensive two-week sessions.
Trentalange opened his Family Attachment Center two years after that tragedy. He knew his nonprofit agency would suffer from the association, but he believes in the ideas of attachment therapy and hopes people won’t paint all practitioners with the same brush.
Trentalange shies away from some of the more controversial methods used by attachment therapists. He used to prescribe "rough holding," in which parents forcibly hold children until they stop resisting, but abandoned that for more natural affection between parents and children.
He still teaches parents to hold their kids in their laps and have them listen to the parent’s heartbeat, to simulate the sounds in the womb.
Attachment therapists believe that the foundation of parent-child attachment is laid between conception and age 3, so many of their methods - such as holding or rebirthing - attempt to regress a child to those early stages of development. The idea is to give them a redo in forming healthy attachments.
Most mainstream psychologists argue that you don’t get redos.
"Attachment therapy is the worst quackery in our nation today," said Linda Rosa, executive director of Advocates for Children in Therapy in Loveland, Colo.
Rosa believes "attachment disorder" is a bogus diagnosis that is broadly defined to scare parents and drum up business, and that attachment therapy is not only quackery but dangerous and often abusive.
Many other psychologists seem to agree. A 2006 report on the therapy from a team of 12 academics criticized its scientific justification, efficacy and safety. The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the American Psychological Association endorsed the report.
"The main focus of this is not to create a loving bond; it’s to exert total adult control over the child," said Rosa, who attended the Candace Newmaker trial as part of her work for the National Council Against Health Fraud. "For attachment problems, what you need is consistent, gentle, patient parenting."
Other high-profile cases - many involving adopted children, whom some therapists believe are prone to attachment problems - have highlighted therapy techniques that many find disturbing. One couple in Ohio, under the direction of an attachment therapist, lost custody of 11 adopted children they kept in cages with alarms that sounded if the kids tried to get out.
Another attachment therapist in Colorado was put on professional probation for licking the face of an 8-year-old client. In Utah, a mother killed her 4-year-old adopted daughter by forcing her to drink a gallon of water, claiming she was acting on advice from therapists.
Trentalange, for his part, said these methods "don’t make any sense to me," and he agrees with Rosa on a solution of gentle, patient parenting.
He is a licensed professional counselor who obtained his bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Oregon and a master’s degree in counseling and human services from the University of Colorado.
Trentalange worked with the homeless in Los Angeles, with therapeutic preschools in Oregon, and with Child Protective Services in Washington state, where he witnessed firsthand the trauma of children separated from their parents.
That’s what sparked his interest in attachment theory, and he began to see the symptoms of attachment disorder all over. After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which he believes stemmed from attachment disorder, he started making plans to open an attachment center and try to educate the public.
Trentalange sees attachment problems everywhere he looks - the shooter at New Life Church, the many kids whose parents are spending long stretches of time in Iraq - and discusses attachment therapy with a missionary zeal.
In fact, Trentalange said, our wired society of video games, TV and BlackBerrys is losing the ability to attach in a meaningful way. Parenting skills are eroding. Modern parents often must ship their kids off to day care all day when they should be connecting with them.
He thinks the problem of attachment in the U.S. will continue to grow in the 21st century and that critics of his brand of therapy will eventually be proven wrong.
Some already believe Trentalange’s methods work.
Rae Christiansen, director of Golden Mountain Montessori School, often hires Trentalange to teach workshops to her parents and staff, and has referred at least 10 children to him for counseling.
"We have seen really dramatic changes in the children he has worked with," Christiansen said. "They start to listen to their caretakers more, and to learn that there are rules and limits.
"Every child where the parent has really worked with him has turned around their behavior," she said. "I’ve just found John has been the most effective with dealing with kids with these problems."
She thinks the number of children with attachment problems - and the severity of those problems - has increased through the years. It manifests itself, she said, in kids yelling at teachers and other kids, or attacking kids to get toys they want, or scratching teachers, or refusing to go to timeout.
Now, her staff members hold down children in their chairs for a few minutes if they can’t get them to serve a timeout. They give more positive attention and try to cut down on negative attention.
"He tries to teach us to be calm with the children, not to get excited verbally," Christiansen said.
One of Trentalange’s biggest fans is Shannon Dunnan, who credits the Springs Rescue Mission and the Family Attachment Center with turning his life around.
"What John has done with me has been a miracle," Dunnan said. "You can see what attachment is, and how it plays out in the life of someone who is unattached, like me."
A longtime drug abuser who had lost custody of his children, lost his house and was headed to prison, Dunnan got a second chance at the Springs Rescue Mission in 2004 and got clean. Through volunteering at a church, he met Trentalange, who became his mentor.
Trentalange counseled him as a friend, and gave him a part-time job at the Family Attachment Center. He regained custody of his two children, remarried and adopted a third child. He said he is a strong believer in attachment therapy. He credits the methods with helping him to heal his childhood hurts and then turn his kids’ behavior around.
"I’ve been blessed with some wonderful kids. I’ve taken gifts from the Family Attachment Center and been able to give them to my kids," Dunnan said. "You can’t give something to your kids that you don’t have. Now I can give this to my children."
Dunnan is now attending Nazarene Bible College to become a Christian counselor.
"There’s been a lot of change from being a down-and-out drug addict. The things that I’ve gained are phenomenal," Dunnan said. "(Trentalange) is a great evangelizer for Christianity and attachment."
But Trentalange also has his detractors. He is on professional probation for three years, the result of a disciplinary action from the Colorado Licensed Professional Counselors Examiners Board.
The action isn’t an indictment of attachment therapy per se; rather, it was imposed because he "maintained an inappropriate dual relationship with a client" and "failed to refer a client to an appropriate practitioner when the problem of the client is beyond such person’s training, experience, or competence," according to state documents.
Trentalange said he was working several years ago with a female client who expressed a desire to date him after he had performed holding therapy with her. He said he tried to set boundaries and absolutely did not pursue a relationship, but he also failed to refer the woman to a new therapist after her admission to him, as he should have.
He is now barred from performing holding therapy, and he needs a clinical supervisor to check his work for the duration of his probation, but he’s having trouble finding one because of the stigma of attachment therapy.
"Therapists don’t want to associate themselves with that name anymore," Trentalange said. "There’s not that many people out there who are calling themselves attachment therapists."