My husband and I jumped in heart first when we adopted out of foster care. Devon was three with big brown eyes and a shy smile. His two-year-old half-sister, Kayla, was spunky with freckles and gobs of curls. We already had two young sons and I eagerly imagined a lifetime of annual family photos, beach vacations, holidays, and birthday parties.
Early on we learned that Devon and Kayla had been neglected and abused, and they’d been in multiple foster homes. Because of this, they both were anxious and inconsolable at bedtime. Devon squirreled food away under his bed and sometimes gorged until he threw up. He was aggressive, played with his feces, and urinated in odd places around the house.
These behaviors concerned us, but in our pre-adoption training we were told they were completely “typical” for foster kids and there was nothing the love of a “forever family” couldn’t heal.
Over the next few years we went on the beach vacations I’d dreamed of and the kids had birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese. They played soccer and learned to swim and ride bikes. Kayla settled in, but Devon continued to struggle. I tried many different parenting strategies, but he wasn’t motivated by rewards or deterred by consequences. Two years after the adoption, our family grew once again with the birth of our youngest son Brandon.
Devon started kindergarten and enjoyed the first few weeks with his Blue’s Clues backpack and matching lunch box, but then the calls home began. One day he pulled the fire alarm. Another time he ran out of the school and an assistant principal had to chase him away from the busy road. He often refused to do his homework, especially if I told him to. Once he became so angry he pulled his bedroom door off the hinges. He was six.
It was clear something was seriously wrong, but I had no idea what it was or what to do about it.
By the age of eight, Devon’s tantrums lasted two or three hours at a time. He’d smile at me and say, “I feel like having a fit.” And then he would. He knocked holes in walls, broke toys, and chased his siblings with a baseball bat. I tried to be patient, but it seemed impossible. Sometimes he’d kick my head or try to climb out the van window while I was driving.
Adding to my frustration, Devon was adept at hiding his behavior from my husband. When he heard the garage door open, and realized Dad was home from work, he’d snap off his tantrums like a light switch. As a result, my husband thought I was overly sensitive or overreacting. When I reached out for help – to teachers, family, friends, therapists – they too assumed this was a parenting problem.
Sometimes I wondered if they were right. There were times I lost my temper, said things I shouldn’t have, and overreacted. I grappled with guilt, shame, disappointment, and anger.
Tired of being blamed, I plastered on a smile in public and hid behind closed doors. I grew more isolated and lonely. I developed a sleep disorder, was hyper-vigilant, and constantly on edge. In retrospect, I realize Devon’s tantrums had, by this time, morphed into rages. This created an environment of toxic stress for his siblings, and though I didn’t yet know it, I’d developed PTSD. I was so busy just surviving, I had little insight into how dire the situation had become.
Then, one afternoon, Devon angrily karate chopped little Brandon in the throat. Moments later he pushed him down the stairs. One giant shove from behind. Brandon wasn’t seriously hurt but it was the wake-up call I needed.
I began to take Devon to the mental health emergency room whenever he became unsafe. I had no idea what else to do. The first time I signed him into the psych ward, my heart pinched. This wasn’t the adoption happily ever after I’d imagined for us. Still, I was optimistic we were on our way to getting help.
The ER psychiatrist started Devon on medications. They didn’t seem to help. After several visits and one admission, the hospital referred us for intensive outpatient services.
Devon began to receive 15 hours of treatment and therapy a week. The treatment team helped me create a safety plan for Devon’s brothers and sister. They would run upstairs and lock themselves in my bedroom whenever he became physically aggressive. For everyone’s safety, they coached me to restrain him in what I called a “bear hug.” I was terrified, exhausted, and heartbroken all at once.
A few days into fifth grade, Devon punched his teacher in the stomach. He plucked out his eyelashes and wrapped a belt around his neck. That’s when his therapist sat me down to explain that Devon needed to be in a residential treatment program.
I balked. We just needed more therapy or different medications, didn’t we? There must be something else we could try…
She shook her head and insisted. His behavior was dangerous and the months of outpatient services he’d been receiving weren’t helping.
Devon was admitted to his first residential psychiatric facility when he was only 10 years old and we expected him to return home, much better, after a few months of intensive treatment. But while there he broke a staff person’s thumb. He caused thousands of dollars of property damage. He vomited and urinated on staff, and stabbed other residents – kids like himself – with pencils. He tried to strangle himself with his shirt.
As this continued for months, and then years, I was confused. Devon was receiving countless hours of therapy. Why wasn’t he getting better? Why weren’t his medications helping? It didn’t make sense.
I began to do my own research and learned about developmental trauma – the effect chronic abuse and neglect can have on young children. These kids perceive the world as unsafe and unpredictable and can go into fight-or-flight mode in even minimally threatening situations. Trauma can also disrupt their brain development. They may feel the loss of their birth mother so acutely they begin to unconsciously view any new mother figure as the enemy.
Suddenly Devon’s behaviors made more sense – his impulsivity, emotional and behavioral dysregulation, desperate need for control, and targeting of me. It was such a relief. Now that I knew what was wrong, I was hopeful Devon could finally get help.
Though the therapists agreed Devon had developmental trauma, their treatment approach didn’t change. They simply slapped on more diagnoses and tweaked his cocktail of drugs. They continued with the same ineffective therapies.
I was at a loss for a way forward. I thought back to the three-year-old little boy who we believed only needed was the love of a forever family. By then I’d realized love couldn’t heal developmental trauma any more than it could cure leukemia or set a broken bone. And the mental health system clearly had no solutions. Devon’s condition was getting worse in the treatment facilities. But what else could we do? With the safety of his younger siblings to think of, Devon was too dangerous to live at home.
Today Devon is 17 and has been in a parade of group homes, psych wards, and treatment centers. We visit him regularly, but he’s not stable or safe enough to move home. He’s been on numerous antipsychotic drugs and has received an alphabet soup of diagnoses: ODD, ADHD, CD, RAD, PTSD, DMDD, and more. He’s proven to be extremely resistant to traditional therapy, a hallmark of developmental trauma. With each new placement he’s grown more dangerous and violent. He’ll soon turn 18 and age out of the treatment centers as an angry young man.
I am angry too.
Ineffective treatment has snuffed out Devon’s once bright future and our family has been broken. Hundreds of thousands of children suffer developmental trauma, yet the mental health system has no answers. I recently heard leading trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk speak at a conference and he confirmed what I learned the hard way: We have a long way to go in the work to develop effective treatments for developmental trauma.
How is this possible? Why isn’t the public outraged? I’m convinced it’s because our stories aren’t being told. We talk freely about the challenges families face when their child has leukemia or other physical illness. But there’s a taboo around mental health struggles.
Yet, there are thousands of families with stories virtually identical to Devon’s, and to mine. Like me, these families receive little support. Gaslighted, blamed, and shamed into silence, they’ve gone underground into private and secret online support groups. Their suffering is treated like a dirty little secret instead of the national crisis – the tragedy – it is.
Realizing this has only cemented my commitment and determination to raise my voice louder and to use my blog to call for increased funding and new research for treatments for developmental trauma. I am speaking out not only for Devon and my family, but for the thousands of families and children who have no voice.
Developmental trauma shouldn’t be a life sentence for any child or family.