Child Abuse in Two Huge Tennessee Families Investigated

Date: 2004-09-02

Ties to Attachment Therapy

Two rural Tennessee families, involving at least 34 children between them, are currently being investigated by authorities in at least two states for neglect and cruelty to the children.

Many of these children are claimed to have “Attachment Disorder,” and the cases promise to expose a cult-like underground network of “therapeutic” respite” homes based on Attachment Therapy (AT) and its associated parenting techniques.

The case initially broke in mid-June when authorities removed 18 children from the home of Debra Schmitz in rural Gibson County, which is in western Tennessee, not far from Memphis. In early August, another 16 children were removed from the home of Frances Matthews outside Kenton, also in Gibson County.

Schmitz, and her husband Tom, have been charged with child abuse and neglect, and a grand jury is reviewing those and related charges. Matthews, and her husband Dale, are also under investigation for child abuse and neglect. The two families knew and worked with each other, though reports indicate that the initial investigations into each were unrelated.

The Charges

Little is presently known of the accusations against the Matthewses, but the types of child maltreatment with which the Schmitzes are accused will be depressingly familiar to readers of AT News. Debra Schmitz reportedly kept children in a cage, locked some in unlit cellar rooms, inappropriately medicated children, provided inadequate nutrition, put older children into diapers, required long hours of sitting on the floor facing a wall, cut girls’ hair very short against their will, and sensationally forced a few to “dig their own graves” (where they were threatened to be buried, and “no one would care”).

All of these have been seen before in other highly publicized AT cases around the country, though the grave-digging appears to be a macabre combination of excessive pointless chores (more often ditch-digging), threats of abandonment, and instilling feelings of disorientation, helplessness and hopelessness.

The leading proponent of abusive AT parenting methods is Nancy Thomas. Thomas is a lay person trained in parenting methods at the Attachment Center in Evergreen (now called the Institute for Attachment and Child Development) by Connell Watkins, the social worker who now sits in a Colorado prison for the death of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker in an AT session.

Child Swapping

One of the more bizarre aspects revealed by investigators is the apparent practice of “child swapping.” Of the 18 children removed from the Schmitz’s home by Tennessee’s Department of Children Services (DCS), one was their own biological child, and nine were adopted. With the discovery that the Schmitzes did not have legal custody of the other eight children — and authorities had trouble finding out who did — the case promises to break open the shadowy worlds of “therapeutic respite” care and AT parenting techniques.

Many, if not all, of the Schmitz’s adopted children are classified as having “special needs,” a category that allows parents use to get adoption subsidies from federal and state governments. Adopted children are often (mis)diagnosed by an Attachment Therapist as having Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) — a DSM-recognized diagnosis — but are treated for so-called bogus diagnosis of “Attachment Disorder,” a condition only recognized by Attachment Therapists.

The Schmitz household apparently took on its many children in two ways:

  1. By adopting children directly from other adoptive parents who no longer wanted their children; and
  2. By private arrangements to lodge children in the custody of others. This has been referred to as “respite,” though respite is normally understood as taking a child for just a few days or weeks. One boy found staying with the Schmitzes under a respite arrangement had been there four years.

The Schmitzes’ nine adopted children were from Florida, New York, Wisconsin and Tennessee, reportedly from private placements. Informal arrangements were responsible for the presence of eight more, variously from New York, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee. Authorities are trying to locate one girl who had once been part of the Schmitz (and Matthews) household, but reportedly had been “shipped out” to Arizona.

Given that the majority of the Schmitz household reportedly were kids who were diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, all of the private and informal custodial arrangements point to the underground AT “respite” network.

Mothers with AD kids form a network of virtual communities, aided by the Internet, where they are part of secretive online “support groups.” They call each other “Awesome Mom,” compare notes, brag about who is the strictest disciplinarian, complain about their “RADishes,” share tips about how to deal with CPS, and swap sympathy — and kids. It’s a grisly and brutal adaptation of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes A Village.

Mothers in this Virtual Village often complain of exhaustion in imposing AT’s strict parenting methods full-time. When they tire or become discouraged, the group responds by recommending AT “therapeutic respite” to break through the child’s “wall of resistance.” The child may stay in respite for a short period, years, or never return.

Children appear to often get stuck in respite when the respite provider reports poor progress on the part of the child, or when the parents are reluctant to resume the brutal parenting regime again. In any case, respite providers end up with the kid and the subsidies (foster payments or adoption subsidies). Debra Schmitz is an illustration of this process. No doubt Frances Matthews will prove out to be the same.

Children in AT are also tossed around from respite home to respite home, with the child never knowing when their next move might be. This is done deliberately to keep AD children “off balance,” to keep them unable to manipulate others, and to “rewire” their brains. It is another indicator that AT is all about establishing control over the child and little if anything about creating affectionate ties between children and parents.

The furtive nature of all this in the real world is illustrated by a story how the Schmitzes got possession of one of the children. Four years ago, the entire family loaded into a motor home and traveled across Wisconsin (where they lived at that time) to an Illinois truck-stop. There they were handed a boy under eight years old. Ironically, this happened around the same time as Debra and Tom were honored by the Green Bay YWCA with a “Families of Distinction Award” for their “work with children with special needs.” The boy was reportedly one of those removed from the Schmitz home in June 2004.

More to Come

The Schmitzes and their network have geared up to resist further revelations about their doings. In an attempt to divert attention, they have tried to make the authorities the villains by launching a yellow-ribbon campaign, suggesting the 18 kids are now “hostages” held by an uncaring system. In an highly unusual move, one of the children’s former nurses has countered with a blue-ribbon campaign in support of the children


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