Controversy trails 'attachment' therapist who runs Chesapeake center
By Bill Sizemore
© July 6, 2008
Rinda Theibert was desperate.
Her son Michael, whom she adopted at age 8, was exposed to drugs in the womb and had spent much of his first seven years locked alone in a room. Diagnosed with mental retardation and autism, he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital and was prone to self-mutilation.
Theibert had thought she was prepared; the Virginia Beach single mother's two other adopted children were doing fine. But Michael's behavior was driving her crazy.
Her social worker, Joan Duhaime, was at the end of her rope, too. Maybe it was time to try something radical, she finally suggested to Theibert.
Duhaime had attended a training session in Norfolk led by Bryan Post, a charismatic young therapist from Oklahoma who claimed to have a revolutionary cure for emotionally disturbed children.
Post, who has since moved his base of operations to Hampton Roads, subscribes to a controversial approach known as "attachment therapy" - typically used with severely disturbed adolescents, usually adopted or foster children. Its central premise is that behavior problems are traceable to early trauma - perhaps even in the womb - that prevented the children from forming a normal attachment to their birth parents.
When Theibert first encountered Post in 2004, when Michael was 11, she was hopeful. Post seemed to be an expert, a nd he guaranteed a positive outcome. The therapy cost more than $5,500, but Theibert decided it was worth a try.
"He was the only one saying there was any hope for Michael," she said.
So on Super Bowl weekend, she, her three children and Duhaime flew to Oklahoma City for three days of "family intensive" sessions in a hotel room with Post.
At that and two subsequent rounds of therapy later that year, Theibert said, she and her children were instructed to lie on air mattresses, where they were held down and encouraged to scream and cry about their past traumas.
Anyone who expressed discomfort with the emotionally wrenching sessions was mocked and belittled, she said. Duhaime was taken aback.
"It felt coercive," she said, "and I could not see the benefit of it for my client."
There were group sessions with other families, Theibert said, where Post recommended putting adolescents in diapers and giving them baby bottles. He suggested to at least one mother that she lick her child's face like a mother cat does to a kitten.
Post also insisted that no child needs to be on anti-psychotic medications, so Theibert took Michael off his meds.
A year and several thousand dollars later, Michael had gone from bad to worse. After attempting suicide with a kitchen knife, he ended up back in the psychiatric hospital.
Theibert said her daughters have had nightmares about the therapy for years.
Post had offered a money-back guarantee, so Theibert asked for a refund. Post sent her $1,000 and promised the rest in monthly installments. No more payments came.
Since moving to Hampton Roads in 2006, Post has opened the Post Institute, which offers in-home family therapy and trains foster parents. He also operates a group home and a school in Chesapeake. He has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in government money for his services.
Theibert and other critics say Post's credentials are questionable - he holds a Ph.D. from an unaccredited school - and there is little empirical evidence that his unconventional methods are effective.
Post says his critics are misinformed and vindictive. And some clients stoutly defend him, saying he has saved their families from intolerable dysfunction. It is almost as if they and Post's detractors are describing two different people.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Theibert is Wilma "Willie" Ice, a single mother of three adopted children in Henrico County, outside Richmond. She had been to therapist after therapist seeking help with the children's behavior, which included verbal and physical aggression, setting fires, and urinating on the floor.
"I couldn't find anybody who said, 'What you've got to do is love these kids' - and then tell me how to do it," Ice said.
About four years ago, on the advice of a Henrico County social worker, she attended a Post parenting camp in Virginia Beach. She was so impressed that she took her children to a Post family camp in Oklahoma City.
When Post moved to Virginia, Ice was thrilled. She got government adoption subsidies that paid more than $100,000 for a year of intensive in-home therapy for her family.
Sometimes Post or one of his therapists would be in her home for up to 24 hours at a stretch, Ice said. Often the therapy would include "mat work" in which family members would give vent to their emotions while lying on an air mattress.
Ice said she achieved a breakthrough with her oldest daughter, then 11, after Post told her "what I really needed to do was take her in my arms and hold her and give her a baby bottle. A lot of her infancy needs were unmet."
More than a year after the therapy ended, "there are still nights when our whole family will sit at the table, Mom included, drinking our beverages from a baby bottle," Ice said. "It's kind of embarrassing to acknowledge that as a parent, but there's an emotional connection that gets met there for everybody."
Today her children are doing well in school and have no serious behavior issues, Ice said. She attributes their success to her own growth as a parent under Post's tutelage.
"I was a parent who had had extremely poor role models myself," she said. "What I've learned is a way of approaching my children and my family and my home from a place of calm. It's pretty hard for my kids to get me off center anymore."
Bryan Post calls his clients "the last-hope kids."
"These are the kids who haven't made it anywhere else," he said in a recent interview at the Post Academy, the private day school he runs in the South Norfolk neighborhood of Chesapeake. "Finally when everyone else has thrown in the towel, then they send them to us."
As if to underscore the point, two of the school's eight students wandered away from the building during the interview and had to be rounded up from the nearby neighborhood. On a reporter's subsequent visit a week later, a fight broke out, requiring intervention from several staffers.
Post, 35, can empathize with such kids because he was one himself. Adopted as an infant, "I had all kinds of behavior issues," he said. "I was setting fires, I was stealing, I was lying, I was killing animals, I was beating kids up.... At 20 years old I was breaking into cars stealing stereos. I could be in prison right now."
The aim of attachment therapy is to revisit the trauma through a cathartic emotional release that, adherents say, will clear the way for a healthy attachment between children and their caregivers. To achieve that, practitioners have used various forms of physical restraint over the years.
Post studied under one of the pioneers of the movement: Martha Welch, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who helped launch the field with her influential 1989 book "Holding Time."
Some permutations of attachment therapy have had tragic results, including deaths. Most infamous is the case of Candace Newmaker, a 10-year-old adoptee from North Carolina who died of asphyxiation during a "rebirthing" session in Evergreen, Colo., in 2000.
The girl was placed in the fetal position on the floor, tightly wrapped in a flannel sheet. A dozen thick pillows were piled over her and two therapists and their assistants sat on top, urging her to fight her way out - as if being reborn - but restraining her when she tried and ignoring her cries for help. The two therapists were convicted of child abuse and sent to prison.
In an interview, Post took pains to distance himself from that incident and from his mentor, Welch: "The last time I practiced Martha's work was in 2001."
Welch's approach is "fear-based," he said. "I've moved night and day away from that." His approach, in contrast, is "love-based," Post said. "We don't do any forced holding of kids."
The case of Candace Newmaker and others like it have inspired several support groups and Web sites dedicated to attacking attachment therapy as unproven, pseudoscientific and potentially dangerous.
The American Psychiatric Association and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children have issued position statements in recent years opposing the use of coercive attachment therapy techniques and saying there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that they are effective.
One of the leading critics is Jean Mercer, a professor emerita of psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. In an interview, she said she first encountered Post at a seminar in 2001.
Even if the "mat work" Post does now isn't physically coercive - if the person on the mat wants to get up, he or she is allowed to do so - it is still psychologically coercive, Mercer said.
Post provided summaries of two studies that he said demonstrate the effectiveness of his therapy. One tracked the behavior of five children over 12 weeks of therapy and found a 50 percent improvement. The other involved 28 children served by an Arkansas agency that switched to Post's program and reported a 90 percent drop in crisis interventions.
Mercer said both studies are unconvincing because, among other issues, the samples were too small to allow any valid statistical analysis.
Another thing that should make parents suspicious about Post, Mercer said, is his suggestion that conventional therapy is bound to fail and his approach is the only one that works.
"He's a salesman," she said. "He's a super salesman."
Indeed, Post's Web site exudes salesmanship, with glowing testimonials and "special" offers for dozens of books, CDs and DVDs.
One four-DVD series aimed at parents of difficult children purports to explain "the most revolutionary new theoretical model in all of mental health." The cost, with various bonuses thrown in if you order now: "More than a $1,265 value for $117!" The offer comes with Post's "ironclad" money-back guarantee.
Post also offers self-help materials to other therapists with titles such as "How to Become a Financially Independent Therapist" and "Speaking and Selling to Skeptical Mental Health Audiences, including How I made $21,300 in one week of public speaking."
"I'm an entrepreneur," Post sai d in the interview. "I started selling lemonade when I was 6 years old.
"If you want to make money, if you want to be wealthy, then be the best in your field and say you're the best. That's essentially all I'm teaching.... Do you want to go to a neurosurgeon who charges you a hundred bucks or do you want to go to a neurosurgeon who charges you a thousand bucks? I want to go to the thousand-dollar one."
On his Web site and printed materials, Post refers to himself as Dr. Post. He received a Ph.D. in social work in 2000 from Columbus University, an unaccredited "distance learning" institution located at the time in Louisiana. It has since relocated twice, to Mississippi and Alabama. Its Web site offers a doctorate in 12 months for $2,295.
Post is licensed as a social worker in Oklahoma but was reprimanded by the licensing board there in 2007 for unprofessional conduct regarding his degree claim. He was directed to include a disclaimer on his Web site and other materials making clear that his degree is from an unaccredited school.
Post is not licensed as a mental health professional in Virginia. Many of his services are provided on a subcontract basis through Carpe Diem of Virginia, a licensed agency in Chesapeake.
Eliot Faircloth, executive director of Carpe Diem, said he researched Post's background before partnering with him and is satisfied that his techniques are not harmful to children.
"My case managers are in the home twice a week," he said. "If weird crap's going on, I'm going to hear about it. "
"As for his Ph.D., I don't care, because it's not affecting the kids," he added. "If he wants me to call him King Post, I'll call him King Post."
Post was paid more than $700,000 by the Virginia Medicaid agency and local social services departments last year for services provided to about 40 children.
The Portsmouth Department of Social Services spent $171,000 to keep a single child in a Post therapeutic foster home for 16 months. The child has since been removed from the program. Social Services Director Reynold Jordan wouldn't say why.
Social services departments in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake declined to discuss their use of Post's services. Suffolk did not use Post's services.
Statewide, more than $440 million in federal, state and local money was spent last year on services for 18,500 troubled children - nearly $24,000 per child.
A 2006 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a state oversight agency, found that the system for serving such children is plagued by inadequate licensing and inspection procedures and a lack of tools for measuring effectiveness.
The rate for Post's Chesapeake group home is $457 a day, or $166,805 a year. Denise Gallop, coordinator of children's services for the Hampton Division of Social Services, said a typical group home rate is $250 a day. Hampton does not use Post's program.
Nevertheless, Post insisted in the interview - at times tearful, at times pounding the table for emphasis - that he is losing money. According to figures supplied by his accountant, his local operations had a net loss of $125,000 last year and Post himself earned $40,000 in salary.
"I should be charging triple what people here in Virginia are charging, because I'm doing something right," he said. "I'm doing something effective. So people should be wanting to pay me a lot of money to work with these kids because they're wasting their money everywhere else."
Colleen James, a Norfolk foster mother, never saw any "mat work" during the five months a Post therapist worked with her 12-year-old foster daughter last year, although the therapist once suggested James herself would benefit from it.
"It was made pretty clear that the parent is the problem," James said. "You're supposed to be an empty vessel, so the child can't push your buttons."
The therapy left James increasingly dissatisfied. In one typical incident, the girl, in a fit of rage, ripped the freshly planted flowers out of James' garden and the therapist refused to intervene, saying, "This is good. She's getting her aggression out."
Finally James went to the Department of Social Services and asked that the Post agency be replaced with a more conventional type of therapy.
The department complied, and James said the child is doing better now.
"But I think we would be much further along now if not for the Post experience," she said. "She was empowered in her boldness to act out and destroy things. It was totally ineffective."
The experience also had a ripple effect on another foster family. The girl 's biological sister had been placed with a Chesapeake foster mother, Kathleen Herring. At one point, Herring said, her social worker suggested that her foster daughter, too, would benefit from Post therapy.
After talking with James, Herring said, she responded: "I will not let them in my house." The social worker insisted, saying the child needed to be "cured."
As a result, the child was removed from Herring's home. "It just literally tore my family apart," she said.
Post's pitch "sounds good. It sounds healing," James said. "It's all stuff you want to hear when you have a disturbed child.... They're preying on vulnerable people."
For more online, go to:
Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org