Systematic Child Maltreatment: Connections with Unconventional Parent and Professional Education

Date: 2007-07-01

Jean Mercer, Ph.D.

A distressing story has been unfolding in Santa Barbara, CA, since the arrest in January, 2006 of an adoptive mother of four and child care center proprietor, Sylvia Jovanna Vasquez. Acting on information received, police entered Ms. Vasquez's house and found three of her four adopted children locked in cage-like structures or small rooms. The children, who were provided with buckets as toilet facilities, had apparently spent most of their time in confinement for the previous year, and had been fed a limited diet emphasizing peanut butter. The fourth child, who was not locked up, had been injected with Lupron by Ms. Vasquez, who believed, contrary to the opinion of her pediatrician, that the child had a growth disorder. Ms. Vasquez has been on trial on a number of counts of child abuse, which she did not contest.

This story, the details of which can be found by a search of news articles in the Santa Barbara Independent, seems at first glance to be yet another grim tale of ordinary child maltreatment. Closer examination of testimony at Ms. Vasquez's trial shows a more complicated picture, however, and connects the Vasquez case with others recently in the news, for example, the Gravelle case in Ohio and the Schmitz case in Tennessee. Although the Gravelle and Schmitz families had their own characteristics, they shared with Ms. Vasquez the fact that at least some of their child-rearing practices came to them by professional or quasiprofessional recommendation. Ms. Vasquez, like the other adoptive parents, had received the suggestion that she follow a set of unorthodox methods in caring for her adoptive family. Some of the recommended methods seem to have become the starting point for her abusive practices.

Some Questionable Advice

Ms. Vasquez testified that the caseworker who placed some of the children with her had given her a book entitled When Love is Not Enough (1997), written by Nancy Thomas, a foster parent, and published by a local press in Thomas's home state of Colorado. When Ms. Vasquez consulted a licensed clinical psychologist in California, he also suggested that she read When Love is Not Enough. The Thomas book became, as Ms. Vasquez testified, her "Bible." When puzzled, she called a number listed in the book and asked for advice. She also became involved with a support group in a nearby town, advocates of what they call "Nancy Thomas parenting." (Thomas is not in fact the only proponent of these methods, but she has emerged as the leader of the group.)

"Nancy Thomas parenting" has a strong historical and conceptual connection with the methods of "holding therapy" and "attachment therapy" discussed and rejected by a recent APSAC task force (Chaffin et al, 2006). Although the task force did not discuss the Thomas methods in detail, the report did make it clear that such methods are part of the unorthodox system under consideration by the group.

Unusual Beliefs and Practices

"Nancy Thomas parenting" is intended for use with foster and adoptive children, who, according to Thomas, suffer from a disorder that is attachment-based, but, unlike Reactive Attachment Disorder as defined by DSM, includes violent and cruel behavior. This disorder is to be diagnosed by such behaviors as failure to make eye contact or show affection on the parent's terms, "crazy lying," which is certain to be detected, and incessant chatter. The posited disorder is expected to occur in any adopted child, even if adoption took place on the day of birth, and to be present in hidden form even in those who are without behavioral symptoms. These children, according to Thomas and her colleagues, will grow up to be serial killers, unless they are treated with "Nancy Thomas parenting" and with "holding therapy" (Mercer, Sarner, & Rosa, 2003).

Features of "Nancy Thomas parenting" are based on the assumption that only a display of the parent's absolute authority can cause the emotional attachment, a factor thought to be missing and responsible for undesirable behavior. To show authority and structure the environment, the parent places alarms on bedroom doors so the child cannot leave the room undetected. Food is limited in variety and quantity, with peanut butter as a main part of the menu, and is contingent on obedient behavior, including many hours of sitting in silence. Information is also rationed, and foster children who want to know when they can see their parents are not told, even if a meeting is planned for that day. Children are hugged frequently, but not at their request, and they are rocked and fed candy at the caregiver's whim. Caregivers may also bottle-feed school-age children, again not at the child's wish. In some of her material, Thomas advocates sitting on the child as a way to establish authority (see material available through

The belief system behind "Nancy Thomas parenting" is unconventional and has no basis in empirical knowledge of child development. The claimed foundation in Bowlby's theory of attachment is not apparent. Infants are assumed to form an emotional attachment to their birth mothers during gestation, and thus to experience painful responses to separation if adopted, no matter how early this occurs, or even to experience a prenatal sense of rejection if the mother is ambivalent about her pregnancy. After birth, infants are considered to develop a further sense of attachment as the result of experiences of need or pain followed by gratification provided by the parent, particularly the mother, who is seen as having extraordinary emotional power. In the second year, strict limit-setting is considered necessary to complete the attachment process. Foster and adoptive children are demonized and referred to as "Satan-worshippers," and are said to kill, injure, and sexually molest both pets and other children. They are stated to be without the ability to employ causeand-effect thinking and to have no conscience or empathy.

Escalating Questionable Practices

Ms. Vasquez acknowledged in her testimony that When Love is Not Enough did not advise her to lock the children in small rooms or in cages. She also acknowledged that she never followed through on the recommendation, given by Thomas and by her psychologist, that she seek therapy for the children. She seems, however, to have adopted various views suggested by Thomas: that the role of the mother is paramount; that absolute authority causes attachment; that attachment is demonstrated through the child's obedience and affectionate behavior; and that children with problematic attachment histories are dangerous to themselves and others. Once these views are adopted, exaggeration of Thomas's recommendations is likely to seem legitimate, and, just as a parent who uses a belt to punish may escalate to the buckle end, Vasquez may have decided that a locked cage was only a step beyond a door alarm.


The systematic maltreatment administered by Ms. Vasquez is especially chilling because of its basis in written instructions, rather than in impulsive, angry responses to the children. What is even more disturbing, however, is the fact that a professional psychologist and at least one professional social worker advised Ms. Vasquez to follow Thomas's methods, apparently without being aware either of the lack of foundation for the approach, or the ease with which the recommendations could be escalated or misinterpreted. Yet it is difficult to criticize these professionals, because of yet another distressing fact: materials by Nancy Thomas advocating her method (, are in fact the basis for Continuing Education Units approved by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. Foster parent training presenting Thomas's methods is available from the College of the Sequoias ( and a number of other colleges.

Although California thus has some complicity in the Vasquez case, similar scenarios have occurred in other states as well. Indeed, APA-approved providers have awarded CEUs for material based on the system at work in "Nancy Thomas parenting." Can Division 37 members help correct this potentially dangerous situation? Because parent educators and "life coaches" are unlicensed and unregulated, it is extremely difficult to have an impact on their recommendations. However, it is possible for APA to limit approval of providers who specialize in unvalidated material. Members can help work toward such limitation by advising the organization whenever they see announcements of questionable CEU-bearing events.


Chaffin, M., Hanson, R., Saunders, B.E., Nichols, T., Barnett, D., Zeanah, C.H., et al. (2006). Report of the APSAC Task Force on Attachment Therapy, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Attachment Problems. Child Maltreatment, 11 (1), 76-89.

Mercer, J., Sarner, L., & Rosa, L. (2003). Attachment Therapy on trial. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Thomas, N.L. (1997). When love is not enough. Glenwood Springs, CO: Families by Design.

Jean Mercer, Ph.D. is Professor Emerita at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, NJ, 08240. Please send correspondence to


Parent educators

A while ago I was stunned to read some professional psychologists and some professional social workers have actually recommended this book and instructed techniques to "treat" children who may or may not have an attachment disorder.

Even more stunning to me is how "popular" Attachment Disorders/therapies have become, since 2007, in spite of scientific study, and scholarly reports.

Adoptive parents in particular seem to strongly believe (agree?) children who have been abused/maltreated, exhibit extreme emotional and physical behaviors, and have difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship, "have" Attachment Disorder/RAD, (and Attachment Therapy is the correct course of treatment for those with "relationship disturbances").  I'm believing more and more this follow-the-popular-adoption-trend has much to do with the ease/availability of internet forums created by and for adoptive parents with parenting concerns and issues.

Because parent educators and "life coaches" are unlicensed and unregulated, it is extremely difficult to have an impact on their recommendations. However, it is possible for APA to limit approval of providers who specialize in unvalidated material. Members can help work toward such limitation by advising the organization whenever they see announcements of questionable CEU-bearing events.

I remember when I used to post on adoption.con, (March, 2006), I made my brave "new discovery", and I posted why I thought more people should pay attention to the plight of those who suffered the consequences of long-term neglect/abuse.  [Back then I labeled that problematic issue as Adult RAD].  I wrote:

Adult Reactive Attachment Disorder is what best describes the actions & reactions an adoptee experiences in the relationships with friends and intimacy. It is NOT limited to adoptees, but for Us, that's all that needs to be mentioned. What separates RAD from the typical PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress), BPD, (Borderline Personality), and other behavioral disorders is the hallmark point of origin the dysfunction began. The RAD is defined by a separation of infant & parent within the first 3 years of life. During which, Trust vs. Mistrust is learned. Within that 3 yr time-frame, if a baby is not given consistent, trustworthy care & attention to his needs; or worse, is neglected, abused or switched from person to place, then from place to person, that baby will be conditioned to never trust anyone whose role is designed to fulfill the needs of that infant. The child who is fortunate enough to be placed in a home where loving, affectionate, Mommy care and positive attention and re-enforcement of personal value is provided, is more likely to not suffer the ill effects of RAD, as it is manifested in behaviors (actions & reactions).

And in a follow-up post, I wrote:

RAD is not so much a diagnosis, as it is a process based on the love & care given (or not given) by a person other than the self.

Few adults take the time to look into the reasons for the Why's and How's that define the behaviors hallmarked by RAD. In truth, little can be done for the person so deeply estranged from any type of "normal" bond and comfort provided & found in a trustworthy relationship. Most often, this is the adoptee, (also the abandoned, or child in constant transfer) who has been neglected and/or abused without having any resource in which that child is able to find solace & comfort from another person.

The "True Adult RAD" is the adult who feels life is a forced lie, especially as it reflects in intimate relationships. The adult who knows about & associates himself with the indicators of RAD, is the adult who KNOWS The Reason WHY intimate relationships pose such a very real threat to their well-being.

This is the patient in the therapists office when told, "In order to receive the love of others, first you must love yourself.", knows immediately, "this guy is an idiot!", and then realizes therapy is useless & futile.

Therefore, these are the adults who literally endure relationships or marriages because it is expected of them, not necessarily WANTED by them.

These are the people who submit to marriage, "because it was time".

These are the spouses who do as they're told because no matter how miserable the situation can (and often will) become, Something is better than Nothing. A door-mat is better than an abandoned building.

These are the people when asked, "is there anyone in your life who truly understands & respects you and your feelings?", the answer would invariably be, "I don't think so".

RAD, for the adult, is the instinctive reaction that preserves a person's safety from the threat of abandonment. "What ever it takes NOT to be hurt like that ever again."

Adult RAD is the end-result of a person not feeling worthy or respected enough to ask, "How and Why am I like this? Why can't I 'FEEL' like normal people feel?"

The answer is often very scary, and disturbing. But the answer is where the adult with RAD can begin the process of accepting personal needs. The answer is what tells the adult that it is NOT acceptable to sacrifice personal feelings, hopes & desires, all for the sake of being kept & not being left alone.

Without the instruction from a therapist (the ones I went to wanted to medicate, not educate), without a single professional guide to assist me carefully, in my adopted-self-exploration, without ANY support from my Afamily (or first family, for that matter), I discovered what scientists had already discovered in 2002:

We hypothesize that adequate nurturing and the absence of intense early stress permits our brains to develop in a manner that is less aggressive and more emotionally stable, social, empathic and hemispherically integrated. We believe that this process enhances the ability of social animals to build more complex interpersonal structures and enables humans to better realize their creative potential.

Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures its children. Stress sculpts the brain to exhibit various antisocial, though adaptive, behaviors. Whether it comes in the form of physical, emotional or sexual trauma or through exposure to warfare, famine or pestilence, stress can set off a ripple of hormonal changes that permanently wire a child’s brain to cope with a malevolent world. Through this chain of events, violence and abuse pass from generation to generation as well as from one society to the next. Our stark conclusion is that we see the need to do much more to ensure that child abuse does not happen in the first place, because once these key brain alterations occur, there may be no going back.

[From:  The Scars That Won't Heal ]

Compare that suggested treatment, (consistent POSITIVE reinforcement) to the list of abusive methods used by far too many parents/parent-educators, alike.  And look how busy Nancy Thomas will be this year, educating parents through seminars/camps in the US, and seminars in Canada, England, Romania and Russia

The question the adoption community needs to  must ask is this:  Will the future parent-teaching service provided by Nancy Thomas, (a lay-person, with no licensed professional credentials), be the same instruction found in her book(s), her videos, audio tapes and publications from the The Cline/Fay Institute (the Love and Logic folks)?  If so,  will there be more adoptee stories added to the PPL pages, mentioning Nancy Thomas, Foster Cline, and those who support Nancy's work?  [Hint: "renowned expert"  Neil Feinberg.]

I sure as hell hope Adoptive parents have the good sense to spend their money on other parenting books and services for the traumatised child.  After all, in America, people STILL have the right to choose mental health services that provide appropriate parent education and assistance.

Pound Pup Legacy