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Our story:

What trauma did to our kid

Jorge… (Left on the DW trip. Right, first real snow)

In the early 90’s, my husband and I adopted our son, Jorge. Diagnosed with “Reactive Attachment Disorder” (RAD) shortly after coming to our place, Jorge lived the life the separated kids have lived. This is the story of how we survived those early years. The story of raising a RAD child. The story of his survival.

Jorge and his siblings had been left at crisis nurseries in the Phoenix AZ area by their birth mom several times before the state took them into care. The family had been living in abandoned housing and living off garbage. Arizona took them into state care, planning to find a family to place them all with long term. Taken into the care of the state at 18 months old, Jorge weighed in at just 18 pounds.

By the time Jorge came to live with us, he had been placed with — and removed from — both “family” foster households and households where no one was related to the kids. By the time he came to us at four years later, he had almost doubled his weight. He had been in between 4 and 6 placements. (The state never did tell us about all of them.) Jorge hit 36 pounds shortly after coming to live with us, his “forever” family.

Jorge lived the life some of the immigrant children are living now. He was not cared for well. He was exposed to things no child should have to live through. He was not held often enough, he was not hugged often enough, he was not stimulated in any way. While he survived, he did not thrive until in our home.

So what is it like to live with RAD?

It is scary. It can be frustrating. It hurts everytime you think about what they have been through. You want to take them in your arms and make it better, but you can’t. Some things are very hard to overcome. Here are the ones that were hardest for us to come to grips with:

  • No differentiation between family and strangers
  • Kids with RAD don’t know how to trust
  • There is no punishment that touched him
  • Staying connected is hard work
  • Kids in the system lose who they are
  • RAD kids don’t have traditions

No differentiation between family and strangers

The first day Jorge was brought to meet us, he and his brother were driven to our house by their social worker, Lynn. All the kids knew about us they had learned from Lynn and from a stack of 10–15 pictures we had sent in that showed our lives.

When Lynn drove up in front of the house, the boys jumped out of the van — heading towards the two of us standing in the front doorway. By the time the kids got to us, they were already yelling “Hi Mom!” — “Hi, Dad!” They reached us and grabbed us both around our legs and professed how glad they were to meet us. After each hugging one of us, they switched parents and continued on about how much they were looking forward to being our kids. After a few moments, they both asked to “…see our rooms…”

Now remember, these kids didn’t know us. They didn’t even know whether they were at the right house. Bruce and I talked later about how bad it would have been if Lynn had stopped in front of our neighbor’s place — He was ex-military. Never would have been able to handle the exuberance.

Kids with RAD don’t know where they will be next. They treat strangers and family/friends the same. They either put on a brave front, pretending to already know you and adore you… or they hide shyly from everyone for a few minutes, then decide you are lovable. They don’t know how to trust. They only know how to fake it.

Which brings us to the second problem…

Kids with RAD don’t know how to trust

They have been through so much trauma, they have no ability to trust anyone. They know how to fake it, but that is all it is: faked emotion to try to get on your good side and stay there.

These kids have been hurt so many times, that they don’t know how to handle consistency. Trauma at a young age kills off parts of the brain that handles trust — belief — understanding — emotions. Whether left alone because mom couldn’t care for them, moved from house to house to house, or living through constant pain and terror: These kids don’t know how to be real. You have to teach (and reteach) them the basics.

Jorge didn’t know what the rules were at our house. He didn’t know what was allowed and what wasn’t. We expected that. What we didn’t expect was a kid who wanted to know the rules and the boundaries of our love, so he challenged them constantly.

Jorge couldn’t trust there would be food when he was hungry. He had been hungry too often. At night, he would sneak out of his bedroom and head to the pantry. Anything in reach was eaten. Even if he had eaten well during the day, he would snack at night. Every night. We would find cans of tuna half eaten in the pantry. We would find cans emptied of just about anything. Anything sweet or full of protein would be game for taking. When he could get away with it, he would sneak food into his bedroom. Fodder for what he knew would be hungry times to come. It took years for him to understand he could eat anything in the house as long as he asked first.

Another edible that disappeared quickly: Toothpaste. We had made sure he knew how to brush his teeth, but we couldn’t figure out for months why he was going through so much. When we realized he had been eating it, we sat down and explained (again) that he shouldn’t do it. That toothpaste was good for your teeth, but not good for your insides.

There is no punishment that touched him

We were foster parents for the first year plus of the placement before we finalized the adoption. During that time we learned that Jorge didn’t know how to react when things went wrong or when he was in trouble. These were two sides of the same emotional coin.

In previous households, punishment for breaking the rules had been extreme. Bruce and I never agreed with what the previous adults had done, but we could understand it. How do you punish a kid who has lived virtually alone? What good does taking away dessert do, especially when he had been starved? We wouldn’t swat him… it wasn’t good for him or for us. It could bring up very bad memories of prior abuse and abandonment. Time out didn’t faze him either: Sure, he would sit for the necessary time. But it was just clock watching to make us happy. He didn’t connect the punishments with the misbehavior for a very long time.

The other side of the punishment reaction was just as bad. He had been hurt in the past for things that just happen. For example, he was petrified of breaking a glass or a dish. Prior foster parents had gotten mad at that and punished him harshly. The first time a glass broke around him in our house, he started shaking and crying. He knew he hadn’t broken the glass — hubby had. He was freaked out. The first time he broke a glass, they were loading the dishwasher. He closed the door to hard. Bruce took him aside and told him everything would be ok. Jorge still looked like the world would end. (That face will haunt me until I die.) Bruce sat him down and told him what had happened, that it wasn’t Jorge’s fault, and that there wouldn’t be any punishment. After Jorge was calmer, they opened the dishwasher and Jorge helped Bruce clean up.

Staying connected is hard work

Jorge had biological siblings who didn’t become part of our family. His sister was already placed with a relative. His brother ended up staying in the system. Jorge didn’t want to lose touch with them. We didn’t want him to lose touch with them.

Every few months, we would reach out to CPS to find his brother and set up a visit. Every time it took weeks to get in touch with someone who knew where his brother was. The workers were always changing. Everyone of them was surprised we wanted to stay in touch. That we wanted Jorge to know them.

So the pattern went on and on those first years. I would call and find a worker who knew where brother was. I would wade through the explanations time and again. “Yes, we want to be connected.” “Yes, he knows who we are.” “Yes, they both know Jorge is adopted.” “No, you can’t just pawn us off for another six months.” When we did connect with the right person, they invariably were thrilled to find someone who knew the story of the kids. They were always willing to ask questions. They weren’t so willing to answer them.

Birthdays were hard on Jorge those first few years. He wanted to see his siblings. He wanted them to come to his party. We tried. He knows we tried. But it almost never worked out.

If it was that hard for me to keep in contact with his biological family, how much harder is it going to be for the families we are breaking up? Who will fight to keep the connection? Who will fight to make sure they see (or at least talk to) the ones left behind? Who will tell them the stories which they almost remember?

Kids in the system lose who they are

Kids who move around in the system don’t have records about themselves. In some states, the parents can’t know anything about prior placements. About prior health issues. About schooling. About anything.

When Jorge came to us, he was given a “Social Security Number”. It wasn’t his real one. We weren’t supposed to know that one. (We did eventually get it. We had to know it to file our taxes.) When he was registered for school that first year, they registered him under his prior last name. They didn’t know if they could share information with us, we weren’t legal guardians. Eventually, that got fixed with a call from our worker to the school’s principal.

The kids didn’t come with medical records. Or, not official ones anyway. We had copies of the last doctor’s handwritten notes. Enough to prove to our doctor that they had been vaccinated — not enough to for the school to agree. Jorge went through school “un-vaccinated” because we didn’t feel he should get a second dose of all the shots we had proof he had already gotten.

The kids came with 1 day of medicine. ONE day. No prescription either. Luckily our family doctor was able to get the unofficial records and prescribe what they both took. That’s also how we learned that the kids had been given a prior diagnosis of ADHD. In Jorge’s case, that was the wrong diagnosis. Took us years to figure out what the right one was. RAD kids get lots of mental illness diagnoses beyond RAD. Whether they have other problems or not.

RAD kids don’t have traditions

Bruce and I had taken adoption certification classes when we first put our names in to adopt. Those classes were a life saver. They prepared us for most of the behaviors I’ve talked about. This one? It wasn’t covered.

When Jorge came to us, he had lived through multiple family holidays — seldom with the same family more than once. He didn’t know how we celebrated anything. So, he pretty much assumed we didn’t celebrate. While I have never learned what caused this reaction, I believe it is more than just the constant changes. I believe that for a kid who has been abandoned at an early age, traditions are forgotten or never learned. They just don’t stick.

How do you celebrate a birthday for a kid who has never gotten more than one present at time? How do you do Christmas? How do you teach a kid that some days are special just because of when they are? We didn’t know. We tried to set up our own holiday traditions, but it was hard to stick with them. He just didn’t understand until years later what holidays and birthdays were about.

This is also one of the big fails we had early on. When we were told our adoption date, Bruce and I wanted to do something special together to celebrate. To imprint the day in our memories. The day we became a family. We had a morning date with the judge, so we decided to do what any family might do: We planned a week-long trip to Disney World. We planned to surprise him with it at breakfast before we headed to court.

Are we ever glad we didn’t hold it for that morning. The week before the adoption, his teacher asked us to come to the class and talk about adoption and what it meant. Because we had to schedule that, we ended up telling Jorge about the trip. We were leaving mid-afternoon, so we had to fit the class visit in between court and the flight. Jorge did NOT want us to come to class. (This was a Jorge thing. I felt the same way after each move growing up.)

More than not wanting us to come, Jorge had to test limits all weekend. He had to prove to himself that we wouldn’t change our minds. He had started to learn that there were certain things that happened whether you were good or bad… now he wanted to see how far that would reach.

Luckily, he decided before adoption day that Disney World was too big a chance to screw up. So we went. First couple of days there were wonderful. Then, Jorge hit the wall. The wall RAD builds around kids traumatized early on…

Middle of the third morning at the park, Jorge had a complete melt down. I don’t remember what set it off, but it set him off big time. Temper tantrum to the max. Believe me, you have not seen a temper tantrum like this unless you have a RAD kid in your life. He just decided everything was WRONG. We weren’t his parents. He was going back to the judge to find another family. He was going to find a pay phone and call Lynn to have her fly down and get him. We were mean and cruel and we didn’t let him do anything. From the mouth of a first grader in the middle of EPCOT center just before his favorite food for lunch. We left the park, went back to our hotel room, and relaxed for a few hours. (By the way: He was still crying when we got on the bus to the hotel… and still crying when we got to the room. Fell right asleep.)

We realized that Jorge didn’t know how to take a vacation. He had never been on one. “Vacation” in his previous placements had been a trip to the cabin in Prescott for a day or two. Where there were still chores to do. He didn’t know how to handle everything — how to process it. How to enjoy this much good. He had convinced himself that he had to get us to send him back before we realized he needed to “go back” because he was “damaged.” “You can’t love me enough. I have to push you away before you abandon me.”

That brings us full circle. Just like that first day when he hadn’t known how we wanted him to act. He hadn’t known what the rules were. He didn’t know how we could possibly love him unless he was perfect. If we weren’t going to love him forever, he was going to push us away before we could realize what he really was.

That’s the worst of it all

By taking these kids from their parents the way we are, we are taking them from the only safety they have ever known. For the rest of their childhoods (and for many, the rest of their lives), they won’t be able to trust. What happened when they did trust worked out so badly that it wiped out everything before it.

Update on our story

Several people have asked about how Jorge is now. His growing up years weren’t easy on any of us. Once he hit puberty, other problems surfaced. Those problems tore our family apart for quite a few years. There were times we didn’t know if we would see him again. Times we didn’t know if he would make it to 20.

Gladly, this story has moved into a happier chapter. Jorge is now 30 and about six foot tall. He lives with his other half and their two kids in Eastern Washington. They have their struggles as we all do, but they are a family. That’s something we didn’t know if he would ever have: A family of his own.

You have likely “met” both his other half and the grandsons… tangentially. His other half got the gift I wrote about in my haiku of that name. The grandsons are one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.

We don’t see them in person very often, but we chat and text fairly frequently. That we survived long enough to come back together is one of the greatest joys of my life. That Jorge, Bruce, and myself were able to come back together as friends as well as family? That’s a boon this mom never thought she would see.


I have also been asked for resources on RAD. Most of the books we read to prepare ourselves are long out of print. There are a few resources that I can recommend — mostly updated versions of books and organizations we relied on.

My final recommendation is for AASK-AZ. While we did not adopt through AASK-AZ, we did attend their training. If you are in Arizona, check them out for more resources amd support.




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Kathy Jacobs

Kathy Jacobs

💚POMpoet💚 Former software tester, still breaking things. Social Media geek. Former OneNote MVP. Phoenix Mercury fan. Green Bay Packer fan.

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