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DEALING WITH TRAUMA: Jennie and Abbie Landreth.
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DEALING WITH TRAUMA: Jennie and Abbie Landreth.

Not Annie the Musical

Adoption | The little-discussed side of adoption is the crisis some families face with traumatized children

Issue: "American bounty," Nov. 30, 2013

HIXSON, Tenn.—Jennie and Mike Landreth have been married 18 years and have three children, the oldest adopted. Mike, a tall Southerner, works at the insurer Unum, doing network security. Jennie, gregarious and energetic, used to work in marketing but now stays home with their kids. Abbie, 12, is a fire-haired beauty. Hunter, 11, is dark-haired and more serious. Sammy, 10, is blond with glasses and an effervescent personality. They live in Hixson, Tenn., in a small house in a suburban neighborhood and attend Hixson Presbyterian Church. They have two dogs, a pet rat, and a king snake named Houdini.

The Landreths, both 41, adopted Abbie domestically. They adopted Abbie at birth, so they thought they would avoid the attachment issues other families sometimes have with older adopted children. They were wrong; Abbie was violent and had fits that went on for hours, tantrums on steroids. Jennie points to recent research about trauma that children experience in the womb as an explanation for why Abbie struggled. Abbie has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, along the lines of post-traumatic stress disorder for children. Before Abbie, Jennie said she and her husband had a “Pollyanna view” of adoption.

“All families hear about the challenges, but ... it’s not uncommon for a family to say, ‘Yeah, that won’t happen to us,’” said Kris Faasse, the director of adoption services at Bethany Christian Services. Faasse emphasized that, statistically, most adoptions go well.

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Some parents whose adoptions didn’t go well spoke with me and said they had minimal support after they adopted. Churches and ministries are eager to expand adoption and foster care, but as child psychologist Karyn Purvis put it, they leave for the trip “before they filled up the tank.” Ministries often don’t have training or resources for families facing post-adoptive issues. And parents often feel as if they’re bad disciplinarians instead of recognizing that their child may be dealing with trauma.

“Families have got to understand—a child coming from hard places has dramatically different development processes,” said Purvis. “Otherwise their behaviors are quite mystifying.” Purvis, a child psychologist at Texas Christian University, is a foster parent herself, and she runs camps for parents that Bethany recommends. Purvis’ camps are usually swamped with demand. Bethany itself is recognizing the need for these services and is opening a post-adoption center this fall.

Children who didn’t have a consistent caregiver in the first few years of life especially develop “survival skills” because at their most formative stage of life they were hurt by the people closest to them. They approach their new adoptive family with distrust and often take out their feelings of abandonment on the adoptive mother. Screaming episodes last for hours. The child rips the house apart, literally.

Faasse said traumatized children are easily overstimulated and have no internal resources to regulate their emotions, which means their fits can quickly spiral out of control. Traditional parenting doesn’t work, because punishment makes parents the “enemies” to the child’s survival. Some families recounted their experiences to WORLD, not to dissuade other families from adopting but to point to a light at the end of the tunnel for those with traumatized adoptive children. 

When Abbie was 2, Jennie first noticed that something was off. Abbie would be up dozens of times in the night, screaming. At age 4, a doctor diagnosed her as probable bipolar. When Abbie was 7, Jennie said, “We were in living hell.” Abbie was violent as well as verbally abusive to her mother. 

“I would hit my brothers,” Abbie recounted a few months ago, as the whole family lounged together in their living room.

“I don’t remember that!” said Sammy.

“Like this?” Hunter interjected, punching Sammy in the arm.

Every night Sammy and Hunter would try to sleep through the battles their parents had with Abbie. Abbie slammed the door to her room so many times that Mike took it off its hinges. A doctor prescribed Ambien to help Abbie sleep, but she had hallucinations, and after one night her dad refused to give her any more of it. Family vacations always ended early. Even when the family tried to watch a movie together, they would have to end it in the middle because of a meltdown. Hunter once prayed that Abbie would go back to her birth mom, making Abbie cry.

“I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it,” Sammy said as they talked about it later.

“OK, change the subject, I don’t want to think about it,” Hunter grumbled.

Abbie wore a hood everywhere she went, and she was so shy she couldn’t speak up to order at a restaurant. Jennie dreaded church events; it took a while to convince fellow church members that Abbie was more than a difficult child (now her church is supportive financially and emotionally). Jennie said she looked like “a frazzled mom who was overreacting.” Most of Abbie’s violence was directed at her mother: She threw a boot at her, and sometimes threw things while Jennie was driving. “Mostly stuff that wouldn’t kill you,” Abbie says now. “I didn’t want to hurt her, but I would just get angry and throw things at her, and then I would start crying and say I’m sorry.”

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