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Pat Schroeder’s endorsement of Rage Reduction Therapy: The Cult of the Celebrity Strikes Again

We all know that misguided celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy, Oprah, Prince Charles, and Arianna Huffington, pose considerable public health threats. Few know that arguably the most vile form of quackery has been getting the thumbs up from a celebrity hailing from the most rarified heights of power and influence — Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-CO, 1973-1997).

The practice I’m referring to is “Rage Reduction.” This practice, popular for decades in adoption and foster care circles, claims to help children develop the capacity to love and become attached to their new caregivers. Practitioners believe these children suffer from “Attachment Disorder” because of early abuse and neglect. Typical of quackery, this unrecognized diagnosis consists of an absurdly long catch-all list of signs used to ensnare any child. (Even good behavior is interpreted as sneaky manipulation of parents.)

In a Rage Reduction therapy session, a child is restrained by a therapist – usually a licensed psychologist or social worker – plus one or more assistants. The therapist “activates” a child by yelling, belittling, threatening, relentlessly tickling, bouncing the child’s head, covering his mouth, and painfully knuckling the child’s rib cage and sternum. Such sessions typically go on for two or more hours, until the child is exhausted from struggling and becomes, as one psychologist observed, “a whimpering little puddle.” Children, even teenagers, are then swaddled and given a baby bottle by their adopted mother for “bonding time.”

The rationale for Rage Reduction consists of several thoroughly discredited notions: the need to regress children back to infancy so that “repressed” memories of abuse can be recovered and repressed “infantile anger” can be drained out through “catharsis.”

There is no reliable evidence that indicates that Rage Reduction would be anything but harmful. To critics, Rage Reduction is indistinguishable from literal torture, i.e. the infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, for a purpose. The purpose here is apparently not the creation of loving relationships, but rather grinding down children until they are grateful and unquestioningly obedient. Think “Stepford Children.”

In one particularly brutal form of Rage Reduction called “Compression Therapy,” therapists claim to provoke repressed memories of rape by lying on top of the child and licking the child’s face. Along with violating just about every ethical code in the mental health book, Compression Therapy puts much pressure on the child’s abdomen, making breathing difficult. At least two children have died from suffocation in Rage Reduction sessions; and survivors tell of “seeing stars,” and even of passing out during therapy.

Many criminal child abuse and death cases have been linked to Rage Reduction and its harsh parenting methods. For those with a strong stomach, there is a blogsite that has published several survivor accounts.

Rage Reduction got its start in Colorado back in the 1970s, when psychologist Robert Zaslow came to the state claiming he could cure blindness. Zaslow had served as consultant on Elvis Presley’s last movie, A Change of Habit (1969). In this film, “Dr.” Elvis cures a girl of autism in just one Rage Reduction session.

When Rage Reduction failed to cure blindness, or autism off screen, Colorado followers of Zaslow turned to treating “attachment breaks” in children. The practice really took off in the late 1980s when adoptions from Eastern Europe opened up – and when Rage Reduction got a big celebrity bump from none other than US Representative Patricia Schroeder.

Schroeder was the long-time Democrat Congresswoman representing the Denver area who took a stab at the presidency in 1988. Chairing the US House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, Schroeder billed herself as “Friend of the Family.”

At the peak of her influence, Schroeder also wrote the foreword for a book promoting Rage Reduction entitled High Risk: Children Without A Conscience by Ken Magid and Carole McKelvey (Bantam, 1987). Today, after one author has surrendered her therapy license (the other is dead), this book is still in print.

High Risk

US News & World Report later took note of Schroeder’s “promotion” of High Risk:

High Risk has a foreword by former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, who thanks the authors for their “gift” at a time when inadequate day care, rising divorce rates, and teen pregnancy threaten to inflate the numbers of unattached kids.

A Dead Child, A Troubling Defense” by Miriam Horn)

Shortly after High Risk was published, HBO aired a documentary about a child being treated by Magid. This film, Child of Rage, was followed up with an HBO drama by the same name. Both films, like the book, portrayed “unattached” children as murderous psychopaths, a danger to parents and society at large. This sensationalism fueled Rage Reduction ascendancy into a fad therapy, with cult-like followings all over the country, and in Britain and Australia, as well. Without Schroeder’s endorsement, Rage Reduction might have otherwise died a quick death — from lack of research, from moral outrage, and from compassion for children.

Today, High Risk is considered by critics to be the worst book of its kind. If a therapist recommends High Risk, you’ve pretty much got him pegged as an adherent of coercive restraint therapies. No one else would likely want to be associated with it.

High Risk contains one photo that nearly says it all. It is a photo of psychiatrist Foster Cline, MD knuckling the sternum of a young boy.

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The caption says:

Dr. Foster Cline illustrates how a Rage Reduction Therapy session is conducted….Cline stimulates subject toward rage reaction. Child is being held by “holders.” …[the] child screams how much he hates the therapist.

When a boy with a bruised chest escaped Cline’s center a few years later, Cline was ordered by the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners to stop using Rage Reduction. Cline opted to leave the state instead.

This extreme treatment, which High Risk likens to an “exorcism,” is justified by demonizing children with “Attachment Disorder.” The same US New & World Report article explains:

A cartoon in the book Schroeder promotes depicts a spectrum of well-being: from the securely attached like “Mother Teresa,” illustrated with a haloed saint holding a cross, to the severely unattached like “Charles Manson,” depicted as a horned devil holding a bloody knife. Paula Pickle says of the kids her center [Attachment Center at Evergreen, Colorado] treats that “there often doesn’t seem to be a heart or soul.” [Thais] Tepper [of Parents’ Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child] explains in chilling terms the effort by Russian orphanages to get rid of their most troubled charges: “Who are you going to send abroad, the healthy kids or the little minions of Satan?”

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The banality of this diagram is almost unworthy of being pseudoscience. It’s not junk science. It’s just plain junk. (But do note, Ms Schroeder, where “Some Politicians” rank on this scale.)

High Risk does dabbles in other pseudoscience, as well, e.g.:

What Ted Bundy’s Handwriting Reveals..His manipulative tendencies are indicated by the “hooks” in some of his “c’s.”

Rage Reduction, repackaged with the less explicit name of “Attachment Therapy,” flourished through the 1990s. A welter of child welfare workers, CASA volunteers, judges, and adoptive/foster parents were sucked into the pseudoscientific solutions offered by Attachment Therapy.

With Schroeder’s imprimatur firmly in place, government agencies at federal, state and local levels funneled money into Attachment Therapy, paying for treatment and to house children in special “therapeutic foster homes” versed in Attachment Therapy’s uber harsh parenting methods, aka Nancy Thomas parenting.

(Nancy Thomas, a Colorado layperson trained by Foster Cline to be a “co-therapist” in Rage Reduction, will be keynoting at an adoption training conference in Tennessee Nov 5, 2010, for which social workers can receive continuing education credits. The sponsoring organization of this conference, which receives funding from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, advertises that Thomas’ “work was highlighted in an HBO special in 1990 titled, ‘Child of Rage.’”)

In Iowa, Vermont, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Utah, and Georgia, public funding paid for training therapists in Attachment Therapy. Adoption Subsidy Funding for “special needs children” could pay for any treatment parents wanted, evidence-based or not, including Attachment Therapy.

By 2002, numerous high-profile deaths and child abuse prosecutions resulted in growing professional condemnation of Attachment Therapy. It was at this time that I wrote Schroeder, on behalf of Advocates for Children in Therapy, (ACT) fully expecting she would retract her support.

When Schroeder did not respond, ACT picketed a pricey speaking event in Denver where Schroeder had been chosen to speak because of her “compassion.” Hoping the protest got Schroeder’s attention, I wrote her again:

You obviously did the authors of High Risk (still in print) an enormous favor by writing a foreword, in effect helping to legitimize the message of their book by lending them your well known name and your reputation as a humanitarian. That is viewed by the public as an endorsement of what is said in the book. Do you presently stand by your decision to have written the foreword for the book High Risk?

This time Schroeder responded, albeit briefly:

I am not a doctor and can’t endorse.

When I pressed the issue, she responded:

Writing a foreword and endorsing a medical authority are two different things. I believe books are to stir thoughts, debate, ideas, etc. The more the better. Different theories on everything are detailed in books. That is the best way to vet them.

With such a rationale, it is unclear whether there would be any book Schroeder wouldn’t write a foreword for. Schroeder’s response prompted Wallace Sampson, MD, to comment:

A book is not for discussion or debating. That is what journals are for.

Some years later, when the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children released its “Task Force Report on Attachment Therapy” (in the journal Child Maltreatment Feb 2006) denouncing Attachment Therapy, its parenting methods and the Attachment Disorder diagnosis, I again wrote Schroeder, hoping that some high level dissing of the practice might make her reconsider her position. She didn’t respond.

Some suggest that Schroeder might not have been aware of High Risk’s contents, and that she is now taking the politically expedient route, hoping the whole issue goes away with time. But while Schroeder has been evasive, she is clearly not regretting her promotion of High Risk. If she was duped, why not jump ship while the jumping is good? While High Risk allowed her to pontificate about her own agenda in the foreword, I have a hard time coming to any other conclusion than that Schroeder may actually approve of this “therapy.” Would someone with presidential aspirations write a foreword for just any book?

At any rate, I think we can assume that Schroeder will not be asking Bantam to remove her foreword from future editions of High Risk, nor will she be calling for legislation that requires federal funding only go to providing evidence-based therapies for adopted children — or any of a dozen other things to help save children from Attachment Therapy.

Schroeder has good reasons to believe her endorsement of Rage Reduction will not tarnish her reputation. She continues to be feted as one of America’s great humanists. Last year, no less than the Center for Inquiry honored her at their 2009 World Congress and highlighted her participation in their Travel Club Adventure Caribbean cruise. CFI officials were not only unconcerned by Schroeder’s association with Attachment Therapy, but accused critics of “nastiness” towards a “defender of good science.”

But it gets worse.

Irony of ironies, Schroeder is now scheduled to keynote for that bastion of evidence-based medicine: The Joint Colloquium of the Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations in Keystone, Colorado, on October 18, 2010.

(As keynoter, Schroeder is billed as the leader of a “multi-year study for the Institute on Civil Society.” But according to ICS, this study produced “no formal document” or publication.)

Last March, I gave a heads up to colloquium organizer Robert Dellavalle, MD, about Schroeder’s unrepentant support of Attachment Therapy. When this yielded no response, I did a broad-spectrum emailing to Cochrane and Campbell officials about this brewing scandal, which prompted Dellavalle to respond:

The leadership discussions so far have noted that invitations to speak at the Colloquium do not constitute an endorsement of any views of the speakers positions past or present. And the topic of your concern is not the topic of Ms. Schroeder’s talk at the meeting.

On learning the title of Schroeder’s keynote is: “Can we keep this Democracy going?” I responded:

We fail to see how this topic is not relevant to the rights of children to be free from actual torture (using the definition of the UN Convention on Torture).

In the same way that world seemed upside down when Bill Maher received the Richard Dawkins Award for scientific integrity, so now do things seem topsy-turvy with CFI and the Cochrane/Campbell Collaborations honoring Schroeder as a defender of science and ethics. This is, alas, not the most shining hour for these otherwise esteemed organizations. Once again, the cult of celebrity scores a bullseye.

See childrenintherapy.org for more information on Attachment Therapy.

See childrenintherapy.org/practitioners for claims made by Attachment Therapy practitioners and proponents.

Linda Rosa, RN, works in home health care in Colorado. She has written about pseudoscientific practices in nursing, such as Therapeutic Touch, and works with Advocates for Children in Therapy to oppose unvalidated and abusive psychotherapy. She currently is Executive Director for the Institute for Science in Medicine.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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