S. M. Abbott

Victim of Attachment Therapy
Brenton County, Minnesota
Rescued at age 5, August 1994

Note: This account has been gleaned from court documents. See the webography that follows for sources.

In 1988, Abe Abbott and Charlotte Fisher were married in Oklahoma; one year later their daughter, S.M., was born. Subsequently, Abbott and Fisher divorced and Fisher received custody of their only child. In 1992, Fisher died in an automobile accident in Oklahoma. Abbott was awarded custody of the girl and she came to live in Minnesota with him, his new wife Carol Abbott, and Carol Abbott’s two sons.

Soon after moving to live with the Abbotts, the girl was reported to exhibit abnormal behaviors, such as: intense rages that lasted for hours; pulling down her pants to wet the bed; smearing feces around the room; and hiding razor blades in her room. In February 1994, the Abbotts consulted with a clinical psychologist who diagnosed the girl as having Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). The adults attended a support group for parents of children with RAD and worked with a social worker who had claimed experience treating children with RAD.

To treat the girl, the Abbotts used a form of attachment therapy called “holding therapy” (at the time a common name for Attachment Therapy). During the period the Abbotts employed this therapy and other parenting techniques, the girl’s behavior became more self-injurious. In August 1994, after her last holding therapy session, the girl reportedly peeled skin off her fingers and entered into an uncontrollable rage during which she threatened to kill both the Abbotts and herself.

The following day, Fairview Riverside Medical Center admitted the girl and she was hospitalized for the next five weeks. The girl’s treating physician, the hospital’s chief of psychiatry, ruled out RAD as a diagnosis and instead assessed the girl as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder features; he recommended discontinuation of the holding therapy. The Abbotts resisted any diagnosis other than RAD and any treatment other than holding therapy. After discharge from the hospital, the girl lived for five weeks with family friends who described her behavior as normal and did not use holding therapy.

In October 1994, Jutta Martinez, the girl’s maternal grandmother living in Alabama, brought a third-party custody action in a Minnesota court. That court granted temporary custody of the girl to Martinez and ordered a full evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, health care professionals, who evaluated and treated the girl, gave conflicting testimony as to their diagnoses and recommendations for her treatment. The district court also heard testimony on the Abbotts’ implementation and use of holding therapy techniques. Carol Abbott, in particular, was quoted as saying that it was necessary in the circumstances to “outcrazy the crazy.” After making more than 50 pages of detailed findings of fact, including violations of the endangerment and best-interest standards applied to the treatment of children, and the court awarded permanent custody to Martinez, though it later established a visitation schedule for the Abbotts. The trial court’s decision was upheld on appeal.