When I heard a yelp followed by sickening thuds, I rushed to the bottom of the stairs where I found my four-year-old, Brandon, sprawled on the tile floor sobbing. My nine-year-old, Devon, stood watching from the top of the stairs as I ran my hands frantically over Brandon’s body checking for injuries. My other kids rushed to tell me they’d seen Devon sneak up behind Brandon and, with one big shove, send him hurtling through the air. As they spoke, Devon began shrieking, “They’re lying on me! I didn’t do it.” I knew with icy certainty that he had.
My husband and I adopted Devon (whose name has been changed here for his protection) and his sister Kayla out of foster care when he was four and she was three. At the time, we had two other sons, Sam, who was ten, and Amias, three. Brandon, our youngest, wasn’t born yet. Even though Devon’s behavior was concerning – throwing tantrums, hoarding food, urinating in odd places, and lying – we were confident that with the love of a forever family he would overcome these vestiges of early childhood abuse and neglect.
Over the years, Devon’s tantrums grew longer and more intense. He gorged and threw up, and played with his feces. I tried one parenting strategy after another but nothing worked. Particularly challenging was his uncanny ability to “play” adults with his big, brown puppy dog eyes. Even as a kindergartener, he was convincing teachers I hadn’t fed him breakfast despite his full belly. He could switch off his tantrums at the approach of another adult, leaving outsiders perplexed by my seemingly exaggerated concerns. Once, when Devon pulled a fire alarm at school, he almost convinced even me that it was an accident. But, of course, it wasn’t. Both the victim and arbitrator of Devon’s fibs, I grew wise to his tricks.
That morning, with Brandon sobbing on my lap, I listened to Devon shrieking and slamming his bedroom door over and over. When had the tantrums of a toddler turned into dangerous rages? Brandon could have been seriously hurt or even killed. I was out of my depth. One more reward chart, one more consequence, one more month of being consistent wasn’t going to be enough. We needed help.
Over the following months, Devon received intensive outpatient therapy and was hospitalized twice. When his behavior deteriorated further he was admitted to a psychiatric residential treatment facility. He was 10. There he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a result of early childhood trauma. Although the disorder is considered rare for the population at large, many adoptive and foster children struggle with attachment issues. Due to the effects of early trauma, these kids’ brains get “stuck” in survival mode. They exhibit various symptoms, including violent outbursts, superficial charm, and manipulation in an attempt to manage their surroundings and the people around them to feel safe. They struggle to form meaningful attachments and often actively reject love and affection from their caregivers. This description fit Devon to a T, and with a diagnosis that seemed to explain his extreme behaviors, I was optimistic he would finally get the help he needed.
But after a year in his first placement, Devon had made no progress. Over the next few years, due to Medicaid length of stay guidelines, Devon bounced between psychiatric residential treatment programs, therapeutic foster care, and group homes. With each move he grew bigger, stronger, and more violent. He punched kids in the backs of their heads and stabbed them with pencils. When desperate for attention he made halfhearted attempts to hurt himself, like stuffing socks into his mouth and making paper cuts across his wrists. He attacked workers, too, even dislocating one woman’s thumb.
Devon was a boy who cried wolf. On several occasions, he claimed workers had purposely hurt him. Once, as I examined his handsome and unblemished face, I’d asked, skeptically, “A grown man punched you in the face and you have no bruises, no red marks, no swelling?” He nodded emphatically.
Other times, Devon would brazenly tell workers, “I’m gonna get you fired,” and then smack himself in the face or claw at his arm to create damning marks. His accusations were investigated while the accused workers were put on unpaid administrative leave. With no consequences for false allegations, he made them whenever he wasn’t getting his way, was mad, or just bored.
By the time Devon was 14 and at his sixth placement, Thompson Child & Family Focus, a Carolinas-based childcare and education center, my dwindling optimism had been replaced by stoic pragmatism. These programs weren’t helping Devon, but with him not living at home, at least his brothers and sister were safe.
* * *
It was a cool day in October when Ellen, the therapist at Thompsons, called to notify me that Devon had stripped naked and run around masturbating in front of staff and his peers for two-and-a-half hours earlier that afternoon. As usual, there was no apparent trigger that set him off.
When Devon called me during his scheduled phone time a few hours later, I braced myself for tiresome excuses and blame shifting:
“Hi, Mom. It’s me. Devon.”
“Ummm, I had a hard time today. The kids was annoyin’ me.”
“And that’s a reason to run around naked? That’s not an excuse.”
“But staff was teasin’ me. They was makin’ me do it.”
I’d heard enough. “That’s unacceptable, Devon. When you’re ready to take responsibility for your actions call me back.”
I hung up and he didn’t call back.
The next morning, I sipped my coffee and stewed over the years of treatment and thousands of hours of therapy Devon had received. Nothing had worked. I understood that RAD was particularly difficult to treat, but surely there must be effective therapies. Had we just not found them yet? I worried too that he’d become institutionalized – adept at gaming the system and sabotaging his treatment. Would he ever be well enough to move back home?
Then my phone rang. It was Thompsons again, this time the nurse. “I’m calling to notify you of a second incident Devon had yesterday. This one was at about 10 p.m.” I shook my head, exasperated, as the nurse continued. “He hit a worker in the eye with a plastic toy then became agitated and had to be restrained. He accidentally hit his head. We took him to the ER last night and he got seven stitches, but the CT scan was clear.” Before hanging up, I told the nurse I’d come by to check on Devon.
These calls were nothing new. Devon was physically restrained, for self-harm or aggression toward others, every few days – except during the weeks leading up to his birthday and Christmas when he hoped to parlay good behavior into more presents.
A sturdy teenager, mature enough to have the shadow of a mustache, Devon usually fought back when he was restrained. Once, when he went AWOL, workers had to restrain him on the pavement as he ran down the road. His forearms and palms were scored with bloody scratches which he, of course, claimed they inflicted on purpose. It had only been a matter of time before he got seriously hurt.
When I arrived at Thompsons less than an hour later, Ellen met me at the door. As we walked down the hall, she told me the worker Devon had injured, Mr. Myron, had a scratched retina but was expected to make a full recovery. I flushed with shame and embarrassment. Since Devon had been hurt too, they were conducting an investigation and Mr. Myron had been placed on administrative leave.
Before opening the door to the conference room, Ellen paused and turned to me. “I want to warn you, Devon’s had a rough night and doesn’t look so good.”
Devon didn’t raise his head when we entered. I pulled a chair up next to his, reached out for his chin, and lifted his face. In shock and horror, I gaped. His cheeks, normally honey-brown, were a garishly swollen purplish black under his freckles. His lips were swollen too. Red bruises dotted his throat and blood caked inside his nose. A gash near his hairline was tracked with black stitches.
Devon mumbled about Mr. Myron beating him up. My stomach churned not knowing what was true, what was exaggeration, and what was an outright lie. It was hard to imagine a worker beating Devon, but not hard at all to imagine Devon accidentally hitting his head during a restraint. I was pretty sure this was somehow Devon’s own fault, and that the investigation would bear that out, but were those fingermarks on his neck? How could that be an accident? Unsettled and afraid for my son, I insisted he be immediately transferred to a new facility.
* * *
After Devon was safely admitted into a new program I requested his records from Thompsons, and was startled to find they’d scrubbed the entire incident from his file. What was going on? It took months to get access to the findings report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), which included 17 witness statements and media transcripts of the surveillance footage. As I sat reading the report, Devon’s version of the story – once unimaginable – unfurled vividly in my mind.
That October afternoon Devon was bored, so he stripped to his underwear – always good for a laugh – and trotted into the common area. The other boys hooted as he flapped his arms like bird wings. The fun didn’t last long though because the workers called for backup to take the other boys off the unit.
The NC DHHS report referred to the on-duty workers as Staff #5 and Staff #6, but I recognized Staff #5 as Mr. Myron, a burly man with a mustache. I hadn’t met Staff #6, a woman Devon called “Miss Piggy,” and didn’t know her real name.
Sauntering to a window, Devon pulled down his underwear and shook his naked bottom at the boys outside. Barking a laugh, Mr. Myron imitated Devon shaking his own clothed bottom. Miss Piggy laughed.
“You stop it!” Devon shrieked.
In an effeminate voice, Mr. Myron mimicked, “You stop it!”
When Mr. Myron didn’t stop, Devon began masturbating. Mr. Myron took the unspoken dare – dangling his lanyard between his legs, gyrating his hips, and moaning.
According to the report, a case manager and a quality assurance specialist were watching a live surveillance feed from a nearby office and did not intervene.
Then, with Mr. Myron egging him on, Devon mimed pushing a pencil up his rectum. Would Mr. Myron take this dare? Grinning, Devon gingerly lowered his bottom flat onto the bench.
It was at that moment that Mr. Mike, Staff #7, strode in and told Devon in a firm voice to get dressed. Devon immediately complied. I gasped in relief, not realizing I’d been holding my breath while reading. Finally someone intervened on Devon’s behalf.
Mr. Mike took Devon outside for a walk to burn off some energy. After that, the evening was peaceful with dinner, phone calls home, and Devon and the other residents watching “X-Men.” Later, in his bed and unable to sleep, Devon caught his name in a few snatches of conversation from the common area. Enraged, he rushed out of his room. “You! You stop talkin’ about me!” He pointed a shaky finger at Mr. Myron, who grinned.
“Let. Me. Call. My. Mom!” Devon punched out.
“Nope.” Mr. Myron’s eyes narrowed in a Cheshire grin. “Phone-time is ova.”
“I’m gonna fuck you up, bitch!” Devon screamed, throwing a laundry basket then a trash can. “Stop makin’ fun of me!” he screeched. Grabbing a plastic art stencil, he flung it toward Mr. Myron who was now advancing on him.
Yelping and clutching at his eye, Mr. Myron fell to his knees. Blood seeped between his fingers as he growled, “I’m gonna kill that little boy.”
“Chill… Chill…” Mr. Mike intervened, leading Mr. Myron away.
Devon called after him, “And don’t you come back neither or I’ll hurt you worse.” Then, Mr. Myron bolted after Devon, who raced for his bedroom. He threw Devon onto the bed and slammed his fist into his face; then again, before Mr. Mike managed to drag him off and away. Calling for backup, Mr. Mike urged, “He’s not worth it. Think about your family.”
Mr. Myron visibly calmed. “O.K. I’m O.K.” Standing, he turned toward the door as if to leave. When Mr. Mike relaxed his hold, Mr. Myron twisted away and hurtled after Devon again. Screaming, Devon ran, but tripped. Mr. Myron shoved him into the bathroom, slamming him into the bathtub. Grabbing a fistful of hair, he cracked Devon’s head against the faucet and blood gushed from the wound. Mr. Myron’s strong hands squeezed around Devon’s throat. He couldn’t breathe. Panic stricken, he kicked his legs, but Mr. Myron was bigger and heavier. He couldn’t escape. Couldn’t breathe.
Finally, Mr. Myron was pulled away and locked out of the unit. Someone helped Devon change out of his blood-soaked t-shirt. Laying on a bench, he held an ice pack to his head and cried, “I need the police. Call the police–”
“Hush now.” The nurse patted his arm. “We’re going to take you to the ER, honey. That cut needs sutures and we’ll get you checked for a concussion.”
“I wanna call my mom first,” Devon croaked and someone gave him a cordless phone. Holding it for several long seconds, he stared at the glowing numbers before handing it back. “She won’t believe me anyways.”
Putting down the report, my hands trembled. Devon was right. I hadn’t believed him until then. How many other times had workers been unnecessarily rough when restraining him? Feeling nauseous, I thought back to the bruises and scrapes I’d seen on Devon over the years and realized this probably wasn’t the first time I’d failed him. This was just the first time his injuries couldn’t be explained away. How many times had staff smirked instead of soothed? Deliberately provoked him? If they’d been sabotaging his treatment, that would explain why he hadn’t gotten better. I was deeply disturbed, and knew there were no easy answers.
* * *
Thompsons was fined $5,000 and given 23 days to implement corrective measures. Miss Piggy resigned. The case manager and quality assurance specialist received disciplinary write-ups. Thompsons fired Mr. Myron and, only at my insistence, filed a police report. Eighteen months later, the arrest warrant has yet to be served.
These nominal penalties have not made Devon or kids like him any safer. Residential treatment facilities claim they can handle juveniles with a propensity for violence while providing them with effective treatment and keeping them safe. In truth, they’re chronically understaffed and lack effective therapeutic interventions. Layer in kids, like Devon, who are manipulative and incentivized by policies that allow them to wield false allegations with impunity. Sprinkle in a few rogue workers, like Mr. Myron, who abuse their power and lose their cool. These treatment facilities are dangerously simmering pots.
Because Devon still cries wolf, it’s nearly impossible to sort out the truth from the lies. Impossible to protect him. Our goal has always been for Devon to move back home, but as long as he continues to be a danger to himself and to his siblings, residential treatment facilities are our only option. Unfortunately, I can’t simply move him to a new facility every time he makes an allegation, because availability is very limited in these types of programs, even more so for kids who have a history of making false allegations.
Since leaving Thompsons, Devon has been in a string of residential placements and his violent behavior has only escalated, punctuated by allegations he’s being mistreated. Not long ago, he called me with a familiar refrain: “Mom, they restrained me. I didn’t do nothin’. And, they was stranglin’ me!” Hours later, the staff called and said Devon threatened to get the workers fired and twisted his shirt around his own neck to leave red marks.
I knew it was possible – I’d seen Devon do this very thing before with my own eyes. Still, I erred on the side of caution and made every possible inquiry. Witnesses – both workers and Devon’s peers – all stated that he had been the one to twist his shirt around his neck. I was told surveillance footage showed this as well. Regardless, Devon tearfully insisted the worker who restrained him had tried to strangle him. Ultimately, I had to make a tough judgment call: this time Devon was just up to his old tricks.
Or was he?