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Dr. Jean Mercer: Open Letter to Russian Child Ombudsman

April 13, 2010

Update: To the Russians who have been reading this blog, welcome! There seems to have been an incorrect translation, though. Dr. Jean Mercer’s designation translated as “honorable” is actually Emerita, which means she was a full professor and is now retired. I wanted to clarify that, since some in the discussion were implying that this meant she never completed her PhD when nothing could be further from the truth. She was a Full Professor with Tenure for over 20 years, prior to her retirement.

Developmental psychologist Dr. Jean Mercer, on her Psychology Today Blog, just posted the following open letter that she also sent directly to the Russian Child Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov.

Dear Mr. Astakhov:

Please excuse my writing to you in my own language, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the keyboard to say what I want to say in Russian.

I want to communicate with you about factors affecting Russian adoptees in the United States. Several years ago I was interviewed on this topic by Konstantin Semin, the television anchor, who was at that time working in the United States.

I regret to say that little has changed since my discussion with Mr. Semin. However, the international reaction to Artyom’s situation may offer an opportunity to make some changes. Curiously, there seems to be much more concern expressed about the treatment Artyom received than about physical mistreatment and even murder of adopted children.

In my opinion, a major reason for maltreatment of adopted children in the United States is the circulation in the media of misinformation about child mental health and development. Even the New York Times this morning referred to “reactive detachment disorder”, a non-existent diagnosis; the reporter presumably meant to say “reactive attachment disorder”, although of course there was no evidence that Artyom had received such a diagnosis. Smaller regional newspapers almost daily print mistaken information about “attachment disorders”, much of which they draw from popular commercial Internet sites. Similarly, the “Nightline” program last week apparently got its material from such sites.

Among the errors promulgated by popular Internet sites are these: 1. That adopted children are very likely to have Reactive Attachment Disorder, and that it is quite easy to diagnose this even in children of 5 or more. 2.That reactive Attachment Disorder is characterized by violent, hostile behavior toward caregivers, younger children, and animals. 3. That treatment of behavior disorders in adopted children involves removing the child from the adoptive home and sending him or her to a residential treatment center. 4. That conventional psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ methods exacerbate adopted children’s problems, and only unconventional treatments can be helpful. Sources of these mistakes, as well as information about children harmed by misunderstanding of Reactive Attachment Disorder, can be seen at

None of these claims are supported by evidence. But one can easily see how beliefs of this type would cause adoptive parents to focus on the child as the cause of any dissatisfaction or trouble in the home, to be seriously frightened by moods or behaviors that might be within the normal range, and to be prepared to separate from the child as part of the solution to any difficulties. One consequence of the belief that the children are dangerous may be for adoptive parents to respond with force to any minor disobedience or misunderstanding. In addition, adoptive parents who are convinced of these beliefs may be reluctant to seek assistance from professionals who reject the ideas, and this may have been the reason that Ms. Hansen did not ask for help even though she apparently needed it.

Regrettably, even highly-respected adoption agencies have in many cases taken on these mistaken beliefs and encourage them or pass them on to prospective adoptive parents. Some state governments have allowed child protective services to train foster and adoptive parents to use methods based on these misunderstandings.

Obviously, it is not the responsibility of Russia to correct mistaken beliefs in the United States. However, the motivation of Americans to adopt Russian children does provide some leverage that may make possible changes that would be beneficial to adopted children from many backgrounds. If Russia were to withhold permission for adoption to the United States until the mass media and the adoption agencies made some effort to correct the misunderstandings they have created by their acceptance of misinformation, this would be motivating for the adoption groups. If the media and the adoption groups were actually to provide correct information, parents adopting from Russia might be better equipped to behave appropriately toward the children.

I do not, of course, claim that this would solve all the problems, as I believe that for some parents the adoption situation triggers mental health issues that are not easy to predict. However, I think it is possible that changing the stories told by newspapers and television could play a serious role in changing adoptive parents’ thinking and behavior.

Thank you for your attention. I would be happy to discuss this further at your convenience.

Yours sincerely,
Jean Mercer, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita of Psychology, Richard Stockton College, Pomona NJ

Fair Warning: Comments about the issues at hand are welcome. I will, however, be deleting any comments that contain personal attacks or the same type of repetitive spam that has appeared on Dr. Mercer’s PT blog and don’t try to scream and whine about “censorship”. This is not censorship. This blog is my territory and I am exercising my rights to decide who is welcome and who is not, just as I have the right to decide who is welcome in my home. In a free society, people do have that right. Just to illustrate the extent of the obsession some of these folks have with us, I have already received 7 attempts to post from the same IP address under multiple names, repeating the same old lies about Dr. Mercer and me and asking questions Dr. Mercer already fully answered. This is known as sock puppetry and sock puppets are not welcome here. Neither are arguments from authority.

  1. Fainites permalink

    What struck me about the Artyom case was that they changed his name and apparently didn’t learn any Russian. What struck me about the videoed little girl on Nightline was the way they almost silently followed this very distressed little girl around the house videoing her whilst she, understandably, tried to escape it, without ever appearing to realise that they were witnessing distress and that their response was intrusive. Perhaps people who propose adopting older children should be required to undertake a course to help them understand what to expect from older adoptees and what is required of them as adoptive parents.

    • And it wouldn’t have to be a particularly complex course, either, though some of the information does take years to process and learn.

      Courses can be easily exploited and abused.

  2. I did post my letter and the requested confirmation of receipt on my blog.

    It’s unlikely it will be taken very seriously but as I said in the blog title, one can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket.

    It’s interesting, just today I was reading Monica Pignotti’s responses to accusations made against her and here I find myself commenting on her blog. I was happy to have found the information because I admit some of the comments made about her had me feeling a little uncomfortable.

  3. Jean Mercer permalink

    What’s your blog, Campbell? (Forgive my laziness please!)

  4. Something exciting if not substansive:

    Saveliev will be (may be) adopted by a diplomatic family in Moscow.

    They already have 2 other children.

    The Ombudsman has said that he is not a US citizen.

    Not of course that a diplomatic family will solve all problems. You may well remember the case of a South Korean girl and her family in about 2007-08.

  5. Sorry, hi Jean. Not sure if you made your way over by now but you should be able to get there by clicking my name. If not, I’ve pasted the link below.

    The post with the letter (which is no great piece of literature, be forewarned) is entitled “You can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket, right?”

  6. For the record, 9 spam e-mails came in last night attacking Dr. Mercer and me. Eight (8) of them came from the same IP address under multiple identities, tracing back to Woodstock, IL. Fair warning to the Woodstock spammer, I will not be posting your libelous comments about Dr. Mercer and me and engaging in childish namecalling (until this recent series of attacks on me, I hadn’t been called “pig” since second grade!). Posting under multiple identities is known as sock puppetry. Sock puppets are not welcome here. Anyone with more technical expertise than I have is welcome to see what you can do in tracking this individual, who has also done multiple postings to Dr. Mercer’s blog so he/she can be outed once and for all rather than hiding behind fake IDs.

    There have been repeated requests for Dr. Mercer’s credentials on her own blog, even after she posted her full publication list which includes a number of recent publications on the topic she posts on, which is far more than most PT bloggers provide. So, I am only going to answer this one time here. Here is her PT Bio.

    Henceforth, repeating of this question, which is now answered, will be considered spam and treated as such.

  7. Here is a link to a list of my recent scholarly publications, which should shed some light on the reasons I am being attacked here and elsewhere. Apparently I have challenged too many sacred cows.

    Here is a link to letters from credible scientific mental health professionals who endorse my work.

    • Fainites permalink

      Stop worrying about the mad spammers Monica. That’s how they appear to everybody.

      • Most definitely. I just posted the information for the benefit of my blog readers who might not be familiar with what has been happening on Jeans blog.

  8. Fainites permalink

    You might be interested in this

  9. Jean Mercer permalink

    Outstanding letter, Campbell. How wonderful if Canada would take the lead!

  10. Well, I won’t hold my breath Jean, but it would be great. I guess the States has an opportunity (and reason) to do it with this freeze on adoption.

    Have you heard anything back from the Ombudsman?

  11. Jean Mercer permalink

    Nothing from the Ombudsman. But perhaps other messages would have a cumulative effect.

  12. Chris Bessell permalink

    I find this letter really interesting because I lived in Moscow for several years in the 1990s. The pseudo-science of attachment therapy seems to mirror the way psychology and mental illness was misused in the Soviet Union.

    I also find your work in general fascinating because, as a British citizen, I am struck by how little debate there is in England re attachment therapy. This is despite hundreds of children in state care being undergoing this treatment.

  13. Great observation, Chris. They also do this to critics. Certain practitioners of questionable methods have a tendency to want to label their critics as mentally ill or unstable in some way, which is exactly what the Soviet Union did to dissidents. One such person, who had never even met me, wrote a letter to my Dean where I was a grad student, after I had criticized his work, stating that he believed me to be not of sound mind when he had never even met me, much less assessed me in any way. My Dean wisely chose to take no action whatsoever with regard to the letter and told me he considered it completely irrelevant to my work at FSU. People who know me and actually worked with me have provided me with solid references that refute this nonsense, but I am glad that I don’t live in a country where dissidents get labeled as being mentally ill.

    There are states within the US that have also funded AT, but the difference is, as I noted in my other comment, the libel laws in the US are different from those in the UK. When the plaintiff has the burden of proof, as is the case in the US, there is less of a chilling effect on criticism. The US has its own problems with SLAPP lawsuits but at least the cases are less winnable.

  14. Fainites permalink

    Hi. I’m a bit puzzled by the “100s of children in state care undergoing attachment therapy in the UK”. I am only aware of two facilities practicing US style AT (of the milder kind), and AT beliefs and attitudes are not mainstream. There may be private practitioners around but I am not aware of social services departments paying for these. All information on this gratefully received!!! Or were you thinking of other approaches to address attachment issues? Most people over here are not actually aware of AT american style and therefore the name “attachment therapy” has a different meaning here. I had assumed the lack of debate arose from lack of knowledge. I know BAAF have warnings about it. I also know Family Futures looked into holding therapy and rejected it.

  15. Chris Bessell permalink

    I stand by my comment that I believe hundreds of Looked After Children have undergone AT/holding therapy in England at huge cost to the British taxpayer. By AT I refer to the holding and restraint of a child by two seated therapists (involving the child lying across their laps and looking up at one of them). I have seen the 2006 position statement by the BAAF but this does not refer to any of the agencies practising holding therapy. Can I ask which are the two facilities that you refer to and how you know the AT practiced there is a milder form? If you don’t feel you can name them could you describe them in some way?

    I agree that the lack of debate stems partly from a lack of knowledge but the question must be asked as to why there is such a lack of knowledge in the first place?

    In writing this comment I am acutely aware of the “chilling” English libel laws that Monica so rightly pointed to.

  16. Jean Mercer permalink

    A useful document discussing British practice is
    Sudbery, Shardlow, & Huntington (2010). To have and to hold: Questions about a therapeutic service for children. British Social Work Journal, Vol.40, pp1534 1552.

    My brief response to this paper has been accepted by BSWJ, and of course Sudbery et al. will be able to have “the last word”, so it will be interesting to see how they address various issues I brought up.

  17. Chris Bessell permalink

    Yes, I’ve read this paper. The discussion mainly relates a 2003 evaluation of a private provider undertaken by the same academics at Salford University. As the authors concede, this study did not consider the efficacy of AT within this setting and consisted of a number of semi-structured interviews and focus groups. The company paid Salford University £31,000 for this evaluation.

    So the 2010 paper is not a new study and while the paper claims to be opening up the debate, my feeling is that it does exactly the opposite. The reason I feel this is that, once one gets beyond the philosophical discussions and the very generalised and vague descriptions of the treatment and its possible effects, the reader is no wiser as to what actually takes place, how often and for how long. For interventions such as AT, I feel that this specific detail is crucial

    For me the paper read like a highly skilled peice of damage limitation, the Salford University academics seem to have agreed to undertake an evaluation a number of years ago and now, following the BAAF position statement and other warnings have been obliged to defend their work and their reputations.

    In some ways I can see how academics can be drawn into these things. At the time of the original study a number of organisations such as the BBC, the Guardian newspaper and the social work magazine Community Care ran stories that were generally positive about the intervention. Subsequent to this there was a good deal of silence from the media, especially after the BAAF statement. However, my fear is that the paper by Sudbery et al, will only serve to mislead academics, professionals and the general public as to the extent to which this highly intrusive and controversial treatment is taking place with Children Looked After in Britain.

    I very much hope that the authors address the concerns you raise in the paper you submitted to the BJSW. However, I am conscious that the paper that you are responding to may not have provided you with enough solid ground on which to pitch your arguments. What worries me most of all is that I cannot find a single article or news story originating in Britain that is critical or questioning of AT

  18. Jean Mercer permalink

    The things that were completely clear in the BSWJ paper were that the authors said not one word about the 2006 APSAC task force report, they only mentioned a small number of the anti-holding papers in the 2003 special issue of Attachment & Human Development, and they referred to me as “hostile” to holding, rather than noting the points I’ve criticized.

    I think part of the history behind the silence you describe is the great enthusiasm that met Martha Welch when she visited the UK in the ’90s and set up at least one holding center for autistic children. The support she received from Elisabeth and Nikolaas Tinbergen apparently made her above question. It must be science if a Nobel winner likes it…

    The other thing is the awful libel business.As we’ve seen over here, AT practitioners are often very ready to bring suit for defamation if they’re criticized, and with you the consequences can be devastating.

  19. Fainites permalink

    I am aware of one facility which conducts holding (across the lap) whilst undertaking therapy which includes talking about difficult past trauma’s etc though as far as I am aware they state they do not use physically aversive techniques or verbal abuse to excite rage and fear. That is the facility described in the Sudbery paper. I endeavoured to get the original study/paper about the setting up of the facility but with no success. I also e-mailed the authors a copy of the APSAC report as it had not been mentioned in their paper but they said they were aware of it.

    I am also aware of one facility which considered and rejected holding therapy but goes in for the Daniel Hughes approach. Beyond that I have not come across attachment therapy being either promoted or practiced via LA adoption services or through the care system in respect of Looked After Children. If you have any evidence otherwise I would be most interested to hear it!

    There may well be private facilities that private adopters use but my general experience is that there is almost a complete lack of knowledge about the very existence of attachment therapy (holding style) over here and the first many professionals knew of it was the 2006 RSP publication on evidence based practice in the field of attachment by Prior and Glaser. It contained a chapter at the end on the non-evidenced based stuff, commonly known as attachment therapy. The facility they cite is the same one. One of the problems is that given the lack of knowledge of USA style attachment therapy, a psychologist or psychiatrist who uses the term over here would probably mean something completely different.

    The use of holding therapy for autistic children back in the early days hit the media over here. I remember being horrified by a TV demonstration of this at the time. It was certainly highly controversial and has I believe died the death long since from any publically funded services. I also remember another earlier one which didn’t last very long where the idea was to shock autistic children into changing by shouting at them for hours. Awful.

    The difference over here of course is that most services are accessed through the NHS which trains and employs the professionals delivering the services. However, there is a thriving private sector and nothing to stop people pursuing entirely private treatment if they wish.

    I have seen newspaper articles over here critical of AT but they have often been articles on scandals in the US, such as Candace Newmaker. Otherwise there is just the controversy there was a short while ago about Keys. Some family had gone to the press complaining that the LA was refusing to fund treatment there although their child “had” RAD and it was the only thing that worked. Unfortunately in these circumstances the LA’s tend to maintain the confidentiality of the child/family and therefore you don’t really get their side of the story.

    Regarding the “chilling effect of UK libel laws”, you may not be aware that the Eady judgment on chiropractors that so upset the scientific community over here was reversed on appeal (so we can now call them charlatans).

    There is website called EBM which covers AT, based in the UK. I’ll post a link if I can remember where it is.

  20. Fainites permalink

    Here it is It’s mostly sources you probably already know about.

  21. Fainites permalink

    You could try requesting a copy of the original 2004 evaluation here.

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