Holding Therapy: Blowing The Whistle on Institutionalised Child Abuse in the UK
Simon Oxenham covers the best and the worst from the world of psychology and neuroscience. Formerly writing with the pseudonym "Neurobonkers", Simon has a history of debunking dodgy scientific research and tearing apart questionable science journalism in an irreverent style. Simon has written and blogged for publishers including: The Psychologist, Nature, Scientific American and The Guardian. His work has been praised in the New York Times and The Guardian and described in Pearson's Textbook of Psychology as "excoriating reviews of bad science/studies”.
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Evidence has emerged that a bizarre and potentially inhumane treatment which originated in the US is now being used on children in the UK. The therapy involves a caregiver holding a child down and maintaining direct eye contact for extended periods with the express intention of provoking a fit of rage. Only after this crucial element is attained does the caregiver comfort the child. According to the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) “a variety of coercive techniques are used, including scheduled holding, binding, rib cage stimulation (e.g., tickling, pinching, knuckling), and/or licking… Similar but less physically coercive approaches may involve holding the child and psychologically encouraging the child to vent anger toward her or his biological parent."
One intended purpose of the therapy is to make the child “regress”, with the belief that this will result in attachment between child and caregiver. The induction of anger is done out of the belief that existing anger blocks attachment and must be “drained” before attachment can occur. There is also an assumption that a parent’s established authority is the cause of attachment. The eye staring emerges from a belief that mutual eye gaze is an essential part of development. The practice is typically used on children living in care with severe behavioural difficulties, commonly with a diagnosis of autism or reactive attachment disorder. The therapy goes under the names of holding therapy, rage reduction therapy and attachment therapy. However the therapy has little relation to the cuddly connotations of the word “holding”, the therapy actively induces rage and the treatment has only the vaguest background in John Bowlby’s renowned theory of attachment.
Most importantly, the practice may be harmful to a child’s health and even life, according to a draft copy of a forthcoming paper that has been accepted for publication in Adoption and Fostering by Professor of Psychology Jean Mercer. According to Prof. Mercer, "Holding Therapy has never been shown to be safe and effective by independently-conducted systematic research designed to show results objectively. Rather than an evidence-based treatment, it is one supported primarily by anecdotes and testimonials that come from parents and therapists rather than the children who experienced the treatment."
A British company that has used holding therapy in the past is currently in the midst of a civil case with a holding therapy “survivor”. The specifics of the case cannot be divulged because of the ongoing investigation, however a social worker involved in the case, writing under the pseudonym of Anya Chaika has self-published a shocking exposé titled Invisible England: The Testimony of David Hanson which describes his investigation in to the topic. A report by a leading expert is also due to be published before the end of the month. Unfortunately this report will remain classified as it is a part of the aforementioned legal case. Shockingly, the company that administers the therapy is funded by a number of Local Authorities. A recent criminal investigation was unable to proceed because the Crown Prosecution Service stated that the council involved was aware of the nature of holding therapy and therefore were deemed to have given consent. Bizarrely, in answer to a Freedom of Information Request, the council deny knowledge of ever having funded the treatment.
The American Psychiatric Association, The US National Association of Social Workers, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, The American Professional Society on Abuse of Children and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (and the list goes on) have all explicitly rejected holding therapy. There may however be evidence that at least one British company continues to use Holding Therapy or a close analogue.
Due to client-patient confidentiality amongst other reasons, it is extremely difficult to independently ascertain where holding therapy continues to be used, unless someone involved or a survivor blows the whistle. Unfortunately, due to the lack of available evidence and British case law combined with the high risk of litigation, it is currently very difficult to expose those involved. The best we can safely do is inform the public and hope social workers, caregivers and members of local authorities block the use of the this dangerous treatment.
Invisible England, the recent exposé in to the use of holding therapy in the UK is cited in the forthcoming publication by Prof. Jean Mercer due to be published in Adoption and Fostering later this year. The author of Invisible England remains anonymous to protect against potential career harm and legal threats. Anya Chaika is currently producing a documentary on holding therapy which is due for release in 2013. Clips from the film will be previewed on 20th April in London at The International Working Group on Abuses in Child Psychotherapy where there will be representatives from the Czech Republic, the USA and the UK discussing holding therapy and other similar issues.
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