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Schools & Program Visits - Feb, 1999 Issue #56 


For attachment disorder children and their families
Cedar Crest, New Mexico
Roselia McCaffrey, Admissions Coordinator
Lon’s Visit: January 27, 1999 

At first glance it looked like a typical collection of kids playing sandlot baseball – the pitcher, the batter, a few out in the field to catch pop balls, and the rest milling around behind the batter cage. But even in the middle of having fun, the staff was hard at work. 

I watched one staff member standing still in the middle of the milling kids and stretching his arms out to two of them. He was telling those two boys they were too far away from him and they had to move closer until he could touch both of them. His basic message was for them to stay close, so he could take care of them, and they could be safe. This is the heart of the Villa’s work as Clinical Director Linda Zimmerman had emphasized several times in my earlier orientation from the staff. She explained these attachment disorder children have been so hurt that they have to be taken care of emotionally and every other way first, so they can learn to take care of themselves later. 

The VILLA is a small program on eight acres outside Albuquerque with up to 16 attachment disorder boys and girls. The rural property, nestled between two small streams, is an idyllic setting for the healing needed by these very hurt children. The buildings are old, but well taken care of and comfortable. Working in re- furbished buildings is obviously temporary in the face of Executive Director Joseph McGuill’s enthusiasm for the impending new 10,000 square foot lodge to be built specifically to better meet the needs of the children. He only needs half an invitation to roll out the complete set of plans and drawings and share his dreams for the future. 

The attachment model used at the Villa sees the children as being there because they have experienced difficulty establishing healthy relationships with others. In essence the child’s normal development of attachment has been interrupted. In the absence of trusting relationships, these children experience fear and rage and a desire for distance and isolation. 

This is why traditional discipline backfires with attachment disorder kids. Giving a consequence to their behavior might trigger a fear/rage reaction coming out of a primal fight for survival. Or, sending one of these children to his/her room or anything resembling a time out room will be seen by the child as a favor, removing them from threats i.e. having to associate with others. 

What attachment disorder children need is to be overwhelmed by positivity, and that’s exactly what Villa Santa Maria does. By keeping the children close, and continuously telling them the adult will take care of them, the staff is helping the child learn that caretakers can be trusted. As this is learned and accepted, the child’s desperation to survive through isolation and manipulation is relaxed. This helps nudge the child back on the road of normal development, which also includes developing a trust of self and societal controls. Since these children have experienced hurt in their short lives, Villa administrators figure complete therapy might take 1-2 years and that these children often require specialized treatment and education beyond their stay. The attachment model at the Villa insists the key to success is the caregiver who works directly with the child on a one-to-one basis. The administration estimates it takes a full two years to completely train a caregiver and that staff turnover at that level would be especially devastating for these children. As a result, the administration bends over backwards to pay the child care workers well, provide them solid support, and to avoid burnout. The result is their child care workers are as close to having career jobs as is possible anywhere doing that kind of work. 

There are two things that impressed me with the staff. They conducted themselves in a professional manner suggesting they knew what they were doing, and were serious about doing it right. The other thing was they obviously enjoyed and liked the kids. A powerful combination! 

Much of the credit for the Villa goes to Forest Heights Lodge staff in Colorado, who have spent a lot of time working with the Villa in building their program. For those fans of Forest Heights Lodge who have been hoping for a sister program, I think it is here in Villa Santa Maria. 

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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