The terms “attachment” and “bonding” are often confused. Attachment refers to a child’s emotional connection to caregivers. Bonding refers to the caregivers’ feelings and connection to the child. Both are relevant under 63.2-1205, but attachment is of primary concern as it relates more directly to the best interests of the child. It addresses crucial relationships from the point of view of the child’s needs and experiences.
In a normal intact family with competent parents, a child begins to attach to his or her primary caregiver immediately after birth, if not before birth. Extensive studies have established phases of attachment which reach a critical stage at about age two and are fully developed by age five. A secure attachment is an essential element of healthy human development, because it provides the safety, security and nourishing which a child needs in order to avoid anxiety and to have the freedom to learn and to grow. A child with a healthy attachment may explore, which is how the child learns, but a child who does not have a secure attachment is distressed and frightened and is not able to explore, because attention is otherwise directed to insecurities and fears. It is important to understand that biology means nothing whatsoever to a child. In the eyes of the child, the parent is the one who is there, and who provides what the child needs. And in a healthy parent-child relationship, attachment behavior is a two way process. The parent perceives the child’s needs from subtle cues and responds sensitively and appropriately.
Attachment is characterized by specific behaviors in children, such as seeking proximity to the attachment figure for comfort, safety and security and to have basic needs met. These behaviors may be clinically observed and measured.
It has been conclusively shown that when children do not have secure attachments in early development, they become emotionally disturbed, which becomes clearly evident as they mature. And this condition is usually permanent, and not responsive to therapy. Many biological parents who have not been good caretakes cling to the illusion that the child will one day recognize them as being the true parents and will want to return to themn. This is almost never true.
If the child has developed a healthy attachment with a caregiver other than his or her biological parents, then to remove the child from those individuals is, in the eyes of the child, no different than removing a child from a healthy family and giving that child to strangers. And becasue children view nearly everything personally, they will tend to believe that they themselves must have done something terribly wrong. They will blame themselves and try as hard as they can to say that they are sorry, to beg to be forgiven, and to be allowed to return to their perceived parents.
If the child has not developed a healthy attachment during the critical first five years of life, then it has been conclusively shown that the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression. The condition known as “Reactive Attachment Disorder” will most likely result. This condition comes in two forms, one which causes indiscriminate and dangerous relationships and one which prevents any relationships at all.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of healthy attachment and bonding in child development. When birth parents are unable or unwilling to provide a secure and safe attachment for their child, and others step in and do so, the child cannot be returned to the birth parents without consequences to the child. If, in fact, a birth parent does achieve the ability to provide a safe and secure home after a substantial hiatus, under the best of circumstances, intensive and long term therapy would be required for the child.
It is a recognized goal of the law to provide permanency for children. This simply means that their legal status has been established and under ordinary circumstances cannot be altered. Permanency makes a child secure and safe.
Some people ask why adoption is necessary. Why, they ask, cannot there be some continuing visitation with birthparents? The answer is that there can be in some situations and not in others, and that the decision should be made by the adoptive parents, who are the only ones sufficiently attuned to the individual needs of the child to be able to make that decision in a manner which is responsive to the particular needs of the particular child. Judges usually cannot adequately make that determination.
Also, children are so very much more perceptive than many adults tend to think that they are. When a birth parent has an inconsistent presence in a child’s life, the child may very well sense a risk that he or she may be forced to go with the birth parents and be separated from the perceived parents. The anxiety and fear which this creates can cause great harm to the child. It can prevent learning and healthy development. But if permanency has been achieved through adoption, the child senses no risk, and may be able to have successful visitation with the birth parent. (Terms of post adoption visitation may now be negotiated and incorporated into the Final Order of Adoption through the use of a Post Adoption Contact and Communication Agreement. Sections 63.2-1220.2 to 63.2-1220.4 of the Code of Virginia). If the adoption is not granted, then the child remains in legal danger of custody and visitation proceedings being brought up repeatedly. It is hard for the custodians to hide these proceedings from the child, and a perceptive child will sense the fear and anxiety which is caused to the perceived parents.