aim of this paper is to discuss the relevance of attachment theory to the needs of people who are in care or who have experienced
care as a result of family separation or loss. Whilst the significant emotional and psychological consequences of family separation
for relinquishing mothers and families are acknowledged, the focus of the paper concerns the mental health aspects of those
placed in various forms of care following separation or loss. The paper will review some of the links between family separation,
which results in adoption, foster care, and institutionalized care and their mental health outcomes and attempt to demonstrate
how attachment theory can assist in understanding these outcomes. The paper will
discuss some preliminary data concerning associations between disruptive experiences in the backgrounds of adult offenders
in the New South Wales prison system and their mental health and recidivism.
and consideration of those who have spent time in care and those who have relinquished children is implicit in the material
to be presented along with an awareness that some of the material may be painful for those who have had such experiences.
have been a variety of studies, which have demonstrated how disruptions to attachment and bonding can adversely impact on
emotional and psychological development (Fonagy, 2001; Morton & Frith, 1995; Sperling & Bermann, 1994). Family separation and loss experiences have been clearly identified as a risk factor for the development
of mental health problems in childhood and adulthood (Fraser, 1997). Although
biology, temperament and experiences all play important roles, children who have had interrupted relationships with primary
caregivers are more likely to have compromised mental health. (Folman, 1996).
and loss can be traumatic and its impact depends on the circumstances of the separation or loss (Keogh, 1998). The work of Van der Kolk (1996) and others (Glaser, 1998)
has shown how the timing and impact of trauma can lead to additional and sometimes devastating psychological and biological
consequences. Examples of traumatic family separation are revealed in the disturbing
accounts of survivors of the Stolen Generation.
the case of family separation or permanent loss resulting in care placement, the child’s age, the number of placements,
the chronicity of the separation and the trauma associated with it have all been shown to significantly determine the mental
health impact of the original separation or loss experience.
WHO expert committee (1997) set up to review issues concerning child mental health and psychological development noted that
the continuity of relationship to parent figures is especially important in the first few years of life. They also indicated
that children are most at risk when they experience multiple changes of parent figures or when they are reared in institutions
with many attendants who have no special responsibility for individual children. They
concluded that there are significant dangers to the emotional and psychological well-being of children who are delayed in
their adoption process, to children who are taken in and out of institutions and foster care, or to those who are left to
experience an impersonal institutional upbringing.
there is now a large literature, which has documented the particular vulnerability of infants to the stress associated with
separation, loss or insufficient care in their first years of life. Glaser (1996)
has summarized a considerable amount of this research, which demonstrates the potentially traumatic effect of such experiences
on the growth of the brain. Damage to the brain from such experiences not only
compromises brain development itself, but such compromised brain functioning can also interact with later adverse developmental
experiences adding to their negative impact and predict a greater likelihood of poor mental health adjustment in a later life.
is still coming to grips with the reality that separation and loss experiences, which when compounded by poor subsequent attachment
opportunities, can severely compromise a child’s future.
adverse effects of institutionalisation on mental health have been identified for some time (Spitz & Wolf, 1945) along
with evidence, that there are differential mental health effects associated with institutional care, foster care and adoption
has documented a litany of the adverse effects of institutionalisation which have included increased susceptibility to infectious
morbidity, poor nutrition and growth and retarded cognitive development. The
risk of physical and sexual abuse is such settings has also become painfully clear (REF**).
are also numerous accounts of the sexual and other abuses that institutionalized children have experienced which would have
compounded their already adverse developmental milieu (REFS**). Sequelae of sexual
abuse include specific mental health difficulties which are related to the extent and nature of the abuse can encompass severe
psychopathology including dissociative states and borderline personality disorder (REFS**).
Frank et al (1996) recently noted that it significantly increases the
likelihood of that children will grow up psychiatrically and emotionally impaired.
(1946) following on from the studies of Spitz and Woolfe (1945) demonstrated that there were five symptom clusters of psychological
problems that persisted in institutionalized children into adolescence. These
were: hyperactivity and disorganization, indiscriminate demands for affection and attention, superficiality of relationships,
the absence of normal anxiety in reaction to failure or rebuke and social regression.
Subsequently, Tizard et al (1975) followed the emotional and behavioural development of 40 children who were
place in care. They noted a number of features of such children, which indicated
impaired capacity for attachment manifested in their inability to turn to peers for emotional support, and to achieve friendship. They concluded that compared to children who were adopted or returned to impoverished
families that the institutionalized children were ten times more likely to develop such problems. Rutter and Quinn(***) also replicated such findings with a
cohort of young women and showed that although later positive experiences might moderate some of the earlier adverse ones,
compared to a control group institutionalized girls as women were much more likely to have serious emotional adjustment problems
which interfered with their capacity for emotional well-being.
care and adoption
health sequale have also been associated with foster care or adoption (Ref**). Adoption
per se cannot be said to contribute to poor metal health outcome because it may also represent a protective factor by which
children can build up resilience to mental health problems. This is an important
caveat in relation to foster care and adoption and their impact on mental health. This
relates to research which has shown that resilience to mental health problems can build up if a child has available to them
a constant and consistent alternative attachment which such experiences often provide.
Valiant (REF**) argued that the best single predictor for a long term positive mental health outcome in such children is the
chance to form on good relationship with someone, not necessarily a parent or a relative.
re-attachment opportunities are therefore pivotal in increasing the potential for better mental health outcomes. Also the child’s age, delays in fostering, the number of foster placements and matching of the child’s
development needs with a suitable foster parent have proven to be especially predictive of better mental health outcome (REFS**).
the U.S. however, children are currently entering foster care at increasingly earlier ages, when as previously noted, they
may be at most risk to adverse impact on their brain development which combined with
bonding and attachment disruptions can have profound implications for their future mental health (REFS***).
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (REF**) in a report on foster care has noted that fostered children commonly
blame themselves and experience guilt about removal from their parents. They also note that such children often want to return
the parents even if they were abused by them, and feel unwanted if they have to wait for a long time for a foster parent. Such children also have mixed emotions about attaching to foster parents and have
feelings of insecurity and uncertainties about their future. Many of these
experiences become the themes in their adult psycic life. Such children as adults
often experience feelings of aloneness and unworthiness that are deeply felt and can interfere with taking advantage of everyday
opportunities for happiness that many other people take for granted. As
a group they are at risk for later depression, substance abuse, and criminality and can have relationship difficulties associated
with the various forms of insecure attachment (Miller et al 2000)
aware of the difference of a child’s sense of time and taking into account the age and developmental needs of a child
or infant are crucial determinants in facilitating their adjustments to the stresses associated with being fostered (REF**).
a group adopted children appear to have more mental health problems than non-adopted children.
There a variety of factors, which impact on this outcome including the experiences prior to adoption, delays in the
adoption process, and the quality of the attachments, made to adoptive parent(s). Notwithstanding
this Miller et al (1996) were able to replicate a study conducted by Warren
(1994) which demonstrated that adopted adolescents were more likely to receive mental health services that non adopted adolescents.
These findings corroborate the findings of a meta analyses of data concerning a variety of psychological and behavioral outcomes
by Wierzbicki (1993) who showed adopted children showed consistent negative differences on all measures compared to non adopted
children. Slapp, Huang and Goodman (2001) have also demonstrated that adoption
is a risk factor for attempted suicide during adolescence. They found that compared
to non-adopted children they were more likely to have depressive symptoms, have a poor self-image, be involved in more risk
taking behaviors and have less of a sense of connectedness in their significant relationships.
many of the above-mentioned findings concerning the mental health sequalae of family separation it becomes clear that disruptions
to attachment are of key to the resultant mental health outcomes. An understanding
of attachment research and theory therefore appears helpful in understanding the processeswhich appear to underpin these outcomes.
The fact that relationship or attachment with caregivers
centrally involved in a child’s upbringing mediate development is a concept central to early intervention strategies
and to the risk and resilience literature (Fraser 1997). This literature has identified categories of factors, which can either
influence, the development of maladaptive behaviours or afford some protection against them.
Attachment Theory (Fonagy 2001) in particular posits that secure attachment with caregivers fundamentally
mediates psychological adjustment. Bowlby (1958) had suggested that security
and relatedly attachment were prime motivators in humans and saw secure attachment as an important precursor to stable adult
Bowlby (1958) can be credited for having been the first theorist and clinician to articulate the
importance of attachment to the understanding of human behaviour. He believed
that babies and infants had an evolutionary related need to ensure their safety by establishing proximity to with significant
adults in their environment (usually their parents).
Bowlby specifically believed that children make internalized representations of these of the basic
style of the relationships with their parents and that these internal working models become a template, which guides
their relationships with others. He suggested that these models are built up around a relatively small and simplistic set
of abstractions from these experiences. These interpersonal transactions consolidate
into internal working models during the period 9 - 18 months of age. This is also that time during which ‘object permanence’
(i.e. a stable psychological representation of another person) crystallises in the infant (Piaget 1954).
The development of Bowlby’s thinking resulted from a series of studies undertaken at the
Tavistock Clinic in London in which a large number of babies’ reactions were observed where
their contact with their primary caregivers was subject to interference and separations. (Bowbly 1971).
Ainsworth and her colleagues (1987) subsequently developed a methodology to explore these findings. She developed a technique that became known as the 'strange situation' experiment
in which a child was brought into the strange situation of a social laboratory and exposed to a graded series of mild disturbances
to their contact with caregivers and culminating the caregivers brief departure.
They studied a large number of mother infant dyads and developed a typology of children’s’ attachment styles. The typology described children as being either securely, avoidantly
or ambivalently attached. Subsequently a disorganized category of attachment
style was added (Main and Hess 1990).
In the majority of cases she observed that children would react in a way that suggested that they
could be characterized as ‘secure’. These children manifested distress
when the parent left but was relieved when the parent returned. They demonstrated
more concentration when they are at play, and had greater social competence. They
also displayed more positive affect and had greater ego resilience.
In contrast the ‘avoidant’ attachment style was characterized by distress during the
separation from caregivers and by a lack of acknowledgment or rejection during the reunion phase. The ‘ambivalent’ style was characterized by high level of distress during the separation and
by a mixed approach and rejection during the reunion.
With the ‘disorganised’ attachment style during reunion with their caregiver, these
infants exhibited disorganized and contradictory behaviour. This included approaching
the caregiver with the head averted, falling to the floor on approach to the caregiver and a kind of frozen response whereby
they seem stuck to the floor and unable to approach the caregiver. This attachment
style is often more directly the consequence of abuse experiences of various kinds. The internal representations of these
children are chaotically organized and often feature violent images (Main & Cassidy, 1988). It is therefore not surprising that this category has been shown to predict the development of aggressive
The common underpinning issue in all these insecure attachment styles is that the basic anxiety
is related to a feared loss of the (object) parent. Such experience according
to Bowlby (1971) was primarily mediated by the caregiver’s capacity for empathy or empathic attunement as Stern (1985)
has referred it to.
Crittenden (1996) has developed further sub-categories
to this basic typology using the dimensions of cognition and affect. She saw
that the attachments in a child’s life is the 'scaffolding’ which allows the mind to interact with reality.
Zeanah, Bakshi, Boris and Lieberman (2000), and Zeanah Boris and Lieberman (2000) have also extended categories
of attachment in infants and articulated secure base distortions that include categories of disordered attachment with: 1.
Self-Endangerment, 2. Inhibition and 3. hypervigilance.
Also pertinent is a schema of adult attachment styles developed by Bartholomew (1990), which built
on the work of Hazan and Shaver (1987) who had proposed three categories of adult attachment roughly paralleling Ainsworth’s
(1987) childhood categories. They proposed ‘secure’, ‘ambivalent’
and ‘avoidant’ categories of attachment in adults.
Bartholomew’s schema proposes four categories of attachment in adults as can be seen in
A Four Group Model of Adult Attachment (Bartholomew
Model of Self (Dependence)
of Other (avoidance)
Bartholomew described four broad types of adult attachment
1. Firstly, a secure autonomous attachment style, which is associated
with an expectation of relationship permanence and a positive view about oneself and others. Such individuals do not generally
worry about being alone or have worries about being accepted by others
2. Secondly, a dismissing attachment style in which the individual is
comfortable without close emotional relationships but where it is important for the individual to that they are not dependent
on others. It is other s who are viewed negatively rather than the self.
3. Thirdly, a preoccupied style which is characterised by an anxious and
ambivalent approach to others. Individuals with this attachment style experience
others as reluctant to get close and worry about their self worth.
a fearful style which is charcterised by mistrust of others and a worry about getting hurt if others are allowed to get close.
West and Keller (1994) have noted that the defensive attachment patterns results in defensive
styles that represent unresolved mourning of the longed for but never experienced a tender care giving relationship with usually
the parent. They claim that such unresolved feelings always result in the renunciation
of authentic relatedness with others in favour of a detachment from their attachment emotions, which cause them to adopt one
of a number of defensive styles.
In the last ten to fifteen years there has also been significant progress in linking attachment to the development
of psychopathology (del Carmen and Huffman 1996; Boris, Wheeler, Heller and Zeanah 2000). Substantial progress has also been
made linking insecure attachment and depression (e.g. Cummings and Cicchetti 1990; Lyons-Ruth 1996).
Gender differences have also been demonstrated with males manifesting risks of criminality violence substance
abuse and occupational instability whilst women with the a sequalae of insecure attachment are more likely to feature depression,
suicidal behavior, multiple somatic complaints, substance abuse and sometimes become involved in prostitution REF**). Not surprisingly the care of children of insecurely attached parents can be compromised.
Fonagy (1997) has argued that disruption to attachment leads to a failure to mentalize about experience and
that this lack of a self reflectively ability results in a need to deal with psychological distress physically. This is similar to Freud’s (1918) original idea of motor discharge in the absence of mature defences. From this perspective aggression can be seen as a defence to safeguard the self from
fantasies and thoughts which the self is not able to protect itself through mental manipulation (Fonagy & Target 1995).
Along with findings of the temporal stability of insecure attachment and its relationship to mental health
these findings shed light on the ‘why’ of family separation and loss. That
is, what it is about family separation and loss, that links it to adverse mental health outcome
The development of conduct problems and criminality and its links to attachment is currently a burgeoning
area of research. Kosky (1992) for example has showed juvenile offenders to have
high rates of psychological morbidity and mental health. Adult offenders also
as have high rates of mental health problems (REFS**). These offenders often
have high rates of care experiences in there backgrounds suggesting that such experiences link to their mental health outcomes
which encompass deficits which directly link to their propensity to offend (Keogh, 2000).
For example Rosentein and Horowitz (1996) have shown that adolescents with a ‘dismissive’ attachment
style rely on an attachment strategy that minimizes distressing thoughts and affects associated with rejection by the attachment
figure. They specifically found that adolescents with dismissing attachment patterns
were more likely to have self-reported anti-social personality traits. Thus insecure
attachment has its link to criminality through mental health and psychological problems and related behaviors.
Fonagy (1998) has marshaled a significant body of evidence, which has demonstrated the likely causative link
between disrupted attachment and the development of criminology. There is abundant evidence that criminality is associated
with insecure attachment and more serious crime with non-attachment (Fonagy, Target, Steele & Steele 1997)
and crime were for Bowlby (1946) disorders of attachment. In these disorders the criminal acts against others are permitted
through a lack of concern, which is a result of the inhibition of bonding.
data from an Australian inmate population
The following are some preliminary findings from a collaborative research project that I am involved in with
the Corrections Health Service (Dr Tony Butler and Mr Simon Quilty), and Dr.
Joanna Penglase, Ms. Katherine McFaralne and Mr. John. This research arose
from an Inmate Health Survey conducted by the Corrections Health service in NSW led by Dr. Tony Butler. The current research focuses on data sets that capture experiences that were disruptive to attachment in
the backgrounds of adult offenders who were incarcerated at the time of the survey.
557 of total 995 inmates who had completed the inmate health survey were selected for study. This smaller group were those who had also completed the CIDI (***), a research instrument which measures
mental health indices.
The composition of this group sampled is detailed in Table 1 and shows the large proportion of indigenous
Australians in the sample is an indication of their over-representation the incarcerated population.
Table 2 shows the overall rate of any mental disordered a category of ICD 10 which is an international classificatory
system for mental disorders. The cohort examined also had an overall 12% of attempted
self-harm. (Table 3)
Data concerning the care background of these inmates (see Table 4) showed that 20 % of the total group had
been placed in care before the age of 16 years with rate for women even higher (29%).
Table 5 shows the main type of care the group experienced and has you can see 15 % had experienced institutional care.
Table 6 revels the percentage breakdown of the number of times this group had been in care and it can be
seen that a significant number have experienced multiple acre placements.
In the light of the previously mentioned research the age at which the group was first placed in care is
also significant and Table 7 shows a large number had been placed in care before the age of 3 years.
The total time spent in care (Table 8) also revealed that a significant percentage of the group had spent
more than five years in care. This correlates with the findings presented in
table 9 which is the amount of time in total that was spent with parents care before the age of 16 years.
These data reveal a strong correlation between mental health problems and time spent in care.
The analysis of the data to date has shown (see Table 10) that all the listed mental health indicators are
substantially higher for those inmates who had had the most disruptions to their attachment and relatedly who had spent the
most time in care. Those who had the most disruptions to their attachment were
also more likely to be a recidivist (see Table 11).
Taken together these data corroborate the body of attachment research data, which show a clear association
between insecure attachment and mental health and insecure attachment and criminality
They also suggest a link between severely disrupted attachment occasioned by family separation and subsequently
being placed in care, mental health problems and criminality where the mental health problems apparel to mediate the propensity
The research data and extant research literature presented clearly documented adverse mental health sequalae,
associated with family separation, loss and subsequent care experiences with differential effects on mental health linked
to institutional care, foster care, and adoption. Notwithstanding this, the opportunity
to form and maintain a primary attachment subsequent to disruption to attachment, has emerged as the factor most relevant
to mental health outcome.
The data presented confirm that insecure attachment which ensues in various from family separation and loss
can result in a wide range of mental health problems which have in common varying degrees of difficulty in forming close reciprocal
relationships. Criminality in it various forms appears to be one common consequence
of severely disrupted attachment and has a range of mental health problems associated with it that seem to underpin the propensity
There is a strong case for the body of research and knowledge concerning attachment to inform our approach
the strategies that are invoked when children are separated or loose their primary caregivers or families. It also needs to inform policies, programs and services for those, including offenders who are struggling
with consequences of their developmental history.
The value of attachment theory as a compassionate and philosophically sound means of making connections
about the data we have concerning family separation and mental health is strongly supported by the data presented.
The next challenge may be to take this approach forward in the form of useful policies and programs
for those in need in a manner that stresses our attachments to each other in this society.
*Timothy Keogh is a Clinical
and Forensic Psychologist and Psychotherapist in private practice and has a special clinical interest in attachment disorder. He is a former Director of Inmate Services and Programs (Department of Corrective
Services) Director Psychological and Specialist Programs (Department Juvenile Justice) and Director, Inner City Mental Health
Service. Tim is currently involved in a range of attachment research with the
University of Sydney and Corrections