Tim and Julie Tennent could never have known they were putting their lives in danger when they agreed to adopt 19-month-old Beth Thomas and her younger brother Jonathan. But they soon found themselves in a terrifying situation.

After adoption, Beth started displaying serious psychological traits. She began abusing her little brother, stealing knives, and killing pets and wild animals. When interviewed, Beth calmly expressed a desire to kill her adoptive parents. Her flat affect chilled the interviewer.

How did this child become so void of emotion? And what became of her?

The Story of Beth Thomas: Child of Rage

Jonathan and Beth Thomas are found in dire neglect

In the mid 1980s, Child Services found two neglected children living in horrific conditions. The house was filthy, with little food and no adult present. 7-month-old Jonathan was listless and abandoned in a urine-soaked cot. At his feet were bottles of curdled milk and dirty diapers. Lying in the same position for too long flattened the back of his head and bulged out the front.

This neglect impeded his development. He couldn’t raise his head or roll over on his own. Social workers removed him alongside Beth, his 19-month-old sister.

Child Welfare located the father. He was an alcoholic who had no interest in caring for his children. Their mother had died soon after giving birth to Jonathan. The state took over legal guardianship and looked for suitable adoptive parents. They found the perfect pair; pastor Tim and his Sunday school teacher wife Julie.

The Tennents adopt the Thomas children, but Beth exhibits troubling behavior

The couple adopted Beth and Jonathan, but it wasn’t long before they noticed behavioral problems with Beth. Beth was having regular nightmares about a man falling onto her and hurting her with a part of himself. She suffered fits of uncontrollable rage.

This rage morphed into physical violence towards pets and wild animals. However, the target of her aggression was towards her brother, Jonathan.

During the day, she would stick him with pins. Beth spoke in a calm tone, admitting to abusing him by pinching, punching, and kicking his private parts. At night, she would enter his room and punch him in the stomach.

The couple began locking Beth in her bedroom at night. However, Julie noticed knives and other sharp objects were missing. When she questioned Beth, Beth denied taking them, but always with a sly smile that frightened Julie.

The disturbing incidences continued. Julie recalled waiting at the hospital for Tim in the car park. Beth was in the back seat. When Julie turned to check on her, Beth was masturbating with her legs wide open.

Julie caught Beth smashing her brother’s head against a cement floor in the basement. They were at a loss, desperate for help. They consulted child psychologist Dr Ken Magid, an expert in children with attachment disorders. He interviewed Beth where she revealed more disturbing revelations.

You can view his interview with Beth below. It formed the basis for the HBO documentary Child of Rage.

Experts diagnose Beth with Reactive Attachment Disorder

Slowly, Magid uncovered horrific details of sexual abuse and severe neglect. Beth’s behavior finally made sense. Dr Magid diagnosed Beth with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). This is one of the most severe attachment disorders, yet studies into this disorder are rare.

We know is that RAD occurs when a child fails, through neglect or abuse, to form a secure attachment to a primary caregiver. Other causes include rapid changes of caregivers, a lack of responsiveness, or abrupt separation from their primary caregiver.

In all instances, the child cannot form stable attachments. They have no template for human relationships. Children with RAD haven’t experienced love or kindness. Often, they go without the basic needs such as food, warmth, and safety.

As a result, they become withdrawn and completely detached, shunning human contact or comfort. They don’t know how to engage with others. Inappropriate behavior such as masturbating in public is common, as is spitting, or urinating and defecating.

Children are prone to outbursts or fits of anger. On the other end of the spectrum, some children with RAD seek comfort indiscriminately from strangers. For example, sexually abused children with RAD can behave in a highly sexual and inappropriate way with older adults.

“Children with reactive attachment disorder are presumed to have grossly disturbed internal models for relating to others.” American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Early childhood deprivation gained attention in the 1990s when journalists visited a Romanian orphanage. In 1966, dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu passed a state law. It forbade any woman under 40 with less than four children from seeking an abortion or using contraception. As a result, birth rates increased catastrophically, and the population surged out of control.

However, Romania is a poor country and parents could not afford to feed or house these children. The policy resulted in over 170,000 children being given up to the state. Children ended up in equally dire unfunded orphanages.

In 1990, British journalist Bob Graham visited a Romanian orphanage, and the conditions appalled him. Children would sit rocking silently or not moving at all.

“They were inhuman. Stalls where children, babies, were treated like farm animals. No, I am wrong — at least the animals felt brave enough to make a noise.”

It is now understood that many of the Romanian orphans were suffering from RAD.

The Abuse of Beth and Jonathan Thomas

beth thomas story

Their birth father had severely neglected and sexually abused Beth and her brother. He left Jonathan for long periods of time in his cot with no love or stimulation. The father frequently physically, verbally, and sexually abused his daughter.

Beth and her brother were so neglected and abused they could not form stable relationships. They didn’t know what a stable relationship was.

However, this is not a story of a cruel and callous child who grew up to be a psychopath. Beth Thomas overcame her terrible childhood and is now happily married and working as a nurse.

The Rehabilitation of Beth Thomas

Despite her horrific childhood, Beth was not a lost cause. In fact, a child diagnosed with RAD can learn to form secure attachments with the right treatment.

It was too dangerous for Beth to remain with the Tennents, but Connell Watkins agreed to treat her in her own home. In the beginning, Beth had to ask permission for everything, including bathroom breaks and food. When she complied, they gave her more privileges.

This transactional way of rewarding good behavior resulted in two things; trust from her caregivers and Beth learning to form positive attachments.

What happened to Beth?

Beth Thomas thrived under Watkins’ care and an associate called Nancy Thomas and her husband eventually adopted her. Nancy runs therapy camps and online workshops for children with attachment issues. Under the watchful eye of Nancy, Beth attended school and graduated with a degree in nursing.

Beth credits her adoptive mother with her recovery:

“I healed from Attachment Disorder by the time I was seven and eight… I had internalized mom’s moral values, as well as her desires and her values…”

She now works in a neonatal intensive care unit, caring for the most helpless and vulnerable babies. Beth also supports her adoptive mother’s attachment work. She often lectures around the country about her experiences.

Final thoughts

The Beth Thomas story shows children can survive and thrive despite the most extreme childhood abuse.

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