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'He doesn't act like he has a conscience'
On a flight to Omaha, the 5-year-old boy threw his usual rage-filled tantrums, kicking at the plane windows and seats while cursing.
A passenger asked the boy's guardian, Melyssa Cowburn, if she knew about Nebraska's safe haven law.
That's what I would do as soon as I got there, he told her. Not a bad idea, another passenger said.
That was the plan when Cowburn bought the tickets for herself and the child, who goes by the nickname "T."
"He needs so much more than one family can give," she said Monday. "God knows, if it was just love that could make him better, he would be better."
What is reactive attachment disorder? Reactive attachment disorder is a psychiatric illness that involves a lack of emotional attachment. The disorder reflects "markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate" behavior in social relationships beginning before a child reaches age 5, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
What causes it? The primary cause is neglect in infancy, typically in a child's first two years of life. Neglect can take several forms:
She ended up becoming T's guardian after a chance encounter with a stranger in 2004.
Then 24, Cowburn was living in North Carolina when a woman begged for money, then asked her to hold her baby, who was dirty and wearing only shorts, while the woman shopped for groceries.
The mother never returned.
Cowburn contacted police and eventually agreed to keep the 16-month-old.
She had had miscarriage after miscarriage and had been adopted as a baby. Her parents had been foster parents, taking in 39 children over the years.
"He was like this miracle who had come into my life," she said. "I thought, really naively, 'All he needs is someone to love him.'"
The first signs of trouble were his screaming fits, hollering for seven hours without shedding a tear. He hoarded food, hiding it in vents and behind furniture.
She avoided putting him on medication, concerned that he was too young, but she gave in after T tried to push a baby from a car when he was 2½.
"He doesn't act like he has a conscience," said Cowburn's mother, Ruth Thompson of Omaha.
Cowburn later learned that the boy's mother had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, in addition to a drug addiction.
The boy has been placed in psychiatric hospitals three times and released with medication and outpatient therapy.
He has reactive attachment disorder, a lack of emotional attachment that results in disturbed and inappropriate behavior; disruptive behavior disorder, a consistent pattern of breaking rules; and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"It's like a disruptive 13-year-old in a 5-year-old's body," Cowburn said. "Most mothers wake up to, 'Mommy, I'm hungry.' I have to hear, 'If you don't get up, I'll slit your dog's throat.' This is like a horrible nightmare that never ends."
Cowburn's husband was deployed for 18 months, mostly in Afghanistan, while the family lived in Bellevue and in Waterloo, Iowa.
In April 2007, the boy cut the family cat and came at Cowburn with a knife. She got him into a car and drove to her mother's apartment.
Once there, Cowburn tried to overdose on prescription pills, hoping the boy would get a family who could provide better care.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services made the boy a state ward but returned him to Cowburn after she agreed to certain services.
Provided were a family support worker and intensive family preservation services, which involve a therapist and a support worker who spends hours in a family's home every week looking for causes of problems and teaching parenting skills. Cowburn went to a therapist, and the boy went to a program and took medication.
He later was placed in a foster home after allegations were made that Cowburn didn't follow through.
Cowburn said she sometimes missed meetings because workers seemed to focus on her rather than addressing her child's out-of-control behavior. She also had a miscarriage and car trouble.
A judge closed the case in March when the family moved to Washington state, where Cowburn's husband was stationed.
The boy's explosive behavior further rattled her husband, who has had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from combat, Cowburn said.
On Christmas, T pushed Cowburn's 90-pound mother, who fell. She fractured her hip and pelvis and spent seven weeks in a nursing home recovering. Her doctor said the boy cannot come to her home anymore.
The boy has broken Cowburn's nose, cut her forehead with a snow brush and left deep bruises from biting her calf. He has put a kitten inside an oven and blinded the family's parrot.
Cowburn cannot physically control the boy, who already weighs 63 pounds. Both she and her husband are about 5-foot-6 and slender.
The boy has poured brownie mix onto the carpet, smothered it with water and salad dressing and ground it into the fibers with his feet. He kicks holes in walls.
He urinated on the neighbor's dog and threw canned food off the balcony.
"It's like a horror movie every day," Cowburn said.
He can be good. Sometimes he apologizes for being bad.
"I can't make it stop," he has told her. He'll act like a little doctor and bring ice for her headache, even when he's the one who hit her in the head.
He was kicked out of kindergarten this fall for physical aggression, including choking a girl.
About a month ago, the couple decided that they could take no more and tried to find a residential program for him.
They needed a doctor to sign a referral, but waiting lists for psychiatrists were two to six months long.
"We have tried everything in the whole world to get him help," she said. "I feel like I am screaming at the top of my lungs in a glass room."
Cowburn's mother recommended the safe haven law.
"She's went through hell with him," Thompson said. "I told her, 'He's going to kill you or you're going to lose your mind.'"
The couple made their decision last week, after T set fire to the shower curtain one day, then flooded the apartment the next, clogging the sinks and toilets.
The next day, Thursday, Cowburn booked plane tickets to Omaha. She left him that night at Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha.
"If things work, I want him back," she said.