Film about attachment disorder hopes to raise awareness, money

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comJune 25, 2013 

Faith cuddled with here mother, Tiffany Sudela-Junker, as an exercise at a special camp for children with attachment disorders. Tiffany Sudela-Junker put her family's struggles with Faith into a film to help raise awareness.

PHOTO PROVIDED

  • If you go

    'My Name Is Faith'

    When: 7 p.m., movie showing, 8:30 p.m. question and answer, Thursday.

    Where: Lyric Theater, 300 E. Third St.

    Cost: $15. Tickets available at the door or online at LexingtonLyric.com. Ticket sales benefit the non-profit CASA Lexington.

In public, Tiffany Sudela-Junker's daughter, Faith, was generally as charming as her freckled face.

But childhood trauma made the child unable to connect with her adoptive parents, leaving her angry, rageful and unpredictable in private.

"The real bottom line of it is that as family, we just felt absolutely isolated," said Sudela-Junker, whose daughter lived with her meth-addicted biological parents until she was 6.

"We felt like nobody understood what we were going through."

Sudela-Junker's effort to help her daughter, now 13, led her family to specialists in reactive attachment disorder.

The mother/director put her family's journey on film to help others recognize the problem and find the right kind of help.

The documentary, My Name is Faith, has been on the film festival circuit and is being shown Thursday at Lexington's Lyric Theater as a fundraiser for CASA Lexington, a group that provides volunteer advocates for children in the court system.

"Somebody had to do something to help people understand that this happens," said Sudela-Junker, who adopted Faith and her younger brother, Jonah.

A former nanny, Sudela-Junker was taken aback when she couldn't connect with her daughter and son and was relieved when their behavior matched the signs of reactive attachment disorder.

Reactive attachment disorder grows from early-life trauma, said Julie Beem, executive director of the nonprofit parent support and education group, Attachment & Trauma Network.

The trauma can occur before the child is born or in newborns, she said. Its causes can range from abuse and neglect to the severe stress on an infant caused by medical problems at birth.

Once thought to be rare, Beem said, the diagnosis is becoming more common, especially among children who have suffered abuse and were later adopted.

For a long time, the consensus was that children didn't remember this trauma that occurred, so it didn't affect them as they grew up, Beem said. Now, experts in reactive attachment disorder say these children do remember the abuse, and the frustration of dealing with it is compounded because they have no words to explain to others what happened.

When that happens, she said, the pain "doesn't really go away. It is more like a healed-over wound."

Beem, who has a daughter with the condition, said children with reactive attachment disorder can become withdrawn and non-responsive or aggressive and violent.

Reactive attachment disorder can have two extreme presentations: The children can be completely out of control all the time, or they can be like Faith: charming and flirtatious with strangers because they crave attention and acceptance, yet violent and aggressive with those closest to them.

Some of the more dramatic parts of My Name is Faith show fresh-faced children talking about how they want to kill animals or hurt their parents or siblings. The most heartbreaking scenes show parent and child trying and failing to connect through something as simple as brief eye contact.

The film follows the Sudela-Junker family, Faith, her mom, dad and younger brother, through therapeutic camps in 2008 and 2009. The focus is on Faith, because her brother has a milder form of the disorder.

Sudela-Junker said Faith took responsibility for protecting and caring for her brother before they were adopted. That might be the reason he shows fewer signs of the disorder. She said it's hard to tell why some kids suffer more than others.

After much struggle, Faith is making great strides, is able to follow directions and rules, and curb her aggression, said Sudela-Junker who said she has hope that her daughter might someday live on her own and possibly have a family.

Meanwhile, helping her daughter navigate the world is a full-time job, she said.

"We have to keep an eye on her all the time," she said. "I have to help her manage her interactions (with others) and process what she is doing in a social setting."

Sudela-Junker said deciding to tell her family's story was scary because she feared people would automatically blame Faith's behavior on bad parenting and judge her children harshly.

The response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. It was dubbed "the bravest film in Park City" by the organizers of the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative version of the better-known Sundance Film Festival, and it was voted an audience favorite.

Beem said that reactive attachment disorder is on the verge of breaking through into the public consciousness.

"We like to compare it to where autism was 15 years ago," she said. As understanding spreads and education and treatment become more available, fewer families will suffer in silence, she said, and she encourages families who see themselves in Faith's story to contact her organization.

"We can put them in touch with local resources," she said. Her message: "You don't have to feel so isolated and you can say what you need to say."

To learn more

For more information about Reactive Attachment Disorder, visit: AttachmentTraumaNetwork.com or MyNameisFaith.com


If you go

'My Name Is Faith'

When: 7 p.m., movie showing, 8:30 p.m. question and answer, Thursday.

Where: Lyric Theater, 300 E. Third St.

Cost: $15. Tickets available at the door or online at LexingtonLyric.com. Ticket sales benefit the non-profit CASA Lexington.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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