Saving Dane, saving a family

Sooner or later, most every family faces some kind of crisis, and some experience struggles that push them to the breaking point. This family chose to fight, when others might have given up. They adopted a little boy who came to this country 12 years ago, a bundle of energy named Dane. But as he grew, the smiles gave way to uncontrollable fits, tantrums every day, sometimes all day. His parents began to fear for their child's safety -- and their own. Enter, the miracle worker, a man named Dr. Ron Federici.

"I hope he doesn't hurt us and I pray to God we don't hurt him.''

Debbie Jones wrote this about her son Dane, when he was only a toddler. She and her husband, Alan, had traveled halfway around the world to rescue Dane from malnutrition and neglect in a Romanian orphanage. Smitten by his toothless grin at 10 months of age, they brought him home to begin a new life and to complete their family with sister, Megan.

And while they knew Dane had to be a "fighter" to endure orphanage life, they never dreamed how his survival instincts would manifest themselves as he grew older.

By age two, Dane started throwing severe tantrums: kicking and screaming for hours. By age four, there were threats to set his parents on fire. He once tried to jump from a moving car. Debbie and Alan feared someone in the family would inadvertently get hurt.

"It was like something was driving these behaviors that was way bigger than he was,'' Debbie says.

Life with Dane became a series of doctors, drugs and disruption. And while at times he seemed like a typical kid, his behavior was always unpredictable. And often violent.

By age 11, despite all the time and money the family had spent on therapy and medications, Dane was still edgy, obsessive and volatile. Any little change in plans could set him off. Public outings, even a trip to the grocery store, would often end with Dane acting up.

THE BREAKING POINT
In the fall of 2001, it all came to a head. Dane's 14-year-old sister told her parents she'd had it.

"I was sick of being in chaos," Megan said. "I was sick of having to deal with it and making it part of everyday life. I wanted it to be normal."

Megan gave her parents an ultimatum: Him or me.

"She said, 'Mom, I know the last thing you need is another kid with problems, but I'm telling you I've got anger... and I can't handle this any more'," Debbie said. "I felt like how do you choose which child to save?"

They sought help from Texas Christian University, where experts have done ground-breaking research on troubled kids. Dane had attended a camp there, called The Hope Connection, for kids whose emotional and developmental growth had been stunted because of some form of deprivation, neglect or abuse.

TCU referred the family to Dr. Ron Federici, a neuropsychologist from Virginia. Dr. Federici is a world-renowned expert in international adoption medicine, a man some call "The Emperor," who has seven adopted kids of his own.

PIECING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER
After exhaustive testing on Dane and a review of the child's lifetime medical and psychological records, Dr. Federici concluded that Dane had brain damage and developmental problems that no one had accurately pieced together before. Fetal alcohol syndrome and then lead poisoning from the water and the paint on the crib at the orphanage caused organic brain damage. That, coupled with a lack of emotional and neurological development in that critical first year of life, left him developmentally crippled. And years of misdiagnoses and reactions to medications prescribed in those diagnoses compounded the problem.

"What's most damaged is what we call the executive or planning centers (of the brain)," the neuropsychologist concluded. "Dane reacts inappropriately because he doesn't know how to think language-wise; he doesn't know how to perceive visually, he doesn't know how to organize or analyze things rationally. He doesn't process, he doesn't organize and he really doesn't understand what's going on half the time."

At age 11, Dane was functioning intellectually at a first-grade level and emotionally at the level of a three-year-old. Dr. Federici promised Dane could improve, but the family had to take radical action -- fast.

"We have to teach his brain... how to function differently,'' Dr. Federici said. "We're going to need to embark on a rehabilitation program for his brain to learn how to think, reason, process and organize better."

"I'm not saying this is all easy," Dr. Federici warned. "It takes a lot of work. But I guarantee that we'll make some headway in three months with him. Because the good thing about Dane, he is a kind boy. He's got a heart."

But, first, they had to stop Dane's cycle of rages. Researchers say kids who have suffered severe abuse, neglect or trauma -- whether they're adopted or not -- often function in a constant state of alert -- a heightened sense of "fight or flight." A key goal of Dr. Federici's program is to get the child's brain chemistry and body calm enough to absorb and learn new ways of thinking and behaving.

BOOT CAMP AT HOME?
Dr. Federici laid out his plan. It was a combination of traditional therapy -- using rehearsal, role playing and rewards -- and some of the most bizarre and unconventional methods these two Texas schoolteachers had ever seen. For the first 90 days, for example, Dane would never leave their sight. He would remain within three feet of one of them at all times except for sleeping. When he raged out of control or became defiant, he was pinned to the ground and held until he got calm. Then he was cradled and nurtured like a baby to talk through what had happened.

"It's an intensive family intervention program that puts the family back in charge of the child because the child has no idea how to control himself, " Dr. Federici said.

And as correspondent Hoda Kotb learned, the starting point with Dr Federici's program is control -- not love. Hugs and affection would be kept to a minimum, Dr. Federici ordered.

"The child does not understand the concept of love or affection and he/she has to be taught over time," Dr. Federici says. "Taking charge and taking control of an out-of-control child is just an alternative version of love."

Dr. Federici's version of a family boot camp would take every ounce of mental, physical and emotional energy Debbie and Alan had -- and then some. Would they do it? Could they do it?

And could they do it with Dateline's cameras recording every move the family made -- night and day -- for nearly six months?

A FAMILY TESTED
Debbie and Alan agreed it's the hardest thing they've ever done.

"This is a program where things are going to get rougher before they get better," Alan said. "You have to be willing to withstand the thunderstorm to get to the sunshine."

At one point, Dane was pulled out of school. His rages -- or "meltdowns" as the Jones' call it -- got worse. Debbie took a leave from her job, cutting their income in half and causing huge financial pressure. Alan and Debbie's marriage was strained. And Megan felt their home had become more like a psych hospital or TV studio than a place of peace.

"This is the hardest and most draining and gut-wrenching -- as a school teacher I don't have adjectives big enough to grasp and express the emotional exhaustion and fatigue that goes into this,'' said Debbie, a special education teacher with a master's degree.

Once again, the family was in turmoil, just like it had been when they'd reached out for Dr. Federici's help. They wondered: Would the intensity and stress of this program tear them apart or save them? It was taking a toll on everyone. Debbie's multiple sclerosis seemed to flare up. Both parents and Megan felt completely strung out.

"That's the hardest part- being able to keep yourself healthy enough emotionally and physically to do this,'' Debbie said.

TURNING POINT
But with patience and help from the experts at TCU, there came a turning point nearly 90 days into the program. Dane had gone 22 days without a raging "meltdown." Finally, they saw a ray of hope.

"Hope. Sunshine. Rainbows,'' Alan said. "I can't express to you what hope's like. Hope's a wonderful thing, especially hope for someone you love dearly who very recently before you didn't feel a whole lot of hope for."

In tiny steps, Dane began to realize that his parents were going to be there and love him -- no matter what. And with that feeling of love and security, he began to let go of some of his old, dysfunctional survival instincts. Slowly, and with day after day of repetition and practice, he adopted new behaviors.

"There were attachment issues and trust issues, definitely," his mother said. "He was a control freak. But he finally began to realize, 'Someone is going to take care of me.' "

Yet the changes were fragile. There were many times when Dane would have lost it had Debbie not steered him through some rough waters. The real breakthrough came when a friend came over to play with Dane -- his first play day with a kid his own age in more than three months. To Debbie's surprise, it went beautifully.

"There wasn't any fighting. There wasn't yelling," Debbie said. "Seems like a simple thing, but it was huge. Because it was like.. this is normal. And that's the day that I really, really had it sink in with me that he's going to get better."

For the first time in a long time, Dane looked and acted like a happy, "normal" kid, his parents said.

A GIFT OF HOPE
"What a gift of hope we'd been given,'' Debbie said. "I mean to see your child, who even though he drove you nuts, you knew it was driven by his own stuff. I mean you knew these horrible behaviors were driven by his pain, his physical limitations, his processing problems. There are all these things that he had to overcome and just to see him that content and that happy.. I was just totally overwhelmed."

Debbie and Alan said they have no regrets about letting "Dateline NBC" document their darkest hours or the emotional roller coaster of these six months. The want to share what they've learned with other parents who are desperate to help their children, too.

"If there's something that will help, how can we not tell people? " Debbie said. "And that's the only reason I would ever allow cameras in my home, to see me at my worst, and blubbering and crying and... no make up, no shower... Ron Federici's program is the only thing that we have tried that has given us some real hope and some real success in modifying and helping to correct Dane's behaviors. And if we can share this with other people and help other people then it's been worth a lot of the pain that we have gone through."

The key to this program, they say, is for parents to know their own limits and emotional shortcomings and to make sure that everything is done with love, particularly the physical restraints. Children have died when similar restraints have been done the wrong way.

"We know there have been dangerous holds out there,'' Debbie said. "But we didn't hurt him. We protected him from hurting himself or others and sometimes in the wrestle, it might not look that way."

"This is a program that has to be done with love and care," Alan said. "I think the reason that Dane has made the progress that he has is that even though it's a tough program, Dane has seen that it's been in love and that we love him very much and it's done for his success."

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