Saturday 19 April 2014

When adoption fails

Tough love: Melanie Allen's book explains how she and her family coped with Alex's attachment disorder

When Melanie Allen and her husband Rob first met their prospective adopted daughter, Alex, she took to them straight away. The then five-year-old called them her "new mummy and daddy" within minutes, which delighted the couple.

But looking back on it now, Melanie sees that some warning signs were there.

"We would have expected her to be shy and nervous and to stick closely to the foster parents who she'd been with for a year," she says. "But she came over to us without a backward glance at her foster carers. We were to find out later that it was because she hadn't attached to them and she couldn't attach to anyone."

Melanie, who lives in the Midlands in the UK, eventually discovered that her adopted daughter suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder. She has written about her experience in a book called The Trouble with Alex, using pseudonyms to protect Alex's identity.

Alex had suffered neglect and abuse as a very small child. Her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict whose boyfriend had beaten the little girl. She was malnourished and was often left in soiled nappies.

Most significantly, Alex was left alone for periods of time and her cries for attention usually went unanswered.

"We knew that she'd had a traumatic childhood but she presented to us and everyone else as a happy, outgoing child. But we didn't have any comprehension of what was going on with Alex. She was so terrified of attaching to anyone because, as a young child, she had attached to someone and had nearly died because of it."

Alex was infuriatingly clingy with Melanie but she rarely showed any emotion and wouldn't let anyone into her world. If she was told off for something small, she had an unnerving habit of staring intensely at Melanie rather than shouting or throwing a strop.

"She's never formed a relationship with anyone but she's exceptionally good at looking as though she has these bonds. That's why her teachers and social workers couldn't understand what was wrong as she knew how to present herself to the world and what people expected of her."

While Melanie and Rob noticed that something wasn't quite right with Alex, they believed that it would take some time for her to trust them and that things would settle down. They went ahead with the adoption and it was only in the next couple of years that problems presented themselves.

Alex appeared to have learning difficulties but the couple increasingly began to believe that she was masking the reality of the situation.

Watching her set the table one day, Melanie realised that she was deliberately misplacing the cutlery. Alex didn't want to reveal her abilities, as that would mean showing her true self.

Both Melanie and Rob, who already had one biological child but always wanted to adopt, were determined to keep Alex with them but knew they had to get treatment for her.

The atmosphere in the house began to turn ugly and the couple saw how it was affecting their son Daniel and their own relationship.

"We found it very difficult to try and get help for Alex because the authorities thought she was behaving fine and that perhaps the problem was with us," explains Melanie. "The most difficult part was when we finally worked out that she had an attachment disorder but no one would listen to us. We were banging on doors, we were desperate for help for Alex and then the social workers started to pin the blame on us."

Melanie's family also found it hard to comprehend that the problem was with Alex. "We tried everything we could to help her but the more we loved her and the more she understood that we knew what was going on with her, the more she pulled back from us. She also started to show signs of disturbing behaviour, like one day when she aimed Daniel's spud gun at me and just about missed me."

The strain began to be too much for the couple and they decided to put Alex into respite care.

"When Alex went back into care, it was never meant to be forever," says Melanie. "It was pretty much emotional blackmail on our part, to force the authorities to get her evaluated and to get some treatment.

"Handing her back was so awful because Alex was our daughter and we didn't want to give her up forever. Unfortunately, things were taken out of our hands. The authorities decided to take out a care order for her which meant she wouldn't be returned to us."

Melanie's belief that Alex had serious problems was finally vindicated when Alex's foster carer, who had experience working with damaged children, said she was at a loss to help the young girl.

"That was when everyone finally believed that it wasn't something to do with Rob and me but that Alex had a severe attachment disorder."

Alex, who is now 15, lives in a home for disturbed children.

"She's never had any therapy or medication and she's unlikely to have an episode again. Nobody is expecting anything of her there or is pushing any emotional buttons so she's able to stay withdrawn and unattached to anyone. But I do worry about her future."

Melanie and her husband Rob are now separated, mostly due to the strain that their relationship went through.

They remain friends and, along with their son, they regularly visit Alex.

"I don't regret adopting Alex but I think I went into it so blind," says Melanie. "I was so sure that I could handle a child with special needs but Alex had exceptional difficulties.

"I don't think adoption will ever work for children like Alex until there is the realisation of how monumentally difficult it is for children with these traumatic backgrounds to attach to people." While Melanie's tale is a cautionary one, the adoption situation in Ireland doesn't lend itself to similar stories because of a much lower level of domestic adoption here compared to the UK.

There are only around 50 domestic adoptions here every year and the bulk of these are step-parents or relatives adopting a child.

In the majority of cases, Irish children from neglected or abused backgrounds are placed into foster care rather than being adopted. It means that Melanie's experience of giving back an adopted child doesn't happen here. But there are children who are experiencing problems such as an attachment disorder.

One Cork family fostered a boy, Mark*, who suffered from both a learning disability and an attachment disorder.

"He came to us when he was six," says Carol*. "It was obvious that he would need a lot of help with the learning disability but nobody was aware that he had the attachment disorder."

Carol and her husband John* had fostered several other children, some of whom had emotional difficulties. But they noticed that Mark was a little different.

"The other children who were from damaged backgrounds tended to act out a lot," says Carol. "In some ways, that was easier to deal with because at least you knew what was going on with them and could try to have some discipline.

"Mark was so quiet at times and never seemed to get angry at anything. It was so strange that he could be clingy with both of us but then he would also seem to be off in his own world and wouldn't tell us what he was feeling."

Mark, who was neglected as a young child, was evaluated and diagnosed with an attachment disorder.

"It wasn't a severe kind of attachment disorder and it did seem to get better as time went on and he received therapy for it," says Carol.

Mark has since been placed with another foster family as the couple had to give up fostering for health reasons.

"We found it was difficult to pick up on the attachment disorder because you presume that neglected children just need some time and love to form a bond," says Carol. "It was a struggle with Mark at times but his foster family now seem happy that he's coming out the other side."

*Not their real names

The Trouble with Alex is published by Simon & Schuster (stg£12.99).

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