Even babies can be deeply affected and psychologically scarred by the experience of being adopted, however caring the families. Julia Brosnan reports
Christine and Tony Edwards live in an elegant house in a quiet country village. They are friendly, charming people who have spent 30 years raising their six children. But it has not been easy. Their world was nearly blown apart by Ruth, their adopted daughter. She was so traumatised by her pre-adoption experiences that not only was she incapable of integrating into the family, but she was on a mission to disrupt it for everyone else.

The Edwards, both teachers, took Ruth into their home when she was 10 months old. They were well aware of the emotional problems children suffer when they spend several years in care before being adopted, but thought that with a baby, they would not have the same worries. The couple clearly love children and already had four of their own when Ruth came to them. "We were told that her natural mother never saw her after she was born and that she wasn't shown much affection in her early months," Christine says. "We thought that if we loved her enough, she would recover. We were never warned to expect anything else."

By the age of five, Ruth was exhibiting a range of outlandish behaviour. "She would never make eye contact, and her body was very stiff," Christine says. "She couldn't accept affection and she hardly ever slept. She told blatant, ridiculous lies from an early age and was very violent, smashing up furniture and throwing ornaments. She was also stealing, but the biggest problem was that she seemed to want total control of everything around her. Even issues such as getting dressed and eating meals became a battle.

"We always treated her as our own and we all felt sad about what she'd been through. I ran the house around her, trying not to upset her because she'd get so angry."

What the family didn't know was that Ruth was displaying classic symptoms of attachment disorder - an inability to form ordinary human relationships. In the past, this condition has always been associated with children who have been damaged by early years in care, and who were placed with a family when it was too late for them to adjust. But professionals are realising that attachment disorders may develop in babies who are adopted at only a few months old - or younger.

Sheila Fearnley, a psychotherapist who has spent most of ther professional life in this area, says: "These children are not able to form positive attachments. Their early attachment cycle was abnormal and they didn't learn how to receive bonding and affection." The beginnings of the disorder, she believes, may even develop when the baby is still in the womb.

"If the pregnancy is concealed or unwanted, if abortion is attempted or if the child is separated from its mother at birth, the baby comes into the world with negative messages."

The result is that these children seem to live in another dimension. "I call them 'bubble' children," says Ms Fearnley. "They can't make emotional connections. One boy said to me 'It's like Japanese. I can hear every word you say but I don't understand it.' "

Other indicators of the condition include cruelty towards animals, lack of conscience, a pre-occupation with blood and gore and what Tony Edwards describes as a "very deep, penetrating and sinister stare". One of the most frustrating aspects is that normal parenting will not penetrate the "bubble" - all the love and accommodation the family showed toward Ruth had little apparent effect.

By the age of 14, Ruth was almost out of control. She regularly threw carving knives round the house, carried weapons of broken glass and spent the nights roaming inside and out. The family were on tenterhooks. Things came to a head one day when she made a frenzied attack on the house - breaking furniture, tearing down shelves and smashing windows. It took several police officers to restrain her. Ruth was removed from the family home and placed in residential care.

The family admit their immediate feeling was one of tremendous relief. "We were also very hurt and confused," says Christine. "She'd been with us nearly all her life. We thought, how could it come to this?" Ruth stayed in care until she was 17, with the family visiting regularly. Christine attended every case conference in the hope of trying to understand her daughter's problems. But little progress was made, largely, the Edwards feel, because Ruth's problems were never fully recognised. After coming out of care, Ruth's life continued along similarly chaotic lines - back with the Edwards for a short while, there was even one occasion when she tried to set fire to them.

Twenty-five years after Ruth was adopted, her family has finally been proved right. She is in a psychiatric unit, diagnosed as having a form of attachment disorder which stems from experiences in her babyhood.

The diagnosis, says Christine, gave her and her husband "an overwhelming sense of relief. At last we can make some sense of all the pain we've been through." Two years ago, the Edwards discovered the Attachment Parents' Network, set up to help parents of such children by a charity, Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services. One of APN's most important functions is to show parents that they are not alone and that their child's problems are not their fault. "I used to feel so desperate I thought I might fall apart," recalls Christine. "Just knowing about attachment disorder would've been a great help."

Things are slowly changing. Attachment disorder is now a recognised clinical diagnosis. At the same time, some of the old ideas about adoption have shifted. "There used to be a notion that if you showed a child enough love, their problems would be solved," says Sheila Fearnley. "But these children are damaged, they can't receive love. They are so desperate to stay in control that they can't make themselves vulnerable."

Interestingly, some adoption agencies have reversed their old advice about love curing all, and now actually prepare prospective adopters for possible problems, including the fact that they, like the Edwards, may end up with a bill (up to pounds 60 a week) for their child's care costs. There is also a growing realisation that a child's earliest history is important; traditional ideas about most problems hinging on the lateness of the adoption being revised.

Two years ago, Sheila Fearnley and a colleague set up the Keys Attachment Centre in Lancashire, one of the few services in the country specifically to treat children with attachment disorders. Staff there use a range of therapies, including drama, play and drawing, to help work through a child's experience of "disconnection" caused by early abandonment.

Dr Jonathan Green, consultant psychiatrist at Booth Hall children's hospital, Manchester, says the problem of attachment disorder in adopted children has grown in recent years. "Over the past 20 years, the nature of kids coming through for adoption and fostering has changed a lot. The wide availability of abortion and the Pill means there are far fewer children in the system and far fewer with normal care histories. For some of them, normal parenting on its own is not enough."

Meanwhile, the Edwards visit Ruth in hospital each week. She is still their daughter and they firmly believe that her time with them made a difference for the better. Although the picture appears bleak, Christine Edwards is enthusiastic about adoption. "Every child deserves loving parents," she says. "I would never dissuade anyone from doing it." She and her husband believe the way forward is in better selection processes, more realistic parental preparation - and plenty of post-adoption support services.

Parent To Parent Information on Adoption Services (PPIAS), Lower Boddington, Daventry, Northamptonshire, NN11 6YB.