The children who hate to be loved: Attachment disorder, a nightmare for adoptive parents, is at last becoming recognised in Britain. Angela Neustatter reports

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
George was 18 months old when Lucy and Martin Lansdowne adopted him. They knew it was an act of faith. The couple, who already had two adopted children, had seen him advertised and heard that his mother had not wanted him, had scarcely touched him, and that already in his short life he had twice been fostered.

'The last family had him for five months, then, without warning, told social services that they couldn't handle him,' Lucy says. 'It's not difficult to imagine what three early rejections meant to that baby's sense of trust, and we had no doubt that it might be hard going for a while.'

But although they knew George would need a lot of dedicated care and affection to help him feel safe, the Lansdownes had not imagined that the following 10 years would, in Martin's words, be 'almost unremitting hell and anguish'.

Lucy is a sociable, motherly woman, strongly built, with a broad knowledge of child development and psychology. She had always wanted a large family and, unable to have her own, was happy to adopt - including, after George, a handicapped child.

But she shudders when she describes how pathetic little George, who walked around for several years as if in shock - his pale, staring face never smiling, never crying - turned into a demon.

As he progressed through the primary school years 'he began sending us death threats', she says. 'He would hide knives, take things and break them. He broke all the glass panels in our front door. He swore and reacted with wild rages to anything that displeased him. It seemed the whole day was geared around trying not to rile George.

'I realised I was intimidated by him. I also realised he was in terrible turmoil. He had dreadful fears and seemed to be full of dark terrors, but there was no way we could get close to him.'

WHEN Michael and Susanna Marlborough adopted Barney at the age of six, they knew he had been in several foster homes, and that his previous family, with whom he had spent three-and-a-half years and whom he believed would adopt him, had dealt a cruel blow in choosing instead to adopt another boy.

'We expected Barney to act up when he arrived,' Susanna says, 'and he did seem to regress to toddler stage. But he was sweet natured and loved cuddles, so we felt we had good contact with him.' Within two years, however, his behaviour changed dramatically. 'Barney began to isolate himself from us and his brother and sister,' Susanna says. 'He freaks out if we touch him, and is unspeakably rude. At times he seems actually to be snarling at us.'

Barney is 12 now, and things have become progressively worse. There used to be a week's bad behaviour, then a respite, Susanna says, but now they are lucky to have a peaceful half-day a week. Barney has been in trouble with the police and the Marlboroughs are convinced that, unless he can obtain intensive help quickly, he will end up in prison, as do some 80 per cent of children in care.

THE two families are convinced that George and Barney are suffering from attachment disorder, a syndrome identified in the United States some time ago but recognised only recently by the Department of Health.

Alan Burnell, a founder of the Post-

Adoption Centre, says: 'In the past few years we have seen more and more children presenting with very disturbed behaviour in adolescence, and when we have looked at them, they have all been adopted later than six months old.' Their early bonding has been broken in multiple foster homes or care institutions, he says, so the next attempt at bonding often fails, too.

'The families who adopted had all been convinced that love, care and affection would be enough to give the children stability and, certainly, many had had a honeymoon period where everything seemed to go well. But it was almost as though, when the children reached a stage where they might trust, they fought against it at a psychological as well as a physical level.'

Scarcely any help is available in Britain for this condition. In America, however, Foster Cline, founder of the Attachment Center at Evergreen, Colorado, has spent his career diagnosing and treating such children. He says they cannot give or receive affection; are self-destructive and frequently mutilate or put themselves in physical danger; cannot tolerate limits on their behaviour; have difficulty in making long-term friends; will not look you in the eye unless they are extremely angry or want something; and are highly manipulative.

'These children have failed to develop a core trust and security, and to internalise a parent, which is the thing that happens in the first two years of a normal child's life,' Dr Cline explains. 'The core comes from having good, consistent nurturing, and it is what gives a child conscience.

'Attachment-disorder children appear to have no conscience, and they do not experience conflict as painful. Attempts to reach such children through love and understanding alone do not work.'

BARBARA McGrath knows all too well what Dr Cline is talking about. Eleven years ago she and her husband adopted Jane, seven, who had been to several foster homes. Over eight years they have watched the child they so want to love systematically destroy every possibility of a normal settled life.

'There were temper tantrums from early on, and at school Jane hurt other children and damaged their possessions, then could not understand having no friends,' says Barbara. 'She was expelled from three secondary schools.

'At the age of 10, she began to slash herself with a razor blade and started stealing, but when we confronted her with the evidence and tried to talk to her about it, she would look us straight in the face and tell outright lies.

'She will not be cuddled by me or her father, although she is indiscriminately friendly with strangers, kissing them, sitting on their knee and being truly endearing, so they are convinced it's my fault we have such troubles. In private, she calls me the bitch witch who took her from her mother and ruined her life.'

Barbara is close to tears telling the story. 'Jane seems desperate for my presence as a mother, but she also has a desperate wish to kill me, so she has been placed with a foster family, and I keep in contact. At last she is receiving some specialised therapy, but it should all have happened so much sooner.'

This is the point made by Philly Morrall, national co-ordinator of PPIAS (Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services) which offers a support network for parents of children with attachment problems. Ms Morrall says: 'People are given very little information, guidance or support by the services when they adopt, and few are told their children might have profound difficulties.

'Then what so often happens is that the parents become more desperate and alienated from their children because they have tried to be loving and have had it thrown back in their faces. When they go for help, they are told that the root problem stems from something wrong in their marital relations, so they end up feeling blamed.'

The Lansdownes were wondering if they could keep George when they came across an article about a child who went to the Evergreen Attachment Center. Lucy says: 'I rang the centre and they seemed confident they could help. We had reached the point of wondering whether we could . . . survive as a family, so it seemed a last hope.'

A two-week session would cost dollars 6,000, so the couple mortgaged their house and Lucy and George went to Colorado. Lucy explains: 'George was playing up so badly by this time that I was really scared the whole thing would be hopeless.

'On the first morning, the therapeutic foster mother told us that George would be spending the fortnight living with her. I hadn't been told this before because they didn't want George to be warned in advance. They told me it was a vital part of the treatment, which is designed to stop the children controlling everything, as they so often do at home.'

During the first week, in a room that Lucy could view through a one-way mirror, George was taken through his life story. The therapists talked about his bad behaviour, but also helped him to see that it was not his fault. He was not born bad, but his experiences made him feel bad and behave badly. 'They talked him through the first year cycle of a baby's need for gratification and how it breeds trust,' Lucy says. 'They explained his moods in a way that made sense to him.'

A vital part of the therapy involves close physical contact. When the therapists were working through George's first year he was held closely with eye-to- eye contact until he responded.

One day, Lucy recalls, George was angry and refused to look at anyone. But his therapeutic foster mother - who did not usually work with him - and one of the therapists provoked him until he expressed his fear and anger and through this he began to talk about his feelings. They looked at what had happened with his birth mother and the therapist, taking the role of George's mother, held and fed him with a bottle. Finally he broke down, howling with pain and rage, shouting: 'You stupid bitch, you've hurt me, you've ruined my life, I want to hurt you like you've hurt me . . .'

At the same time, Lucy was in a group with other adults discussing the feelings of inadequacy, guilt, rage and pain they had experienced over the years. At one point, George came in. Lucy remembers: 'He really seemed to understand something of my pain - he was in tears. It helped me to see that he was able to be a loving child.'

Two weeks is a short time for work that aims to unravel the pain that attachment-disorder children suffer, and Evergreen offers long-term help as well as intensive programmes. George changed with the treatment and remains a markedly easier, although not easy, child.

'He was very quiet and co-operative immediately after he got back,' says Lucy. 'Then there were some enormous outbursts, which I think was him testing us out. I was terrified we would lose all that seemed to have been gained, but I found I had more confidence and more of a sense of how George can be helped. Now he sits at meals with us, which he never did before, and he doesn't throw food about. He plays sport, which he would never do, and he even came and sat on my knee and asked for affection the other day. I now feel there's a future for him. He seems more like a normal teenager.'

PPIAS, Lower Boddington, Daventry, Northamptonshire NN11 6YB, (0327) 60295.

Post-Adoption Centre, 8 Torriano Mews, London, NW5 2RZ, 071-284 0555.

All the families' names have been changed.

Comments