The instant family that fell apart

Adopting children with deep emotional scars can lead to serious problems in adolescence. Michael Delahaye reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ANNE AND JOHN EASSON are both teachers - and that's significant. Eleven years ago, when they adopted an "instant family" of three sisters, aged two, three and five, their professional experience must have counted greatly with the adoption panel.

Today the Eassons' large Victorian house in Feltham, West London, is "a war zone" - John's words - and bears all the marks of combat. He points to the heavy pine door leading into the living-room: "One of the girls was threatening the youngest and, when she took refuge behind the door here, she pulled the door off its hinges ... straight out of the door- post." On several occasions the police have been called in.

Upstairs on the landing, John produces a bunch of keys. They are all for internal doors - one for the parents' bedroom and one each for the girls' bedrooms. Each of them (Samira, now aged 16, Disa,14, and Shirin, 16) has her own key, to stop them stealing from each other and sparking off more rows, more broken glass, more kicked-in door panels.

John and Anne no longer have a social life. They say they can't leave the girls alone for fear of the consequences. As for family visits to friends and relatives, Anne says it's just too embarrassing: "If you go to other houses and there's cash sitting there, you have to say, `Please move it'."

The Eassons' problems are clearly not normal. But nor are they unique, the common key is adoption and what happened in the Seventies and Eighties when the practice started of placing older, often emotionally-bruised children with new parents. It was done for the best of motives: to give every child, no matter what his or her "history", the chance of a new beginning with a new family. lt was - and still is - carried out with almost evangelical zeal.

But such children, it is only now emerging, often have what are known as "attachment" problems. Because they fail to bond with their birth parents (often due to neglect or abuse), they never create the vital internal model on which to base future relationships. Once they are in care, this deficiency may be compounded by the experience of being moved from one residential home or foster parent to another.

The result is a form of survival mechanism: they trust no-one and try to control everything and everybody. Lying, stealing and hysterical anger are part of the package. And, instead of growing out of such behaviour, they more often grow into it.

"The damage and disturbance caused by those first few years," says David Howe, Professor of Social Work at the University of East Anglia, "can ricochet throughout the rest of your life. Even though family life is wonderful, positive and warm, you don't recover totally." Professor Howe, the author of Patterns of Adoption, estimates that several thousand families in Britain could be facing problems similar to the Eassons'. He compares what is now emerging to other social phenomena that were once dismissed as isolated aberrations: "It's like dyslexia and domestic violence. Twenty or 30 years ago, people had their suspicions but the scale of it was unknown."

The failure to recognise a common cause can mean that the adoptive parents continue to struggle on in ignorance and frustration, blaming themselves. They feel a particular sense of failure because, after all, they were thoroughly vetted before being allowed to adopt. The cruellest twist is the advice frequently given at the time of adoption that "a loving and stable home will compensate for the rockiest start in life."

Traumatised children can often traumatise an entire family. One mother who was finally forced to throw out her adopted son described her family's experience "as if a hand-grenade had been tossed into our midst. Even now, four years since he left, we're still picking out bits of emotional shrapnel." Her marriage - as frequently happens - buckled under the strain.

The difficulty that these families face is that attachment problems, in their full-blown form, often emerge only when the children hit adolescence - which can be five or even 10 years after adoption. By then, the local authority which placed the child will, understandably, feel that its obligation to provide post-adoption support has long passed.

John recalls that, when they were vetted as an adoptive couple, he and Anne were asked whether they were the sort of people who would ask for help if they hit problems. But when you do ask, he says, "The instant reaction is: `well, you must have done something to have caused this; you're the cause of the problem.' And in that situation where you're already down and depressed and feeling defeated, that's the last thing you need."

But the saddest casualties are the children themselves. An insight into the depth of their emotional confusion comes from the Easson's middle daughter, Disa. After several periods of exclusion from school, she is now splitting her time between school and a special adolescent unit for "behavioural modification". Asked what she wanted to say to her parents, she replied: "I don't mean to be angry with them. They've not done anything wrong. They didn't have to adopt us -and I do love them for adopting us and caring for us."

Michael Delahaye reports for BBC2's First Sight, 7.30pm, 12 March.

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