Abused boy's legacy of heartache and despair: Coping with an abused child proved too much for one couple, who claim that social workers did not tell them about his past life when he was offered to them for adoption. Stephen Ward reports

WHENEVER there is a lull in the conversation - over dinner, over a pint in the pub, walking round the garden - James Wilton (his name has been changed for legal reasons) comes back to one subject, some other incident of what 'he' did in the five years he was their son: torturing the family pets, attacking another child; constructing complex and plausible lies; driving a wedge between him and his wife; all descriptions of the typical behaviour of a gangland killer, not a child.

Adjectives from theology or mythology, such as 'evil', or 'horrific', slip into his descriptions. Everybody who has met them talks about Alan and his brothers as 'they', as though they are a different species. 'They don't feel pain', 'they' want complete attention, 'they' drive themselves between you.

You are expecting a monster, and in walks Alan, a charming, articulate child of 12 with a winning smile.

They know now, too late to help him, that he is not a monster possessed by evil; all he is doing is exhibiting typical symptoms of a child who has been abused sexually and in other ways before he was taken into care.

If they had known, it would have been no surprise that he continually wet and soiled his clothes - control of bowels and bladder is one of the few weapons available to abused children, and they commonly continue to use it to exercise control over adults, even after the abuse has stopped.

If he had been wicked all the time it would be easy to dislike him and give up. The heartbreak comes from the multiple personalities Alan exhibits. He used to leave notes all over the house saying 'I love you lots'. Even now, after he has gone, Susan Wilton keeps finding them.

Most of the stories the Wiltons tell about their son are in that vein, not shocking, just incredibly sad. A month before Christmas he said he would like a new bicycle. Mr Wilton suggested he would have to be good until Christmas, and he might get one. 'Couldn't you say that again a week before Christmas. I can't be good for a month,' Alan replied. Both knew it was true. The parents had tried using carrots like that before. They tried everything else as well, as if they were dealing with a normal child. They had no previous experience of caring for children.

The first Christmas with the Wiltons, Alan's presents were piled up round the tree. He opened one, and said: 'Aren't you going to open yours?' Social workers had given him just one token present each year he had been in care. Before that, when he lived at home, who knows? He has never talked about any aspect of that part of his life. Alan was brought an expensive balsa wood model aircraft by a family friend returning from abroad. They looked in the box a few months later and he had eaten it. He eats all sorts of things - anything and everything, including his clothes.

Compulsive eating is another sign of abuse. He had been starved for long periods, and when he was first taken into care the social workers had noted holes chewed in the bedclothes. At one stage Mrs Wilton had to establish regular contact with the toxicology department of a London hospital.

By his third or fourth year with the family they stopped having the annual birthday party, because he upset other children so much no one would have come. He demanded the full attention of every adult, and refused to share. Perhaps worse, he had no conception of 'play'.

The Wiltons moved to their bungalow in the country from a comfortable suburban executive home, thinking it would give Alan space, and planned to rebuild on the site, but never did.

'Look at the damage to us. We're not the same people,' said Mr Wilton, who smokes non-stop. 'Five years ago I didn't want to know about sex abuse. I didn't want to believe it happened. You give him a systematic investment of care and love, and he sucks you dry. It's not until he's gone that you realise he was sucking you dry.'

Alan has been through several schools: one expelled him for stabbing another child, at another he attacked a boy with a knife. Finally he was sent to a prep school, ultimately as a boarder. Mr Wilton sold treasured possessions one by one to pay the cost of the fees and the uniform and equipment - nearly pounds 7,000 a year.

His tutor at the last school had a similar experience to the Wiltons', and suffered a near breakdown, after devoting his days and evenings to bringing Alan round. 'We all have the arrogance to think we can succeed,' he said ruefully. With every new person taking charge of Alan's life there would be a period of initial improvement, then a plateau. 'Then he would do something to knock you back down,' the master said.

The head was reluctant to admit defeat, increasingly against the evidence, and finally to the detriment of school and the other children. In some subjects he bonded with the teacher and worked hard. In others he was disruptive and impossible to teach. The head finally had no choice about asking Alan to leave when he began to form relationships with much younger boys, and other parents complained.

The head said: 'This is a Christian school. I believe no child is irredeemable. Yet after three years I've come to the conclusion that he is not redeemable. Does that sound awful? The school could control him at enormous cost to others, but it couldn't help him.'

He fears there is a greater than even chance that the boy will end up in prison.

The Wiltons, married in the mid-1970s, were one of thousands of childless couples who turned to adoption when fertility treatment failed. Mr Wilton was over 30, making him too old for most adoption agencies, but the couple found there was still a chance if they were prepared to consider a handicapped or older child. They were deemed unsuitable for their choice of a physically handicapped child, because Mrs Wilton was not physically strong enough. Eventually, in 1986, they were offered a boy then aged six and a half. He came for a day, and never went away again, and within five months he was legally their child. 'It must have been the fastest adoption in history,' Mr Wilton said.

The Wiltons say they (and the court which granted the adoption) were told nothing about Alan's past life which might have helped prepare them for what was to come, or put them off the process altogether. The worst warning they were given was that Alan found it 'difficult to share either material things or emotional time'.

He was said to be jealous of the attention that his brothers received and had a growing tendency to destroy work that other children did in class in order to gain attention. By contrast, when he had individual attention he behaved appropriately and responded well to the adult he was with. His speech was slow and he had yet to be fully toilet trained, the Wiltons were told. They assumed this would all come right with effort and tender loving care. Instead it went wrong, and subsequently the Wiltons have found out why.

Their son was one of several brothers and sisters taken into care by his local social services department when a social worker discovered signs of physical abuse and neglect. Others have suffered similar difficulties to Alan.

A month before the Wiltons met Alan for the first time in the summer of 1986, Barnardo's had evidence that Alan had been exposed to pornography, and that he referred to 'mouths and willies', and being locked in a dark airing cupboard as a regular punishment.

Two days before the Wiltons met him, Alan had told his second foster mother that at least once he and his father had masturbated each other, and that he had taught his brothers the same activity. Later that month, Barnardo's already knew, there had been revelations by Alan's older brothers and sisters suggesting they had been sexually abused.

In July 1986, the day before Alan spent his first night with the Wiltons, he had been interviewed by a policewoman about alleged sexual abuse. Yet they insist no one told them then, or at any time while they had Alan.

When the Wiltons began to realise what they had taken on, they asked for help and advice from Barnardo's. Later, so did the school. Nothing came.

The Wiltons have now reluctantly given up and Alan is back in care with a different social services department in the area where they now live. His behaviour shows little sign of improvement, only of being contained. For the Wiltons, in a house with an empty bedroom, the trauma continues. 'It would be easier for us if he was dead,' Mrs Wilton said. 'We could have a period of mourning and grieve. With Alan we are still actively involved emotionally.'

Most of their friends and family deserted them. After meeting Alan, friends' children invariably refused to let their parents visit again, even if they wanted to. According to Mrs Wilton: 'They thought it was our fault that Alan behaved as badly as he did.'

Then after Alan had gone, several remaining friends cut them off, asking how they they could abandon a son? Only a very small number of the old friends who had cut them off because of Alan have resumed visiting.

Mr Wilton went to say goodbye to Alan for the last time. His wife could not face the ordeal, but wrote a letter. He describes the final interview: 'I told him his life was a book. The pages had got stuck together in chapter one and he had to go away now to try to get them unglued.

'We were chapters four, five and six, and it was now chapter seven. He got tearful towards the end, not hysterical. He didn't speak, just sat there riveted and listened. I explained it was not that we don't love him, but sometimes love was not enough.'

Mr Wilton's last sight of Alan was to see him going away clutching the letter, to be read later in the presence of a social worker.

Suffering can continue after the child is removed from danger

THE FATE of abused children after they are removed from their abusers has remained a neglected area of debate in Britain through all the recent furores on child abuse.

While it has now been widely accepted that child abuse happens, the public focus has always been on establishing abuse, and getting the children away from the abuser, at which point there is a common public belief that the problem is solved.

Christine Hammond, director of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, said: 'There's been so much media attention given to detecting child abuse that the long-term needs of the child often seem to be completely overlooked.'

In the first study of placements of abused children which had broken down, Catherine Macaskill, a social work consultant, interviewed 66 substitute families who had fostered or adopted 80 children between 1985 and 1989.

Sexual abuse was only one of many forms of ill treatment she came across. Children had been bruised, burned, bones fractured and inadequately cared for physically and emotionally.

In 'more than one case' a child murdered another child or an adult. In one case an eight-year- old child had watched his father commit suicide. She said many of the children were adept at creating rifts between adults.

In a third of the cases she studied, the families had no prior knowledge of the sexual abuse. In six placements the professionals knew about the abuse, and deliberately concealed it from the families. One adoptive father told her: 'They're selling the child to us. They don't want to release the bad facts. Sexual abuse is not a good selling point.'

She published her findings last year, and concluded: 'Concealing information about sexual abuse from substitute families or providing sparse information achieves nothing positive and merely places the abused child and members of the substitute family in an excessively vulnerable position.

'It is unfair to expect substitute families to engage in this challenging task without adequate preparation and training.'

Many of the parents talked about being unprepared for the detail of how a sexually abused child would behave. The children often expected sexual behaviour from parents - to them it was a way of showing and gaining affection, and they would be hurt when their overtures were rejected.

The abused children would often disclose their experiences to the natural children, who became aware of things at an earlier age than they would otherwise have done. But they could not be protected from it. Some families talked about their children's innocence being lost.

Even more dangerous was the fact that an abused child often absorbed so much of the parents' time that the other (natural) children felt neglected. They would then copy the adopted child's disturbed behaviour patterns.

Pat Francis, who works for Barnardo's in north-east England, would like to see national Department of Health guidelines on the subject. 'There are none currently. It would be enormously helpful if there were. We are all learning. The people learning most painfully are the adopters.'

She said there had been many changes since the early 1980s. With the Barnardo's project she worked for, prospective adopters were now told a great deal about sexual abuse. They were given preparation in groups, and told about the ways abuse manifests itself. They were warned of the

possible need for therapeutic help at different points through childhood, puberty and adolescence.

Pat Francis said the implications of abuse were so serious that if parents were not prepared to cope with the possibility that the child they were adopting may have been sexually abused, they were not allowed to adopt through her project.

'With an adopted family there is always an added dimension - the children will have experienced things not the fault of the (new) parents.' There was a tendency to see problems in children as problems in their family, and these techniques may not be applicable to the adopted family.

'None of us want to hear what abusers do to children,' she said. 'Once you get involved with the subject your attitude changes completely. You suspect everybody. Others think you're becoming obsessive.'

Charity and council deny withholding information

BOTH Barnardo's and Solihull Council said that they were forbidden by adoption laws from responding in detail to individual cases.

Barnardo's said: 'We would, however, like to make clear that at no stage in the adoption process does Barnardo's hold back information about children from the adoptive parents.

'Our approach includes discussing the child's background and behaviour, arranging visits to foster parents and meeting others who have adopted children from a similar background. This procedure was followed in respect of the cases quoted, information was passed to the parents as and when we knew it.

'It is also important to recognise that information about children develops over time and has to be assessed and reassessed in the light of their behaviour. We fully sympathise with the parents' experiences.

'However, it is wrong to suggest that Barnardo's contributed to this problem by failing to reveal known information about the children concerned.

'The experience of all those involved in adoption raises important issues. Barnardo's would welcome a balanced debate around the pre- and post- adoption issues.'

Michael Hake, Director of Social Services for Solihull Council, who was not director at the time, said: 'We are in the arena of perception and recollection of events of some time ago.

'An internal review of information-sharing has taken place. I have seen no documentation to suggest information was deliberately withheld.

'I have no reason to believe the allegations are true. The allegation of withholding information is a very serious one.

'At the same time the adoptive parents felt that greater insight and information would have helped them.

'The purpose of adoption is to meet the needs of children and more especially to provide a permanent family setting within which they may grow and develop. This is the basis on which we have always worked. We use adoption agencies to help us achieve this aim.

'I have no reason to believe that the high standards we bring to adoption practice have not been maintained and were not applied.

'Considerable time is spent on assessment, preparation, introductions and information-sharing. These are considered vital to the discharge of our responsibilities to both the child and the adoptive parents. If matters do not work out then we want to know why.

'We aim to learn from these events and to safeguard against them. The need for post-adoption support is well recognised. It is an area of work we have developed. We will continue to do so.'

(Photograph omitted)