How adopting an angelic five-year-old blew our family apart
By MELANIE ALLEN
When Melanie Allen and her husband Rob, a quantity surveyor, adopted a five-year-old called Alex, they couldn't believe their good fortune. Heartbreakingly beautiful, as well as affectionate, she seemed to be a dream child. But as the months passed, Melanie and Rob, both now 44, began to see a very different side of their 'perfect' daughter - and found themselves sucked into a nightmare in which they faced losing everything ...
Jumping out of the car, I could just make out the small, lone figure waiting at the front door.
My heart began to pound. She was so beautiful - and she was smiling.
Her eyes seemed to have a magnetic pull, and as each step drew me closer, they grew larger.
The photo from the adoption agency had not done those eyes justice.
Nor had it captured the silken gloss of her fair hair, which hung to her waist.
I was in love already.
Her foster father urged her forward. "Do you know who these nice people are?" he asked.
"It's my new Mummy and Daddy," Alex answered - so quietly that I had to replay the words in my head to make sure I'd heard them right.
With a thrill, I realised I had. And as I looked down at my new daughter, her eyes were brimming with a pleasure that mirrored my own.
I'd always dreamt of rescuing "unwanted" children.
A year after our wedding, Rob and I conceived our son Daniel naturally, but we seemed unable to have a second child.
After 18 months of trying, we decided to pursue adoption instead.
It had taken four years of interminable form-filling and interviews to be accepted onto the adoption register but I knew that day in August 1997 that we'd found the little girl who was to complete our family.
Snuggling Alex under her Disney duvet in our four-bedroom semi in the Midlands that night, we vowed we'd love her for ever.
Certainly, if anyone deserved love and security, it was Alex.
Her mother, Michelle, was an alcoholic and drug addict, sustaining her habit by prostitution.
Alex was 18 months old when, acting on a tip-off, social workers broke into the flat to find her 22-year-old mother unconscious on the floor and Alex, malnourished, lying in squalor.
Alex was fostered until Michelle got clean from drugs.
But when returned to her mother's care, Michelle's new boyfriend, a paranoid schizophrenic, attacked Alex, hitting her under the guise of "punishing" her.
Finally, Michelle forced him out.
Alone and depressed, Michelle returned to her old habits.
One day she woke in hospital, having overdosed, to learn that she and Alex had narrowly escaped being burned to death after an attempt by Alex, aged three, to grill herself fish fingers.
Alex was made a ward of court and freed for adoption - which is how we came to meet her.
We'd been warned by social workers that Alex had learning difficulties and her vocabulary was very limited.
It was hard to put my finger on but her behaviour started to make me feel uneasy.
However hard we tried, she seemed incapable of learning anything.
I spent hours showing her the buttons to press on the TV remote control, button her top, brush her teeth, use a knife and fork - all to no avail.
Part of me wanted to scream: we loved her dearly but it seemed we could do nothing to help her.
Alex had been with us almost a year when I first began to doubt her.
Maybe she's faking it, I thought; or deliberately needling me just to get attention?
Then one day I overhead Daniel pleading with Alex to stop hurting our precious cat, Scooter.
She'd been pulling his tail. Looking into Alex's big, black eyes as I gently told her off, I found nothing there.
No emotion, no anger. But, as I stepped away, I heard her whisper to Daniel: "I hate you. You made Mum hear."
It chilled my blood.
Alex had been with us 19 months when I found her in the bath, very deliberately pouring water from a bath toy onto the floor.
For months I'd been mopping up water "accidentally" sloshed out of the bath and washing towel after towel.
Alex couldn't - or wouldn't - explain. "Mm, err...," she stammered, her face crumpling under the force of my fury.
"I dunno. I was, um, putting water, um, on the floor."
Later that night, I poured out our despair and confusion to my friend Sophie.
I knew that Alex was just a little girl with a hideous past who wanted to be loved but I couldn't help myself.
"I pace the floor sometimes thinking she's some evil person reincarnated, intent on destroying us.
"Then I curse myself for such hateful thoughts," I confided in Sophie. Sophie had no solution but she made me promise to get help.
Desperate, I rang the Post-Adoption Centre, a national charity offering support, and we were referred to a counsellor.
He was convinced that Alex was betraying a desperate need to be in control in a world where once she'd had none.
Alex had to learn that she was now in safe hands and that we were people she could trust.
It seemed like good advice and relief washed over us. But sadly it wasn't that simple.
Instead, Alex's tactics intensified.
One day, when she was still six, I told her she couldn't have a second lollipop before tea.
She spent the next five minutes glued to my side, mirroring my every step purely to wind me up.
Her tactics were bizarre but insidious: walking strangely, staring fixedly, tapping her feet incessantly, dressing completely inappropriately, often with clothes inside out or back to front.
Everything, in short, to make herself the centre of attention.
Friends, family and teachers were blinded by Alex's manipulative behaviour, blaming everything on her "learning difficulties".
At school she was the model student - bumbling but eager.
The exception was Alex's drama teacher, who herself had an adopted child.
She'd seen through her manipulative behaviour.
"Alex is not the self-effacing little thing she appears," she said ominously.
"It's the staring that first made me suspect. My son did the same when he was angry.
"I also think she's overplaying the helplessness. These kids are very good at playing innocent."
I wanted to hug the drama teacher with relief.
By now I dreaded time alone with Alex, so took a part-time job at our local university.
Still Alex dominated every waking moment, demanding constant attention.
I don't believe Alex disliked or resented Daniel but she sensed how precious his well-being was to us.
She disturbed his homework, interrupted when his friends came to play, stared at him at mealtimes and - most annoying of all - started waking him at 5am.
She tried his patience terribly.
We were now convinced that Alex was a very seriously damaged child.
It felt too much for us to handle alone, so in early 2000 our doctor referred us to CAMHS - Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services - a government-backed network of therapists.
"It's her ability to control her emotions that worries us the most," I explained to our therapist.
"If it weren't for her anger, I'd say she was a machine. And it's destroying us."
The therapist, though, seemed blinded by Alex's charm, calling her "Little Scrumptious".
With her, Alex was all simpering smiles, acting the shy, slow learner for all she was worth.
Desperate, I started doing my own research. And that's when I finally made the breakthrough - in a brochure we'd been given when we first applied to adopt.
It described a child identical to Alex - steely, controlled and staring.
Her condition had a name: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).
Imagine attachment as a string between infant and mother.
The infant's needs for food, warmth and touch are answered. Now imagine an infant like Alex, born into an environment where its carer is unable to respond due to mental health problems or drug-induced oblivion.
This infant's string is useless, so it has no sense of belonging to anyone; nor anyone to it.
The consequences are immense. Fear, rage, lack of conscience (neglected children are not taught right from wrong), lack of compassion or empathy.
By the time the infant is removed from its environment, it's a broken soul.
But, as we were about to discover, RAD was only part of the problem. Alex, now eight, also had a voice in her head - telling her what she could and could not do.
It came tumbling out one day after a couple of years when we battled to understand why Alex had refused a simple instruction to say "Thank you".
She admitted that her "voice" had ordered her not to.
Suddenly everything clicked into place. It wasn't just her anger Alex kept hidden.
She seemingly wanted nothing because the voice demanded total secrecy, forbidding her to reveal her emotions to anyone. Even us.
I was convinced that Alex desperately needed treatment in a hospital specialising in disturbed children.
I pleaded with her psychologist: "We're living with a child who's secretive beyond belief, who's got a voice in her head, who talks of death - threatening to kill me at the drop of a hat - who's filled with hate, who at eight years old can't even write her name and who can shut herself down like a computer."
But Alex was such a consummate actress that no one believed us.
She mirrored the attitude of whoever was talking to her, seeming to know precisely what each person wanted to hear.
By now Rob was at the end of his tether.
"I don't know how much I can take of this," he whispered. "I want my life back."
Tense and on edge, we decided we had only one option - to get the adoption annulled.
Instead, we'd foster Alex.
That would free her from the expectations to attach to us, and us from the expectations of making her our daughter.
And, if it got no easier, we could hand her back.
Our announcement to Alex's social worker was like a bomb going off.
Suddenly, the authorities went into action, doing anything to prevent us annulling the adoption.
Our social worker agreed to refer Alex to a hospital specialising in children with RAD. We were thrilled.
And then everything changed. I'd refused Alex a treat - an outing with my sister - because I knew she'd be so disruptive.
An hour later, I was at the kitchen sink when I heard a single clicking noise behind me.
I spun round to find Alex pointing Daniel's red metallic spud gun at me, her eyes locked to mine.
I looked down. A 2in nail lay on the floor, inches from my feet. I was too stunned to speak.
I bent down, picked up the nail and held out my hand.
"It works better with potatoes," I said.
I found Rob and recounted the incident.
"That's it! I want her out of the house!" he said. "We've got Daniel to think about.
"I'd never forgive myself if..." He couldn't finish the sentence.
The next day I rang the hospital, begging for news about our appointment - only to discover our social worker had never even referred us.
We gave Social Services one last chance: a week to confirm a date for a hospital assessment.
The deadline came and went. We'd been abandoned.
Alex could sense something different in the air. I wasn't ignoring her mind games; I simply wasn't reacting.
When she did her usual routine of stumbling into the car in a deliberately clumsy heap, I ignored her.
I was waiting for the treacherous moment we'd be breaking the news to her that she was moving on.
About a week after the gun incident, Rob returned from work to tell her.
Alex, then nine, was sitting propped against her bedroom wall with her knees up, eyes straight ahead. I think she knew.
"Alex, love, we've got something to tell you," I said gently.
The eyes she turned on me were dead.
"You're going to be staying somewhere else for a while, just until we've found someone to help you. I'm sorry."
My tears weren't for me. They were for the girl who'd never been loved: not by me, not by anyone.
Alex simply nodded, barely displaying a hint of emotion.
Later, Rob sought her out in her bedroom. "Alex, do you want to go?"
Alex looked up, flat, as though defeated. "I want to stay," she said. "But the Voice wants me to go."
It was so honest, it was heartbreaking.
Two days later, we gathered Alex's belongings, put her suitcase in the car and drove our daughter to her new home.
The peace that descended on our house that evening was the saddest I'd ever known.
I agonised about what we'd done and how Alex was coping with rejection for a second time.
Gradually, though, life got back from normal and we began to enjoy life again.
But this was far from the end. Alex had been with her foster mother almost a year when our lives imploded again.
We'd been visiting her every 12 weeks and had taken her to a restaurant where we'd played a silly game where the children had fallen on the floor.
"She was in tears after you left," her social worker said icily.
According to Social Services, we'd also "harmed" Alex by insisting she suffered from RAD and heard voices in her head.
Social Services were seeking a care order which meant Alex could never return to us.
Over the next few months, they marshalled a case against us.
We were dangerous parents who had systematically abused and harmed an innocent child. I was crushed under the weight of pain and grief.
What had we done to deserve this? Could we lose Daniel, too?
In our different worlds of pain, Rob and I found ourselves torn apart, rowing constantly.
Finally, we decided it was best if Rob moved out to a flat nearby.
Devastated, I was prescribed anti-depressants. Meanwhile Daniel, then 13, was suffering nightmares.
We soon discovered we were in a Catch 22 situation.
Our solicitor warned that we stood little chance of successfully contesting the care order - which was the only way to clear our name - because, at that time, Alex wasn't displaying enough disturbed behaviour to convince the judge just how damaged she truly was.
Our only option was to consent. Soon, our daughter for six years was no longer our responsibility.
Meanwhile, Alex's behaviour had become increasingly bizarre.
She was muttering to herself and threatening to run away - but social workers were still blaming her "learning difficulties".
Three weeks after the order was granted, Alex grabbed painkillers and matches and locked herself in the bathroom at her foster home.
Police broke down the door to find her cowering under the sink, surrounded by burned out rolls of toilet paper.
Refusing to talk, she was rushed to hospital to check she had not taken an overdose. She hadn't.
A few days later, her foster mother, Janet, left her youngest charge, Maisie, five, in the bath while she answered the phone.
Fired by a jealous rage, Alex burst into the bathroom, pushed one hand over her face and the other on her stomach, and deliberately pushed her under the water.
Only Janet's return saved the child's life.
Alex was removed immediately and placed in a small residential unit for disturbed children.
Two years on, the unit serves 15-year-old Alex well: there are no expectations on her to bond or to love.
She is still legally our daughter but I fear for her future.
I hope one day she will get the treatment she needs.
Alex is a people-lover who, under different circumstances, would have so much to give.
With luck, she might yet be given the chance to love and to feel loved.
Unhappily, Rob and I are still separated, though we remain very close.
Although shaken by the experience and still somewhat fragile, we have at last begun to move on.
Aside from the strain those years put on Daniel, now 17, we don't regret our decision to adopt Alex.
She taught us - a normal middle-class family in an ordinary town - so much about the complex makings of a human being.
We considered legal action against Social Services but the idea of embroiling ourselves in an ugly legal battle was as unthinkable as leaping into a snake pit.
Instead, we settled for an apology "for the way things had turned out for us" - and, most of all, for Alex.
We were all horribly let down by Social Services.
Even now, incredible as it might appear, Alex remains untreated.
She has not seen a psychiatrist since the care proceedings.
She has simply been "lost in the system".
We still visit her every three months - but, sadly, with each visit we see her becoming increasingly withdrawn.
Alex deserved a chance of happiness, but because Social Services are underfunded, understaffed and weighed down by bureaucracy, our family was destroyed. It's so tragic.
Adapted from The Trouble With Alex: A Child Too Damaged To Love by Melanie Allen, published by Simon & Schuster on April 7 at £12.99. Melanie Allen 2008 To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.
©2008 Associated New Media