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Family's struggle to adopt their ninth troubled child

(Left to right) Justine, Lisa, Jim, Maisie, Sue, Lewis, Chris, Devon, Cal, Courteney
Seven of Jim and Sue's children, including Maisie, still live with them at home

BBC News 10th April 2011

Over the past two decades Sue and her husband Jim have successfully adopted eight of the most troubled children in the care system, but when they took on seven-year-old Maisie they feared even they did not have the skills to cope with her. Was she too damaged to adopt?

"I'm going to kill you, I hate you," Maisie screamed at Sue. She was having a violent tantrum, which she called a "boom".

Maisie had been taken in by Jim and Sue with the hope that their home would become her permanent home, but they were struggling.

"There are often moments we doubt our abilities to survive with the latest little darling we've taken on," admitted Jim.

Maisie, Jim, Sue

Most of Maisie's violence was aimed at Sue. She bit and kicked her, and in extreme moments she had to be restrained her for her own safety.

Sue said the tantrums could last for six hours: "There are times when I just say 'please stop the world, I want to get off,' it becomes overwhelming."

Maisie was four when she was taken away from her birth parents because it was too dangerous for her to carry on living there.

Violent past

She witnessed extreme violence as her mother and brothers were beaten, and her mother also had drug problems.

Maisie's outbursts would have helped her survive threatening situations in her past.

"I know it's not intentional," said Sue, "I know she didn't mean to hurt me but in the moment she's absolutely terrified and fighting for her life.

"I understand it and I need to help her to understand it."

Since she had been taken into care Maisie had lived with 10 different mothers in four years.

Two attempts at adoption fell through as other potential adoptive parents could not cope with her behaviour.

Jim and Sue are very experienced at successfully adopting damaged children.

Over the years they have taken on eight others who had all experienced danger, violence and neglect in their early years, but who had managed to turn their lives around.

But Maisie's extreme behaviour was their biggest challenge yet.

If they could not help her, Maisie would end up in care for the rest of her childhood, which would most likely mean a secure therapy unit because of her violent behaviour.

Unique therapy

Their therapeutic parenting at home had helped her so far but for the first time with their children they needed specialist help.

As we had with our other children, we recognised that Maisie lacked many of the developmental experiences that help children to grow and develop.

In a safe, nurturing family environment with consistent adult care they move through the baby, toddler, pre-school, and other stages, gathering skills, experience, and the tools they need for growing up.

Maisie had the body and intelligence of an eight-year-old, but the emotional development and behaviour of a six-month-old at best.

In addition she was on constant alert, having learnt to expect danger at every turn.

Using the techniques we had learnt, and practiced with the other children, we took Maisie back through those missed years.

We gave her back the warmth, nurture, love, and parental involvement she had so tragically missed.

We held and cuddled her, played finger games like a baby, spoon-fed her, and played toddler games, bouncing her on our knees (or on a trampette when our knees became tired).

We also started to help her with her violent, terrified outbursts, sharing her hurt, and helping her to understand her fears.

This was working, but still we needed more. Maisie was still so violent, and was getting bigger and harder to handle all the time.

For the first time with our children we needed specialist help.

Getting help though was not easy. They battled with the local authority for a year before they got short-term funding to take Maisie to therapy sessions at Family Futures.

"It costs 50,000 for a year's programme (at Family Futures). Compare that to the cost of keeping her in care for another year which is 100,000 and rising - it's a no-brainer, surely," Jim said.

It is a unique therapy centre with an exceptional record in helping some of the country's most troubled children, and has a 95% success rate at keeping families together.

Maisie also hoped it would help her. "I have pulled Mum's [Sue's] head, slapped her round the face, punched her and kicked her and then I felt bad after, so it [therapy] will help my life out," she said.

Jay Vaughan, who was in charge of Maisie's treatment, said it was extremely important that she got help as soon as possible: "She's strong and Jim can restrain her physically now, but this has to be contained in the next year because otherwise it will be dangerous."

The therapy entailed taking Maisie back step-by-step to revisit her past and confront her most painful memories. The therapists used a number of different techniques including drawing and role playing with toys.

Maisie frequently lashed out physically as they tried to get her to talk about her past and they often had to restrain her for her own safety.

In some sessions it took an hour of screaming and crying before she was calm enough to be able to talk about her past.

Real breakthroughs

Progress was slow-going, and at times Jim and Sue felt they were making no progress at all. But over six months, still supported by all the work they were doing with her at home, they experienced real breakthroughs.

They had to build Maisie up over months to get her to talk about her very early years and the violence she witnessed.

Jay Vaughan said: "It's terrifying for her to think about it, but once she does she has tonnes of questions. She wants to understand and make sense of why she is as she is."

Making sense of her past did make Maisie less angry. There was a noticeable change in her behaviour at home.

"It's changed the way she's perceived us," said Sue.

"It's just so lovely and I'm not naive enough to think that that's it, that everything's all mended now, I'm sure we're going to get a lot of challenging behaviours in the future."

With the advances in Maisie's behaviour Jim and Sue made the decision that they would adopt her.

"We've made a good start," said Jim. "We've engaged with her and she knows this is her family so she can start to learn about herself and deal with her past from a safe position."

They still face a battle for longer term funding and believe she may need three years of therapy at Family Futures.

Jim acknowledged there would be a long journey ahead: "It's a long, long way to go. I reckon we've reached the third or fourth rung of a 25 foot ladder."

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 



 

 

 

 

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