Our Love was not enough… story in the DAILY MAIL and TAKE A BREAK mag…
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When Cherry adopted these ‘angelic’ sisters she thought a loving home would heal the wounds of their troubled past. How terrifyingly wrong she was…
By Alison Smith-Squire
PUBLISHED: 20 April 2012
The moment Cherry Willoughby saw a photograph of the two angelic-looking girls she was about to adopt is forever etched on her memory. ‘My hands were trembling as I opened the brown envelope,’ she recalls, ‘but when I saw their little faces, my heart leapt.’
A week later Cherry, a portrait artist, and her husband John, who had a well-paid job on an oil rig, went to visit three-year-old Maryann and her six-month-old sister Nicola at their foster home.
Cherry, then 31, had previously endured two ectopic pregnancies, five miscarriages and the heartache of two stillborn babies.
‘The door opened and the first person I saw was Maryann, a blonde-haired little girl,’ she says. ‘When she looked up at me with her big blue eyes and said: “You’re going to be my new mummy,” I was smitten.
‘When I held Nicola in my arms I found myself welling up with emotion. To hold a baby and realise that, after going through so much, I was finally going to become a mum was overwhelming.’ The couple knew that the girls might struggle to adjust to their new life, or suffer emotional problems. Born to a mother with a deeply troubled background, they had already been in several foster homes.
But Cherry and John believed bringing up the sisters in a stable and loving home with all its middle-class trappings — a large five-bedroom house, a village school and supportive grandparents — would conquer all. They had hoped to create a happy family life and raise well-adjusted girls.
Sadly, the reality couldn’t have been more different. Despite the couple’s utmost devotion, today both daughters, now in their early 20s, are in prison.
Maryann’s crime was so shocking — she was one of a vicious gang who burnt and tortured a vulnerable woman with a red-hot iron and slashed her with a kitchen knife — that it made national newspaper headlines.
Today Cherry, 52, still struggles to comprehend what happened to her children — and admits that in many ways the adoption has ruined her life. Her marriage to John crumbled under the strain and she suffered a stroke, which doctors put down to severe stress.
So where did it all go wrong? And does this story demonstrate a child’s genetic make-up determines their future, rather than the love and care lavished on them?
‘It seems naive now but we did think time and lots of love would be enough,’ says Cherry. ‘The first sign something was wrong came shortly before we adopted the girls. We’d been to visit them at the foster parent’s house, where we saw Maryann suddenly turn on her foster mother and scratch her face.
‘It was a shocking attack — she violently grabbed the woman’s chin and really dug her nails in. But the social worker just brushed it off. She told us “once she’s in a permanent and loving home, she’ll soon settle down”. John and I believed her.’
They put the incident out of their minds, just overjoyed to be parents at last. ‘From a young age, I’d always yearned to be a mum. But when I met John I had to tell him I couldn’t give him any children. I’d already had five miscarriages in a previous relationship. I’d also had two stillborn babies and lost both of my fallopian tubes in ectopic pregnancies.’
After she and John underwent two failed courses of IVF, they decided to adopt. A year later, in January 1992, having undergone rigorous checks with social services, Cherry and John, 34, were finally approved for adoption.
Within three months, following several visits to the girls, they brought their new daughters home.
Cherry, from Bath, recalls: ‘For years I’d watched enviously as friends and family all had babies. Now I threw myself into being a mum, determined that Maryann and Nicola would have the very best of everything.
‘John and I painted the spare room pink, splashed out on brand new prams and dressed the girls in designer clothes. When I went out passers-by commented on how gorgeous they both were and I was so proud.’
The girls appeared to settle well. ‘Maryann called us “new Mummy and new Daddy” at first, but within weeks she was just calling us Mummy and Daddy.’
However, six weeks after they arrived, there was a chilling sign of the mayhem to come.
‘I had given Maryann a box of dolls,’ recalls Cherry. ‘I could hear her in her bedroom singing to herself, but when I went in I was horrified. Every single doll had been dismembered — their limbs had been wrenched off and their eyes gouged out. It must have taken all her strength. Yet, Maryann just sat there looking angelic.’
When she began playgroup, her frightening behaviour quickly escalated.
‘She couldn’t play properly with other children. If she wanted a toy, she would hit them violently. She swore and she kept soiling herself. After a matter of only weeks, the playgroup expelled her.’
Shortly after, the couple moved from their luxury flat into a large 17th century five-bedroom house in Wiltshire with rambling and formal gardens.
Maryann began at the local village school — but the same problems occurred.
‘I would turn up at school to find the teacher with a bag of stinking clothes where Maryann kept soiling herself,’ says Cherry. ‘And it wasn’t long before we were called in to see the head teacher. Maryann was out of control — she couldn’t concentrate on her work, she kept running off and taking off her clothes inappropriately in the playground. She even climbed a builder’s ladder onto the school roof.
‘She was slapping other children and stealing from them. Heartbreakingly, she had no friends — we invited people to her birthday party and no one turned up.’
Worse, the school head and social services pointed the finger at Cherry and her husband. ‘Humiliatingly we were asked if we had problems in our marriage that were making Maryann like this.’
By now Cherry had discovered in a newspaper that the girls’ biological mother had recently been imprisoned for 15 years for murder. For legal reasons, the Mail cannot reveal the full circumstances of her crime.
‘That terrified me — could Maryann have inherited any of her traits? And yet when we asked social services for help, all they gave us were parenting tips such as making reward charts. All our requests for professional help were ignored.’
Maryann’s behaviour got worse. ‘She destroyed her bedroom, pulling all her furniture apart and swinging on it and breaking it.’
With hindsight, Cherry says that as she got older Nicola, too, was prone to tantrums. ‘We didn’t realise she, too, was having behavioural difficulties, such as finding it hard to concentrate at school, because our attention was so taken up with Maryann.’
The older girl’s behaviour increasingly wore the couple down.
‘John was old-fashioned. He’d been educated privately and believed sterner discipline was the key, such as sitting on a naughty chair for long periods. But Maryann didn’t care — she could sit there for hours.
‘I believed hugging her when she had a tantrum was the answer. Nothing worked, but discussing what to do for the best caused endless heated rows between us.’
Soon John and Cherry were sleeping in separate rooms.
By the time Maryann was nine, Cherry took her to see her GP, who referred them to family counselling – but once again they were simply ‘lectured on parenting techniques’. Aged ten, Maryann was seen by an educational psychiatrist.
‘I suggested Maryann needed specialist help — but was refused because although she was causing mayhem, she wasn’t doing anything such as smoking, which they saw as a sign that a child was off the rails.’
Quite understandably, adopted children often suffer emotional difficulties. A U.S. study found that being adopted approximately doubles the odds of an adolescent being diagnosed with an emotional or behavioural problem. While these issues can usually be overcome, they often have a massive impact on the child’s adoptive family.
Cherry says: ‘All of it took a huge toll on our marriage. John was often away on business and would come home and blame me for not being stricter, while I felt resentful he was away and I was left to cope on my own. The adoption and the worry had just taken over our lives.
‘Any spark John and I had was long gone and replaced by bitter blame and rows. If we hadn’t adopted, I believe we would still be together. But the strain ruined our marriage.’
In 1999, when Maryann was 11 and Nicola nine, the couple split up. John moved out and their beautiful home was sold. Cherry, who was finding it hard to cope on her own with the girls, sought a fresh start at her 62-year-old father Robert’s villa in Spain. Nicola began at a Spanish school while Cherry taught Maryann at home.
But as Maryann hit puberty, the violence increased.
‘Maryann had always had a bizarre fascination with fire,’ says Cherry. ‘Once she set fire to the bathroom in our home. Now, she deliberately set fire to the grass three times.
‘She continually ran off. When she was 13 we found her in a bar, wearing a T-shirt as a mini-dress, chatting up men. And if she didn’t get her own way she would explode, attacking me and my elderly father with a broom.
‘After two years, my father couldn’t cope. As Nicola was settled in Spain, we left her there and me and Maryann came back to stay with friends in the UK.’
From then on Cherry’s life became a living hell. ‘Maryann was such a handful I couldn’t work properly and, with barely any money, we found ourselves housed by the council in a flat in the middle of a rough area of Bath. I was so depressed — how had my life come to this?’
‘Maryann would run away for days on end. I’d file a missing person report with the police and they’d find her living rough with homeless people. Once a neighbour told me he was shocked because Maryann asked him: “Do you want to have sex with me?” ’
The strain proved so much that Cherry had a stroke, spending six weeks in hospital while her mother looked after Maryann.
‘Despite exhaustive tests, doctors couldn’t find a cause and told me they believed it was due to severe stress.’
When Nicola, who’d missed her mum, came back from Spain a year later, the violence intensified and Maryann began viciously attacking her sister for no reason.
But the final straw came when Maryann, then 14, punched Cherry black and blue. ‘I refused to let her go out and she just went for me with her fists. It was then a policewoman, who’d been round so many times, said to me: “It’s time to let her go.”
‘Putting her back into care was heartbreaking and I felt guilty, as if I’d let her down,’ says Cherry. ‘But there was no other option. Incredibly, Maryann was completely unfazed by it — she wasn’t even upset.’
Cherry isn’t the only adoptive parent who has ended up putting her child back in care. While by far the majority of adoptions succeed, each year in the UK, one in five fails.
Maryann was to spend the rest of her teenage years going from one care home to another, committing a trail of petty crimes such as theft. Cherry continued to visit her in the homes, and never gave up on her. ‘But no one, no care home, could cope,’ she says.
By now Nicola was also becoming a problem. Cherry says: ‘Although Nicola wasn’t violent like her sister, she’d always had problems.
‘By the age of 14, she, too, was expelled from school. A year later she emptied my bank account and went on a spending spree. It was the final straw and I was forced to put Nicola into a home for troubled teens.’
The problems didn’t end there. ‘In 2010, she met a lad with similar problems and made the mistake of trying to smuggle drugs to him in prison.’
Nicola was caught and sentenced to 18 months in jail. By the time she was imprisoned, in December 2010, Maryann was also under arrest for her part in the gang attack and torture of the vulnerable woman.
She hadn’t calmed down while in care, nor when she’d been given her own flat by the council on turning 18. ‘She smashed it up and allowed drifters in,’ says Cherry. ‘It was just a slippery slope until something terrible happened.’
It did — and in March last year, Maryann, 22, was jailed for eight years after admitting false imprisonment and causing grievous bodily harm with intent.
‘Ironically they have followed exactly the same pattern as their mother,’ says Cherry. Today John rarely sees the girls. Cherry occasionally visits them in prison — most recently in October last year.
‘They’re not evil children, they are just children who never got proper medical and psychiatric help, despite our requests,’ she says. ‘I still feel guilty for putting them both back into care and wonder if there was more I could have done.’
Meanwhile, she wants to warn other parents of the perils of adopting ‘damaged’ children.
‘In hindsight, John and I were probably naive, we didn’t realise just how hard it would be to overcome their bad start. And we don’t feel social workers were honest about it.
‘Also there just isn’t enough help for parents. Despite begging for help, none was ever forthcoming.
‘I wouldn’t want to stop anyone from adopting children — I know it can be a wonderful, life-enhancing experience — but anyone doing it must double check their background for themselves and ask questions.’
* Some names have been changed.