The moment Julie Jarman set eyes on Zahina she was smitten. The seven-year-old girl from Tanzania was desperate for a loving home and Julie felt sure that she and her 11-year-old daughter could provide it.
In turn Zahina would become the second daughter Julie longed for. “When I met her for the first time, she was a bit shy. I saw her hiding behind her social worker’s skirt, peeping out at me with an enormous grin on her face. She was gorgeous.
“She was with her foster parents in Somerset. Laura and I spent a week with them, taking things very slowly.
“One day we took her to the park and one day we went swimming and I remember seeing Laura and Zahina teasing each other in the pool and thinking I had seen a glimpse of how things were going to be.”
It was settled that Zahina would come to live with Julie, a programme manager for Oxfam, at her house in Manchester in July 2005. Julie was thrilled and spent the final days before her arrival getting everything ready.
She decorated her room with an African theme, she made curtains from some cloth she’d bought in Africa, and hung two framed batiks of African women on the wall.
She even stocked up on oats so she could make a similar porridge to one Tanzanian children are given called uji, which is made from maize-meal.
“She didn’t seem upset at leaving her foster parents and was quite excited about the move,” says Julie.
But almost from the moment she arrived Julie sensed a barrier between them. “Zahina would chat to me and ask questions about this and that, and on the surface it was fine.
“But I sensed that at a deeper level she was resisting me—I felt she was waiting for her mother to come back. Before she went to bed at night she would give me a hug but there was no warmth there. She was going through the motions.
“Often when I asked her to do something she would do it as the Tanzanians would say, ‘kichwa upande’—unwillingly, or holding her head to one side.”
As the weeks passed the house became filled with unspoken tensions, resentments and discord. Most worryingly of all, Julie’s own daughter Laura began to withdraw into herself. In fact Zahina seemed to go out of her way to try to upset her.
“Once when I asked her to remove her mud-covered boots, she marched over to Laura, who was sitting in front of the fire playing Patience and parked her filthy foot right on top of the cards.
“Another time the three of us were supposed to go and see an African band but Laura refused to come because she was upset about something, but wouldn’t say what.
“During the interval Zahina said to me, ‘Laura was really upset, wasn’t she?’ and I could see she was really pleased that Laura was upset and that she felt she’d driven a wedge between Laura and me. There was something deeply unpleasant about the way she said it.”
Her behaviour was a far cry from what Julie had hoped for. Indeed on paper, she reasoned, Zahina had been the perfect choice.
Her circumstances were particularly sad. Her family in Tanzania were very poor and she and her sister lived with their mother and stepfather in a one-room tenement.
“It is not clear why her family decided to send her to Britain but she arrived here after it was apparently arranged for her to stay with an uncle and his British partner.
Soon after this, however, the couple separated and the uncle’s partner was left alone to look after Zahina. Attempts to send her back to Tanzania were unsuccessful because her parents could not be traced. Unwanted in Tanzania and here in Britain, she was taken into care.
One of the reasons Julie was drawn to Zahina was because her own daughter, Laura, now 13, was half Tanzanian. Her father is a Tanzanian teacher whom Julie had a long relationship with while working in the country as an aid worker in the Eighties.
Julie was pregnant with Laura when she returned to Britain in 1994. The relationship with her boyfriend ended the following year but Laura continues to see her father, who remains in Tanzania.
Julie had hoped she might settle down with someone else and have another child, but it did not happen. Five years ago, aged 44, she accepted that she was highly unlikely now to fall pregnant if she met someone and began to consider the possibility of adoption.
“I really felt that I wanted to become a parent for a second time and the idea of having two children appealed to my sense of family.”
The following year she applied to Social Services to be considered as an adoptive parent.
She hoped she would be able to adopt a child aged three to four, preferably a girl, because Laura had said she would love to have a sister.
She underwent a rigorous assessment process, including inteviews with social workers about her past history and family relationships, her motivation and expectations of adoption, and a six-week course in which issues discussed included the emotional needs of children who have been through the care system.
Being a single parent was not an issue; Social Services now consider all types of family set ups. In 2004 Julie was told her application had been successful.
The next year, her social worker showed Julie an advertisement she had spotted in an adoption magazine in which an appeal was made for a home for Zahina.
“The ad said she was lively, bright and intelligent and said she had formed a close attachment to her foster carer and would have no problems doing so again. I thought she looked lovely, she had a really appealing face.”
But appealing as Zahina undoubtedly was the little girl clearly had problems, too.
Julie says that for the first six months she lived with them she put in a huge emotional investment trying to establish a mother/daughter relationship with Zahina, chatting to her, playing with her, taking her on outings, but it was always the same.
“I simply couldn’t reach her. I suppose I did get frustrated by it. I would say to her sometimes: ‘Do you want me to be your mummy?’, and she would reply: ‘No, I’ve already got one.’
“Zahina would repeatedly push the boundaries and disobey me, it was very difficult. I would tell her she had to stay on the pavement when she went out on her roller skates, and she would go on the road. I would tell her she couldn’t go knocking on friend’s doors late at night, and she would do it.
“Once when she had done something or other I had asked her not to, she just gave me this look as if to say: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I thought to myself: ‘You just don’t care, do you?’
“It was not the incidents in themselves that bothered me, more the underlying emotional gap.”
She sought help from Social Services, asking if any psychotherapy was available for Zahina, with counselling for her, but was told it was not possible to access those services in Manchester.
After seven to eight months, Julie says, something inside her “gave up”.
“I realised I would not be able to attain with Zahina anything approaching a mother/ daughter relationship. I was worried that I might in the future feel a creeping resentment towards her.
“Looking after children takes time, energy and effort and I wasn’t getting anything back. I felt a dull ache inside me. It was awful.
“I could see myself in ten years’ time being like one of those parents who go on about how they’ve done so much for their children, and got so little back.”
Meanwhile, Zahina was clearly unhappy, too. She took to writing stories about her toy tiger, Stripes, and asked Julie if she would like to hear one.
“In this one, Stripes was living with a nasty adoptive mother who threw him out on the street saying: ‘Get away you naughty cub, you can’t come back here.’ Luckily, all was not lost because Stripes found his birth mummy.
“I took a deep breath and asked Zahina whether she thought she might be thrown out on the street like Stripes.
“She said yes and though I tried to reassure her that this would never be the case, it hit me really hard. I rang the social worker for advice but she told me not to worry, saying it was great Zahina was expressing herself.”
Over the following few weeks, Zahina wrote four more stories about Stripes. “The adoptive mother was not mentioned again, but they all talked about Stripes losing his mother and setting out to look for her.
“I didn’t need to be a psychiatrist to work out what Zahina wanted most in the world. It was heartbreaking, because I knew she’d been abandoned and that no one was coming to get her.”
Laura, too, was suffering and had started to retreat to her room to escape.
“But even then Zahina would not leave her alone and would push her way in,” says Julie. “Sometimes she took things from Laura’s room, causing terrible rows.
“With the benefit of hindsight I don’t think Zahina should have been placed with someone who had a birth daughter, she would have been better going to a couple who had no children and would be able to give their undivided attention.
“She saw it as a competition to try to supplant Laura, not consciously, of course, and it was the behaviour of a deeply unhappy child.
“I think our situation reflected something in her past. I think she saw her sister as the favourite in Tanzania.”
Around this time, Zahina wrote a letter to her mother in Tanzania, asking when she was coming to fetch her. Eventually she received a card, but there was no reply to her questions.
“The penny dropped, and she realised her mother wasn’t coming to get her,” says Julie. “She had no other option but me. At that point she actually started making more effort, but it was too late by then.
“It’s hard to explain, but deep inside me I’d given up and I couldn’t go back. I began to be very anxious about what to do.”
A year after Zahina had come to live with her, Julie was confronted with the most agonising decision of her life—should she go ahead with the adoption?
She decided she did not want to but, desperately worried about the impact this would have on Zahina, avoided doing anything about it.
Ironically, it was Zahina herself who forced her hand. The little girl must have sensed that Julie was withdrawing from her and was having nightmares about falling down a hole. She was calling out to Julie but she wasn’t there.
“I realised we couldn’t go on like this, with all of us so anxious,” says Julie. “I felt it might be damaging for Zahina.”
She made up her mind—she would give Zahina back. “It was very sad and distressing, of course, but I could not ignore the fact that things weren’t right.”
And so this little girl, shunted from one place to another, was to be rejected once more.
“When I did tell Zahina she was incredibly upset, she just sobbed and sobbed. It was hard to take. She said she’d tried so hard, and got nothing back, and I told her I knew what she meant because that was exactly how I had felt.
“By that I don’t mean I was blaming her. I was the adult in the situation and I had to take full responsibility.”
One must ask at this juncture whether Julie was rather naive in undertaking this adoption. Zahina was not a baby, she was a seven-year-old whose life up to that point had been a deeply unhappy one.
She was a thinking, feeling young person having to cope with the distressing knowledge that her mother had dumped her in a foreign country to be rid of her.
Surely she was never going to be the malleable blank canvas Julie appears to have wished for.
And was it really so surprising that there were tensions and jealousies with Julie’s own daughter Laura, an 11-year-old only child who was suddenly expected to share her home and her mother’s affection with a stranger?
“When I told the social worker she didn’t seem particularly surprised,” says Julie defensively.
“She asked me to keep it from Zahina until they found a foster home for her because Social Services believe it is better if a move happens reasonably quickly.”
Julie is under no illusions about the impact this second rejection may have had on Zahina. “I felt sure it was definitely the right decision for me and my daughter,” says Julie, “but I was not absolutely sure it was the right decision for her.”
In August last year, just over a year after Zahina came to live with them, Julie and Laura packed her bags and drove her back to Somerset to another foster family.
“When I asked Zahina what the hardest thing about it was she said: ‘Leaving you.’ It was terrible. But as we drove down to Somerset the barriers came up again, it was a form of self-protection.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her with these strangers, I felt completely devastated and was crying, I was very emotional.
“But I was also relieved. I had my life back, my family back.
“What happened with Zahina made me appreciate how good my relationship with Laura is, how it works so well with just the two of us.”
Does she worry about the impact her decision has had on Zahina?
“Yes I realise that I have set a pattern of rejection,” says Julie. “I would rather it hadn’t happened.
“Giving Zahina back was the hardest thing I have done in my life, but when she had gone my overwhelming emotion was one of relief.
“Zahina and I had different expectations. I hadn’t expected to replicate the relationship I had with my daughter but I had expected a certain emotional closeness.
“That was not Zahina’s expectation of our relationship.
“But Zahina and I went on a journey together and I hope she learnt something about the nature of parenting and family relationships. While she was with me she came to terms with a lot of her past.”
Today Zahina is in a children’s home, waiting to be found somewhere permanent. Julie says there are a couple of prospective parents who are interested in adopting her.
“I felt terrible about having to give her back, and the way things turned out, but I do not regret it.
“In the end I did what I thought was best.”
* Zahina and Laura’s names have been changed.