The heartbreaking day I put my little boy into careIt’s a decision no mother thinks she’d ever make. But, pushed to the brink, Gemma did — and it’s haunted her ever since
23:08 GMT, 21 November 2012
The teacup flew across the room, smashing into the wall, and something inside Gemma Devenish finally snapped.
It was the dramatic, desperate finale to yet another explosive argument with her husband Pete.
Exhausted, her nerves shattered after years of frustration, the 31-year-old mother realised she could go no further along this road.
She picked up the phone and made the call she thought she never would — the one that went against every mother’s instinct, and which broke her already battered heart.
Gemma Devenish photographed at her home in Swindon, Wiltshire, with 7 month old Bram. Gemma's eldest son Niall was taken into care when he was very young.
She called social services and asked — or ordered — them to come and take her seven-year-old son, Niall, away.
‘I told them to come now, that minute, because if they didn’t, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions,’ Gemma, 40, recalls today. ‘I’d just thrown a cup at the wall, but to be honest it could have been Niall. Neither Pete nor I could cope any more. It was the end of my dream of family life.’
Ten minutes after that desperate call in July 2003, a social worker arrived and took Niall away. He was voluntarily placed into local authority care by his parents. He is 17 now and hasn’t lived at home since.
Niall is severely autistic. He can’t speak, read or write. He is unable to communicate any emotion except through guttural sounds.
His behaviour is unpredictable. In the street he will grab people, snatching at their clothes or bags. He throws volcanic tantrums in shops, snatching items off shelves and throwing them around the aisle, and there is always the risk that he will bolt into the path of on-coming cars.
Niall was put in care as a last resort by his mother
He had smashed up the house, kicking things repeatedly. He’d attacked his little brother, leaving Gemma and Pete afraid to leave him for even a second. He was doubly incontinent and woke, on average, three times during the night.
Gemma, a GP’s receptionist, had long since given up taking Niall out of the house. She was a prisoner to her predicament, and struggled to carry the enormous burden of guilt and maternal responsibility.
Her relationship had been rocked to its very foundations. Unable to reprimand their son, Gemma and Pete took out their frustrations on each other, turning the atmosphere in the family home into a toxic cocktail of simmering resentment and barely-contained violence.
Looking back at that day, Gemma can hardly remember what the row was about, or what Niall had done to spark it. She knew only that living with Niall any longer would kill her. But casting him adrift would haunt her for the rest of her life.
'I couldn't invite other children to play because he would hit them and snatch their toys.'
‘It will never feel right. The guilt never goes away,’ she admits.
Now also a mum to two other sons: Callum, 13 and baby Bram, six months, Gemma says motherhood was always her dream.
An only child of older, devoted parents — her own mother was 40 when she was born — Gemma always hankered after a big, happy family of her own.
She was 23 when Niall was born, and remembers her son as a contented baby who rarely cried and fussed. Unlike the clingy, needy babies of friends, he never seemed to mind being put down. Pete, who works as a driver, was a hands-on dad, who happily changed nappies and sterilised bottles.
As the months passed, however, Gemma felt a growing unease: ‘With your own child, you know when something is wrong. I just knew Niall’s lack of responsiveness wasn’t right.’
She brought up her fears with her health visitor, pointing out that, despite Niall approaching his second birthday, he had a very limited vocabulary, saying only ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’.
There were other, more disturbing aspects to his behaviour, too, that went beyond the quirkiness of a developing toddler. Niall was constantly licking things — floors, walls, shoes — and no amount of gentle chiding could stop him.
Gemma felt incredibly guilty about Niall (file picture)
He disliked playing with other children, preferring to arrange his cars in an orderly line, for hours at a time. He seemed to fly into incandescent rages, far too ferocious to be blamed on the terrible twos.
This erratic behaviour became isolating: ‘I couldn’t invite other children to play because he would hit them and snatch their toys,’ Gemma remembers. Her son, she says, seemed unable to understand any concept of right or wrong. He would doggedly continue to throw toys or yank curtains from their rails, irrespective of how many times she told him not to.
Eventually following a consultation with her GP, Niall was assessed over two weeks at a specialist children’s centre near the family home in Walsall, in the West Midlands.
Although Gemma had long suspected her son might be autistic, the diagnosis was much worse than she had imagined: Niall was autistic with severe learning difficulties.
Gemma was consumed by guilt, fearing she had somehow caused Niall’s autism.
‘Before I knew I was pregnant, I had celebrated my birthday on New Year’s Eve with quite a few drinks. As soon as I realised I was expecting, I stopped drinking, but I was terrified I had inadvertently damaged Niall in the womb,’ she says.
The week after his third birthday, Gemma was told her little boy would never be able to live independently. He would never speak, read or write. He would grow into a man’s body, but stay imprisoned in the mind of a toddler.
‘My world just collapsed,’ Gemma falteringly remembers. ‘I remember thinking, he’ll never work, never get married, never be a dad.’
Gemma threw herself into caring for her son, trying to teach him to speak. Her perseverance yielded some results, and by the time he was four, he had mastered nine words.
Gemma felt dutybound not to return to work. But without the support of other stay-at-home mothers, she felt increasingly lonely.
'Apart from the strain on her marriage, day-to-day life with Niall had another devastating effect on Gemma. Confined to the house, she sought comfort in food.'
‘Niall was so unpredictable and difficult that most of my mummy friends melted away. A couple didn’t and to them, I’ll be eternally grateful. But I was terribly isolated,’ she confides.
Niall wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until Gemma was already pregnant with Callum.
‘Once autism was confirmed, I was warned my second child might also have the condition, but I carried on with the pregnancy hoping for the best,’ she says.
Callum’s birth, however, in 1999 had a devastating effect on Niall: he stopped speaking the day Gemma went into hospital, and hasn’t uttered another word since.
From the outset, it was obvious that Callum wasn’t autistic.
‘I was so relieved when Callum clearly wanted physical contact. He cried when I put him down and reached out for me. He obviously needed me emotionally in a way that Niall never had,’ she says. As feared, however, Callum’s birth brought more challenges. Gemma couldn’t leave him alone with his brother, even for a few seconds.
‘When Callum was three months old, Niall tipped him out of the baby bouncer onto his head,’ she says. If she wasn’t ever-vigilant, Niall would throw toys or objects at the baby or try to tip him out of the pram.
‘As well as Callum’s feeds, I would be up several times in the night. I remember once weeping from exhaustion, but Niall just stared at me. He had no empathy at all.’
Understandably, the strain took a toll on the couple’s marriage.
‘Pete found it hard to accept that Niall wasn’t just being naughty,’ Gemma says. And as his temper frayed, Gemma would in turn yell at her husband. Their relationship disintegrated into a cycle of bitter recriminations and sniping.
The family received little support from social services. Although Niall’s time at a special school offered some respite, it was not enough. After endless pleading, Niall was given a weekend a month in a special unit for disabled children. But that in itself presented more difficulties, says Gemma.
Niall suffered from autism
‘Those weekends highlighted what we were missing out on as a family. We were able to take Callum camping, or to the seaside. We went on normal family outings or we’d just have a quiet day reading and playing at home. That wasn’t possible when Niall was there,’ Gemma says. She admits that the family looked forward to Niall-free weekends — ‘I felt terribly guilty, but it was a relief when he wasn’t there,’ she says.
Neither could Gemma call on her own family for help. Tragically, her father had committed suicide when she was 12 and her mother wasn’t physically strong enough to cope with Niall. She died shortly before he went into care.
Apart from the strain on her
marriage, day-to-day life with Niall had another devastating effect on
Gemma. Confined to the house, she sought comfort in food.
gorged on chips, chocolate and curries,’ she says. ‘I put on a lot of
weight. I remember one night lying down after bathing Niall for the
fourth time and praying I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. ’
months before that fateful day in July 2003, Peter and Gemma had begged
social services for help. ‘We told them we couldn’t cope, that Niall
needed to be placed in residential care, but the social worker said
there wasn’t a place and sent us away,’ Gemma says.
the next eight weeks, tensions built until Gemma could take it no
longer. ‘Seeing that things were only going to get worse as Niall got
bigger and stronger, hardened my resolve.’
At first, Gemma said she felt such deep shame at having voluntarily put Niall into care that she found it hard to face parents.
thought I didn’t deserve to be there. I was a bad mother among all
these good mothers. I was crippled with guilt and self-hatred.’
Over time, however, the guilt gradually eased. The family visited Niall weekly and Gemma sometimes went alone too.
can’t really communicate, but I have never got the feeling that he is
sad not be living with us,’ Gemma says. ‘He has one-to-one constant
supervision, with a team of six working on a 24-hour shift basis to look
‘Yet Pete and I were expected to cope alone. I’m amazed we lasted as long as we did.’
Once Niall had gone, the couple tried to save their marriage, but the damage was done. They divorced in 2009.
couple of years after Niall was placed in care, Gemma found work as a
GP’s receptionist — a job she loves. After a gastric bypass in 2008, she
also managed to lose all the weight she had put on. She met her current
husband Charlie, 36, a gardener, and they married in February this
year. She gave birth to her third son, Bram, in April.
The family now lives in Swindon, a 100-mile drive from Walsall, and Gemma sees Niall once a month.
Pete, who still lives in the area, sees his son every couple of weeks.
Gemma says, is growing into a happy well-adjusted young man. He keeps
pictures of his brother on his phone and the family speak about Niall
‘The guilt and
sadness will never go away. I am not the mother I hoped I would be, but I
am slowly learning to accept myself,’ says Gemma quietly.