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WATCHING The Chronicles of Narnia with my family, I couldn’t help but smile as my foster daughter Eden stared at the screen in delight.
Yet as a wardrobe – the entrance to Narnia – came into view, the transfixed five-year-old suddenly let out a piercing scream and raced out of the room.
Hero foster mum Louise Allen, pictured, has looked after dozens of childrenCredit: Supplied
Though I was stunned by the youngster’s terrified outburst, it wasn’t the first strange reaction she’d had to a wardrobe since arriving at my home.
Little Eden had walked through the door more than a month earlier – the gorgeous, greeny-blue eyed daughter of a sex ring victim who was in prison.
Clutching a tatty old teddy in her tiny hands, she had visibly tensed up the first time she saw her new bedroom – complete with a coloured wardrobe.
At the time, I sensed that Eden didn’t like the very ordinary item of furniture – yet I could have never guessed the full horror behind her fear.
Little Eden had a strange reaction to wardrobes – including the one in The Chronicles of Narnia. Above, a wardrobe at Louise’s family homeCredit: Supplied
Louise, pictured with husband Lloyd, says Eden was clean and had the demeanour of someone who had been well-loved in the pastCredit: Supplied
Shy new arrival
It was just after 12.20pm one school day when Eden turned up at my home in south-west England, her brown hair curling gently round her pale face.
Accompanied by social workers, she shyly hung back.
My husband Lloyd and I have fostered many children over the years, and we can only imagine how hard it must be to move into a stranger’s home.
Unlike some of the youngsters we’ve taken in before, Eden was clean and had the demeanour of someone who had been well-loved in the past.
She wrapped our dolls in blankets, cuddling them like precious babies.
She also quickly bonded with Jackson, Vincent and Lily – our two school-aged sons and our long-term foster daughter – over a game of KerPlunk.
The youngster would chat quietly to Louise’s pet dogs Dotty and DouglasCredit: Supplied
Yet the little girl wouldn’t speak to any of us.
The only words she uttered were to non-humans – including our pet dogs, Dotty and Douglas, and a metal duck ornament that she befriended.
On one occasion, I heard her telling the duck of her jailed mum: “She’s going to be away for a while, so I am staying here with you for now.”
Eden had permanent red rings around her eyes, as though someone had drawn a blunt red pencil through her eyelashes
A huge Peppa Pig fan, Eden also had permanent red rings around her eyes, as though someone had drawn a blunt red pencil through her eyelashes.
And when she took a bath, I saw she had faint red marks on her limbs.
Though I’m always on alert for signs of child abuse – such as sinister drawings and worrying comments – the marks looked like old insect bites.
Louise, pictured recently with her baby step-granddaughter, noticed Eden had permanent red rings around her eyesCredit: Supplied
The little girl befriended this huge metal duck, telling the ornament: ‘I am staying here with you for now’Credit: Supplied
Torturing beloved pets
During her time with us, Eden also started torturing the dogs she’d grown to adore by shutting them in small spaces – from cupboards to her toy box.
“I found Dotty in her toy box the other day, that yellow wicker thing at the end of her bed,” Lily told me. “Whimpering, trapped in there all by herself.”
All of the spaces, we’d later reflect, were confined like a wardrobe.
Back then, Lloyd and I only had the basics on Eden – evidence-based information – rather than anything helpful about her background.
Following cuts to children’s social services, our heroic social workers are sometimes so busy that paperwork doesn’t get written up properly.
But often, even the most detailed paperwork doesn’t include horrifying parts of a child’s story – known only to themselves and their abusers.
Eden started torturing Dotty, left, and Douglas – whom she’d grown to adore – by shutting them in small spacesCredit: Supplied
Louise, a best-selling author and artist who grew up in the care system, only had the basics on her new foster childCredit: Supplied
Eden’s heartbreaking truth came out unexpectedly one day in the kitchen.
“They locked me in the wardrobe,” she said, finally – and bravely – uttering a full sentence out loud as I poured her favourite cereal into her bowl.
Eden, it turned out, had been repeatedly locked inside a wardrobe as a toddler while her single mum Ashley was groomed into a sex ring.
Ashley had loved Eden deeply – but after being preyed on by a nightclub owner and drug dealer called Baz, her care of her daughter changed.
Eden had been repeatedly locked inside a wardrobe as a toddler while her single mum Ashley was groomed into a sex ring
Desperate to spend time with new love Baz – whom she didn’t realise was grooming her – the young mum began leaving her daughter home alone.
Each time, she locked the toddler in a large, old-fashioned wardrobe in her bedroom, along with a cot mattress, teddies and an Upsy Daisy night light.
She told herself that Eden always slept soundly, that she’d be fine.
65k children living in UK foster care
MORE than 65,000 kids are living in foster care across Britain – yet Louise Allen warns the number could have soared since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The foster mum, 53, from south-west England, says many abusers will have seen the lockdown as a “God-given opportunity to go for it – to manipulate and control”.
She says: “What worries me is the opportunity for perpetrators and paedophiles to access children who are not in a safe foster placement or loving family or turning up for school.
“The children who are left alone to fend for themselves, children who are in their bedrooms being contacted by Lord knows who.
“I think this pandemic has raised more questions than answers about how we treat all our children.”
Louise, a best-selling author and artist who grew up in the care system in Oxford, is married to husband Lloyd. They have two birth sons, Jackson and Vincent.
As I describe in my book, Eden’s Story, Ashley initially felt overwhelmed with guilt about leaving her daughter. But as time passed, this guilt eased.
In the mornings, she’d find Eden sitting or standing silently inside the wardrobe. Sometimes, she looked like she might have been crying.
But Ashley would convince herself that she hadn’t heard any sobs.
It was no place at all for a child to sleep – and it explained Eden’s screams to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe during her time with us.
But for the helpless child, things were about to get even worse.
Louise, pictured, says Eden’s mum Ashley initially felt overwhelmed with guilt about leaving her daughter alone in the wardrobeCredit: Supplied
Forced to live in brothel
After Baz was arrested over drug-related offences, his boss Lachie turned up at Ashley’s home and told her she was his “little insurance policy”.
“You’re a woman of the world. I know you are. Baz has told me,” Lachie sneered, before using Eden to threaten Ashley into a life of prostitution.
“We wouldn’t want any harm to come to young Eden, would we?” he added.
Terrified for her daughter, Ashley began having sex with men in front of Lachie. And it didn’t take long for her to lose her way – and her home.
Left without a flat, Ashley and Eden moved into Lachie’s brothel, where the mum was degraded and abused alongside other vulnerable women.
Eden’s wardrobe came with them.
Eden revealed her heartbreaking truth in Louise’s kitchen one day, as the foster mum poured out cerealCredit: Supplied
Punished for peeking
But as the youngster grew, she slept less and saw and heard far more from her furniture prison. Sometimes, the wardrobe door wasn’t locked.
One night, she pushed open the door, concerned for her mum. Lachie, who was watching as usual, heard the creak and spotted her wide eyes.
And he found a truly vile way to make sure Eden stayed quiet.
Not long after her wardrobe disclosure in the kitchen, Eden told me that water had been deliberately poured on her from the top of the wardrobe.
Eden told me that water had been deliberately poured on her from the top of the wardrobe… it came from a boiling hot kettle
With tears running down her cheeks, she inched up the legs on her Peppa Pig pyjamas and pointed at the faint redness I’d previously noticed.
They weren’t faded insect bites like I’d first thought; they were burns.
The water, Eden confirmed, would come from a boiling hot kettle.
It was a sickening discovery – and one that has left Eden with what I suspect will be a life-long fear of wardrobes and enclosed spaces.
Louise’s powerful new book, Eden’s Story, describes how the youngster is now in the care of someone who loves herCredit: Supplied
Today, Eden is a funny youngster who is doing well with her education, has no trouble speaking, and is in the care of someone who loves her.
This person isn’t Ashley – whose own tragic fate I describe in my book.
For years, Eden’s big personality was trapped inside the body of a quiet and traumatised child – just like she was imprisoned in her wooden cage.
But now, both she and her personality are free.
- Eden’s Story by Louise Allen is published by Mirror Books and available now. It is the third story in her Thrown Away Children series, following Stella’s Story and Abby’s Story
- Some names and details have been changed to protect identities