Book tells how adoptive mum’s love saved troubled teen from a sex and drugs nightmare. Jaine Blackman reports

From a dream come true to a living nightmare, Elizabeth McDonnell had little idea of what she was taking on when she adopted 10-year-old Lara.

A professional single woman, living in Oxford, she hit her 50s and “knew there was one big thing left to do with my life – something amazing and really important”.

That something was to lead her places she never dreamed possible: Lara, the abused and troubled youngster she took in to her life, became one of the girls exploited by the seven men later convicted in the Bullfinch trial.

The men were given prison sentences totalling a minimum of 95 years, after being found guilty of offences including rape, child prostitution, and trafficking.

Now Elizabeth has written a book about how she tried to rescue her daughter from these sexual predators, while at the same time battling the authorities and trying to get the help Lara so desperately needed.

The journey started when Elizabeth, who worked for many years in the charity sector, decided to foster young adults.

It was suggested she might consider adopting, something she hadn’t thought possible as a 51-year-old childless woman.

“Adoption, having a child, becoming a parent... a shiver ran down my spine. Could it be possible?” she writes in You Can’t Have My Daughter.

After a rigorous assessment process she was accepted and she spotted Lara with her “sweet, rather wistful smile” looking for a “forever family” in an adoption charity magazine.

Lara came to live with Elizabeth in her four-storey terrace but although there was plenty of affection on both sides, problems soon arose.

Lara’s early life had been so abusive that her emotional damage was ongoing, even though she was now in a loving home.

“She seemed happy and positive on the whole but then in the blink of an eye, she could change and become incredibly aggressive and angry towards me,” writes Elizabeth.

Little by little she learned more about the abuse the girl had undergone.

How she had been sexually abused by a grandfather within the family that had previously tried to adopt her and how her birth father had brought men home from the pub and allowed them to sexually assault her for money when she was aged three or four.

It helped Elizabeth understand Lara’s self destructive and out of control behaviour but she found it hard to cope without the back-up she needed.

She fought and failed to get Lara an extra year at primary school.

“I believe that the fact Lauren was catapulted into year seven when she wasn’t ready for it was disastrous,” she writes. “Most, if not all the terrible things that happened to her subsequently might have been avoided if she had been more emotionally secure and mature when she entered the bear garden that is secondary school.”

Soon after, Elizabeth went to pick Lara up from her friend Jennifer’s house and found her in a nearby park smoking and drinking with older boys. She swore at Elizabeth and ran off.

“That was when it started – in Botley, Oxford in June 2004 – the downward spiral of risk-taking, defiance and denial. She started to refuse outright to accept any reasonable rules or boundaries to ensure her well-being and safety,” writes Elizabeth.

By the age of twelve she was regularly going missing from school and from home.

Lara suffered violent mood swings and would fly into rages, kicking in door panels, throwing vases and threatening Elizabeth, who writes: “It was like living in a war zone.”

Although she locked doors and windows at home, during a 12-month period Lara and Jennifer disappeared 30 times, once for four days. Sometimes she would “emerge from some dubious house somewhere in Oxford demanding a lift home in the early hours of the morning but increasingly it would be later and further afield” often London.

During this time Elizabeth was trying to get help from Oxfordshire’s education, social services and mental health agencies for Lara.

Stays in residential units resulted in her running away or worse. While in an assessment centre in Devon, Elizabeth said she later discovered Lara was trafficked and sold for sex by an organised paedophile gang.

But there were moments of brightness and hope, usually when Elizabeth were on holiday or visiting family and friends outside of Oxford.

Oxford Mail:

In Oxford Elizabeth was discovering an underside to the city she’d never known as Lara became increasingly out of control, stealing threatening and physically assaulting her.

The disappearances increased and during one Lara was raped but refused to press charges.

“What I hoped would eventually help heal Lara was my unconditional commitment and love, no matter how bad things got,” writes Elizabeth.

That love was tested to the extreme. Countless times Elizabeth picked Lara up from police stations, hospitals and in the street when she’d collapsed through drink and drugs.

She took crack openly, was arrested for assault, their home was subject of a drugs raid and Elizabeth was considered at danger from domestic violence.

Lara had fallen prey to an abusive circle of older men and right under the noses of the police and social services, was being exploited by Oxford’s ring of sex traffickers – manipulated, drugged and sold.

When she was 15 she became pregnant with Noah.

Becoming a mother didn’t change Lara overnight – but when Noah was 18 months old, she told Elizabeth that they needed to get out of Oxford.

The gang had made threats to kill Noah, Elizabeth and Lara.

Shortly after they moved to Wales, where they had enjoyed happy times with Elizabeth’s family, Lara agreed to talk to Operation Bullfinch detectives.

You Can’t Have My Daughter is Elizabeth’s harrowing story written in her own words. Deeply moving and inspirational, it is testament to a mother’s promise to her only child: “I will always be there for you, whether you want me to or not.”

She lives with Lara and her two grandchildren.

Most names have been changed in the text to protect the anonymity of Lara, her children and of other vulnerable young people.

You Can’t Have My Daughter by Elizabeth McDonnell was published this week by Pan (£7.99) Paperback and ebook