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Social services took my children

Social services took my children

Eileen Fairweather has investigated child care scandals for the past 20 years. But even she was shocked by the way an increasingly Stalinist state has torn apart one woman’s family.
A mother’s nightmare: Charlotte’s children now live with a distant relative. She is forbidden from going within half a mile of their schools or residence
A mother’s nightmare: Charlotte’s children now live with a distant relative. She is forbidden from going within half a mile of their schools or residence Photo: ALAMY
10:30PM GMT 26 Feb 2011
A brilliant postgraduate recently asked me to attend a final care hearing in Britain’s notoriously secret Family Courts. She feared that social services were about to wrongly remove her children permanently from her care, and wanted a journalist to bear witness. I specialise in investigating social services, but refused. I thought this mother had a better chance of being reunited with her young children if she did nothing to provoke the authorities.

I was wrong. In January, the High Court made her daughter and son (both under 12) the subjects of a special guardianship order. They have now been placed with a distant relative they barely know and, under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989, the mother has been barred from contact until they are 18, on pain of imprisonment.

She has not been prosecuted for any kind of abuse, or committed any crime. She does not drink, smoke or use drugs, and has no mental illness. Numerous high-flying professional friends describe her as kind, stoical and a loving mother. However, her children were taken from her owing to psychological vulnerability, during a period of great stress. Social services concluded that this put them at risk of “significant harm”.

What does this tell us about modern Britain, and an arguably ever more Stalinist state? Court-ordered reporting restrictions mean that I cannot use identifying details. Charlotte, as I shall call her, was a former RAF cadet, law graduate and legal practitioner. After the court decreed that she should never see her children again, she said: “My children were deeply loved and privileged, and everything I lived for. I am trying not to remember anything because of the deep pain it causes me. I cry constantly.”

Intelligence tests place Charlotte in Britain’s top nine per cent. But she was adventurous and preferred the outdoors to offices: she had her own horse, skippered her first boat at 19, and later won a prestigious bursary enabling her to study for a vocational university degree.

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She was thrilled. But she was also a single parent (to Emily and Oliver; not their real names) and struggled to cope at university. Charlotte moved to the town just before term began, with no nearby family or friends. Her ex-partner provided no support so she bought a wrecked house cheaply at auction. Her nanny proved unsuitable, so she spent hours driving between school, nursery and child-minder.

She was the only woman on her course. When a tutor postponed classes to the evening, after the nursery closed, she accused him of sexual discrimination. Her combative manner did not endear her. Her tutor accused her of “haughty” rudeness. She apologised, but felt unwelcome on the course. Meanwhile, a cascade of events brought her to the attention of social services.

Labour, in its dying days, used panic about child abuse to introduce continual monitoring of families. All state employees in contact with children are now expected continually to note and electronically pool their observations. The eight-page, 60-section Common Assessment Framework (CAF) asks invasive questions: how a child feels about its developing body; whether parents encourage cultural diversity; and if they work too hard to play with children. Labour recommended CAFs for the 50 per cent of British children it defined as “in need”.

Critics warned that this would produce a nation of snitches, and allow children to be removed through the accumulation of subjective judgments and untested tittle-tattle.

Charlotte’s plight amply illustrates this. Just before her first term began, a librarian expressed concern about Charlotte’s daughter being left in charge of her son. A police officer called shortly afterwards about her nanny’s lost passport. He reported the home’s poor condition, and an “unrelated male” on the premises (her builder).

A nursery worker noted that her son sometimes wore the same clothes as the day before, and arrived in a wet nappy (Charlotte had no hot water yet, and their morning journey took an hour). A teacher said that Charlotte’s queries about the quality of her daughter’s school meals meant that she did not cook enough at home.

A multi-agency CAF assessment was recommended. The first professionals were sympathetic. A health visitor in December 2008 described Charlotte “trying to juggle child care, studying, building work. Extra stressed this week: problems at university – timetable errors.”

Neither she nor the police saw any need for child protection, and a social worker confirmed: “Charlotte shows warmth and affection… she also has a good relationship with her health visitor and has acted on all advice given.”

Charlotte’s father’s died that Christmas. Her parents split up when she was tiny but she still mourned him deeply. She soldiered on, gained top marks and bought her daughter a pony. She wanted to provide a Swallows and Amazons childhood – she had roamed freely on her bike and horse from a young age. But that was in a vanished Britain. She could not understand why it was considered risky to let an older child temporarily mind a younger one in a library.

Grieving, isolated and exhausted, she asked the university medical centre for counselling. No one agreed who had responsibility for this incomer, who had a local and a university doctor. Ten months later, she was still not on a waiting list. On October 16 2009 she blurted out to her GP that sometimes she thought of suicide and taking her children with her, rather than leave them motherless. She says now: “I deeply regret that. My pain was acute, but I would never harm myself or my children. I had had thoughts of hurting myself – images but not plans, what is called ‘ideation’, but no intent. I did not want to hurt myself so I was seeking help to deal with the images. I was desperate to stay healthy for the sake of my children.”

Her doctor alerted social services: Charlotte needed “extra support”. But new child protection procedures – over-cautious, inflexible and based on tick lists – mean that parents needing practical help increasingly find their children wrongly classified as “at risk” rather than “in need”. Adult and children’s social services have been separated, there is almost no budget for the former and no longer a holistic approach to families: a parent in need is often treated as a threat.

The council repeatedly sought to remove her children. They were initially deflected by a psychiatrist and by police, who described happy and safe children. But a child protection plan meeting found there was a “risk of neglect”.

By January Charlotte was so stressed that she feared she could no longer cope, and made the mistake of telling social services. She thought it might secure support; instead, every word was logged and used against her.

In February 2010, Cafcass – the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service – was enlisted. Britain’s secret family courts primarily rely on its judgments. If a solitary Cafcass guardian decides against a parent in a care or custody dispute, the parent is powerless. The guardians are unaccountable.

The guardian recommended within days that Charlotte’s children be removed and fostered. She was now allowed to see them only briefly once a fortnight at a “contact centre”. Three watching social workers critically analysed everything the family said and did.

On one occasion, she took her little boy to the lavatory. A male social worker ordered her not to shut the door – he wanted to watch to ensure the child’s safety. She slammed the door and was accused of assaulting the man.

Charlotte feared that the foster carer and Cafcass were asking her children increasingly leading questions about abuse. “I remember one contact session,” she says, “when Emily was crying and screaming, saying she wanted me and that I was not horrible to her. I did slap her once. It has haunted me ever since. Then they said that I’d dropped Oliver when I was feeding him and hit him round the head. It wasn’t true. I’d just told Emily jokingly once how he bit me when I was breast-feeding him and I tapped his cheek to make him stop. And there is no medical or other evidence that I ever hurt either child.

“The last time I saw them, Oliver became distressed and clung to me and made it very clear he wanted to come home with me. I believe this is the reason the Cafcass guardian claimed that she saw me pinch the children.”

Charlotte asked for further contact to be filmed, to protect her from further false allegations. Social services refused. That was the last time she saw her children, on April 28.

She felt that whatever she said was distorted. So she tape-recorded a phone call – heard by The Sunday Telegraph – asking why the guardian had removed her children. The woman said she lacked “boundaries”: Charlotte was not adept enough at hiding stress. On that basis, half Britain’s mothers might lose their children.

Cafcass commissioned a psychologist to evaluate Charlotte’s ability to parent her children. The psychologist had qualified in 2005.

The psychologist’s conclusions were not favourable. Charlotte countered by gathering dozens of letters of support. None of the witnesses were consulted or able to give evidence in court. In May 2010, Charlotte applied for the right to appeal. A local newspaper reported the court case: “Refuting the claims that she threatened to murder her children and attacked the social worker as ‘entirely false’, the mother agreed she had been ‘under great stress’.”

The court refused her permission to appeal. Charlotte was told she could write to her children weekly. “But whatever I wrote they vetted and would not send. My last letter to my daughter included memories of a day that was very special to her because she and her friends took the ponies swimming in the river. I was told off for being insufficiently ‘upbeat’ and ‘too emotive’.”

She then arranged for an assessment of her mental health by an experienced psychologist, who recommended a short course of therapy, family assessment and a gradual reunification with her children, but his advice was not taken.

Charlotte could no longer concentrate on anything save fighting for her children. She dropped out of her university course, lost her bursary – and her home. She discovered that spending on family proceedings and Cafcass has hugely increased. “Since 2008 [and Baby P], 2,000 more children are being taken by councils each year. Most councils confirm that they spend little, if anything, on residential family assessments – which case law says is mandatory to meet Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention.”

Charlotte fell apart after the final court decision over her children. “I cannot think of a way out. I have trapped myself inside a room just staring into a computer screen for eight months now because I cannot face the reality of my situation.”

The court order bars her from going within half a mile of her children’s new residence or schools. She may send cards four times a year.

“My case is a perfect example of how social services can literally take any child because there is no route of redress and no requirement for any real evidence. The courts are just there to rubber stamp whatever Cafcass recommends. There are no standards or safeguards. Any parent accused of abuse or neglect should be allowed a second, independent opinion.

“Every detail of my life has been analysed and distorted. I have been accused of enduring mental health problems simply because I left home young and for a time did not have a good relationship with my mother. I only went through normal ups and downs. But, although I briefly suffered a couple of times from depression, I was never hospitalised or medicated. I begged for my children to give evidence, a recorded contact session and a residential assessment. But everything was refused.”

I have investigated child care scandals for two decades, and am used to people contacting me with sob stories about “wicked” social services who turn out to be mad, bad or both. But Charlotte struck me as sane, decent and bright. I listened to her and talked to people who knew her case and concluded that a terrible injustice has been inflicted on her and her children.

The case against her seems a patchwork of trivial concerns, twisted together to reflect her in the worst possible light. How and why can such a thing happen? Some critics claim that children are being whisked into care to meet government targets for adoption. Conspiracy theorists talk of children being removed in order to supply paedophile or even satanic abuse rings.

Charlotte probably didn’t help her case by, in her despair, turning to this rag-bag movement and echoing some of their wilder claims on the internet and in her dealings with social services, who saw this as further proof of her instability. Yet many child care scandals have indeed revealed the presence of sex-offenders within the system: I myself exposed the shocking Islington children’s homes scandal in the Nineties. (Independent inquiries later confirmed that every one of the borough’s 12 homes included abusers, drug pushers or otherwise suspect staff.)

But just as often, it seems to me, injustices take place owing to human error – and moral laziness. At some point one key person decides to follow just one direction – the “bad mother” line – and every other professional falls into step.

Several factors, however, made Charlotte vulnerable to interference by the authorities. She was a bright, loving middle-class mother – often the easiest kind for social workers to deal with. She was no feckless, promiscuous single mother living off benefits. She was self-sufficient, Christian and celibate, and extraordinarily hard-working. She organised different activities every day for her children, fed them wholesome home-made food. But she was psychologically fragile, because of her background.

Her parents’ marriage broke up owing to her father’s drinking. Charlotte’s mother had to work hard to raise her children alone, and her feisty daughter admits that she became difficult in her teens. This culminated in her taking an overdose.

This may have weighed against her. “But,” she asks, “how many moody teenagers make half-hearted attempts like mine? I have sometimes struggled with depression, particularly after my father died, and I asked for help, but I never imagined it could be used against me like this.”

The earliest professionals involved with Charlotte’s case warmly backed her: she was a good mother doing her best. But the determination of the Cafcass worker to remove the children coloured everyone’s view. The course was set and no one dared challenge it.

Charlotte is now considering taking her case to Europe or even going on hunger strike. “That may seem crazy but legal action takes years and I don’t know what else I can do. The grief of losing your children is too much to bear.”

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