A year ago, weeping and unable to sleep at 2.30 in the morning, a 35-year-old mother sat down at her computer and set up a website in a desperate attempt to communicate with her four young children, taken into care by Local Authority social workers.
Posting messages on the web was, she says, the only way she could think of to reach them, to let them know she was fighting for them and that she loved them.
‘I’m sitting here thinking of you and me and life, and you are my life’, she wrote. ‘I love you and miss you so much, each and every one of you.
I sit and wonder how you all are, and what will become of our paths in life.’ Many more yearning website messages followed – birthday and Christmas greetings, accounts of happy family outings before the children were removed, poems and postings of sweet baby and family photographs. ‘I know the children won’t see the messages now because they are too little, but I wanted to create a record so that if they ever do search online later in their lives, they will know their father and I never stopped thinking about them, and that we never gave up’, she says.
But two weeks ago, the woman received a letter from the council’s Social Services department, demanding she close down the site immediately. If not, the letter threatened, committal proceedings would immediately be launched against her, and she would be sent to jail for contempt of court.
Heartbroken, she has complied.
Despite ongoing threats of legal action if she dares to speak out, however, this latest action by the council has pushed her into adding her voice to the gathering campaign to open up family court proceedings and the actions of child protection staff to greater public scrutiny.
Because of the strict rules of secrecy governing all family court proceedings in England and Wales, the children cannot be identified in any way, so the Mail on Sunday cannot disclose the woman’s name, nor where she lives. Nor can the council responsible for taking her children into care be identified, lest the mother’s decision to reveal her harrowing story be used against her in future proceedings, as she fights on to get her children back.
So we will call her Pauline, and not reveal the names of her five children now in care – three boys and two girls aged between nine years and just six months.
The local council cannot be asked for its side of this story, as Social Services departments always point-blank refuse to discuss the details of any individual case.
So this is, of necessity, only Pauline’s side of the story. Maybe social workers were justified in forcibly taking her children from her, and the physical and emotional abuse she insists the children have since suffered at the hands of foster carers has not happened, and the children are better off living away from home.
On the other hand, though, Pauline and her partner could well be in the same boat as many hundreds of other English parents who insist they have been grievously wronged by over-zealous child protection staff who ‘abduct’ their children on entirely spurious grounds.
Pauline says her family’s nightmare began one summer evening four years ago – ‘on June 18, 2003’, she says immediately when asked the date – when local youths on the drug-ridden, run-down council estate where they then lived began throwing rocks at their windows and screaming abuse.
When the police arrived in response to her call, she says they told her it was not safe for her young children to stay in the house, and suggested they be sent to relatives until the trouble died down. Pauline followed this advice quite happily, but a week later, she was shocked to receive a letter from the council informing her that child protection staff had launched legal proceedings to take the children into care.
‘I was taken into care myself when I was around six years old, and I have horrific memories of being moved from one foster home to another and of being punched and kicked by abusive carers and the council care staff doing absolutely nothing to protect and help me’, she says. ‘I ran away frequently, desperate to get back home to my mother, and when I was 13 years old, I was locked in an adults’ prison for a short while. Then, when I had children of my own, there always seemed to be social workers hanging around, watching me, I now believe, for any signs of being an inadequate parent.
‘It now seems clear that they were just waiting for an excuse to take my children away from me, and as soon as an opportunity arose, they grabbed it.
‘The only reason I was given for care proceedings being launched was my and my then partner’s ‘personal problems’. We were separated at that stage, and he was living apart from me and the children, but there was nothing to suggest that the children were being maltreated in any way.
‘In fact, we’d been a very happy family, and the children were well looked-after and healthy, as all the photos I took of them as babies and toddlers show. We used to go camping in the woods and by the seaside and the older children rode their bikes and climbed trees and went fishing – all the happy memories that I now try so hard to cling on to, and which I described in detail on my website in the hope my children will one day be comforted by as well.’
At the time the first proceedings were launched, Pauline had a teenage daughter whom the authorities did not try to remove and who is still living with her. But a boy then aged four, a girl of three, another boy of two and a baby girl were all removed by order of the court and placed in different foster homes.
Six months ago, Pauline had another baby – a son. She says that before giving birth to him, she asked Social Services if they intended to remove him, and says she was assured in writing they did not. Four days after he was born though, and while Pauline was still in hospital, she says social workers arrived, with three police officers, and informed her that this child was also to be taken into care, on the grounds that there was ‘a risk of future emotional harm.’
One week later, he was taken from her and driven away in a police car, despite the fact he was being breast-fed.
After taking the council to court to gain access rights, she and the boy’s father are currently permitted to see him for five hours every day at a neutral contact centre. But Pauline says his foster carers refused to give him the breast milk she expressed each day and instead put the baby on an infant formula to which he had a severe allergic reaction, covering his body in a nasty rash which she secretly photographed on a mobile phone camera.
Pauline says tearfully that she has ‘no idea’ where the two youngest children removed four years ago are now living, and says council staff have repeatedly refused to give her any information, even as to whether they have by now been legally adopted. The older girl now aged seven, is living with her grandmother, and Pauline is allowed to have occasional contact with her and speak to her by phone.
It is the oldest boy, however, now aged eight, whom Pauline is most desperately concerned about and talking about him, she constantly breaks down, tears rolling down her cheeks.
‘Tom [not his real name] has been moved over and over again to different children’s homes and foster carers, and is now on his 14th move’, she says bleakly.
‘Two years after he was taken away, I discovered from reading council papers our lawyers had obtained that he was so disturbed, he’d been put on Prozac – at the age of just seven!
‘One day, when I was allowed to see him at a contact meeting, he took off his shirt and showed me bruises and injuries on his arms and chest and told me he’d been thrown down a flight of stairs. At that time, both he and his younger brother were placed with a foster couple who had six children in their home, five under the age of five.
‘One day when I spoke to him on the phone, he said to me: “Mummy, I’m so hungry”. Apparently, one of his punishments for misbehaving was being given no dinner.
‘I am so desperately worried about what sort of emotional and psychological damage all this might be doing to him. Already, I know he has been excluded from school because his behaviour is so disturbed.
‘I have begged the social workers over and over and over again, sometimes literally on my hands and knees, to listen to me and investigate what is happening to my son, but nobody appears to care.
‘Instead, all our contact visits with him were stopped last year, on the grounds that I was “scrutinising” my children for supposedly imaginary injuries. The very last time we were allowed to see him and his younger brother, both the boys seemed so scared and vacant and withdrawn.
‘The younger one must have been so accustomed to seeing the older boy being beaten that he pleaded with me at one point when Tom got a bit boisterous: “Please don’t hurt him”.
It completely breaks your heart. I barely sleep, barely eat. I spend all my time thinking about them.’ The one thing that kept me going was creating my website for them and the hope that one day they might find it.
‘Now even that has been taken away from me.’