In the end, I was still her mother

When Claire Hart was murdered, her natural mother hadn't seen her for eight years. The case raises questions about the rights of natural parents, however unfit
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you have a daughter whom you love very much. You realise you cannot look after her and reluctantly give her up to care. You go on loving her, pressing your social workers for information about her. You are rewarded with scraps of news and out-of-date photographs.

You don't know where she is living, or what kind of school she goes to. You don't know who is caring for her, or who her friends are. You don't know whether she is in trouble or doing well, happy or sad. Then one day you come home to find a note pushed through the door. "Call the police or social services," it says. "Your daughter is missing."

When 13-year-old Claire Hart was reported missing from her home in Eaton, Cheshire last month, hearts went out to the couple described in the press as her adoptive parents, Robin and Katherine Hart. When the girl's body was found six days later and a 19-year-old man, Craig Aaron Smith, was charged with her murder, many people mourned with the Harts.

But the Harts had never adopted Claire. Her real mother, Debra Pritchard, a student from Essex, had not been allowed to see her for eight years. Her story, following the conviction of Sion Jenkins for murdering his foster-daughter, Billie Jo, raises important questions about the rights of natural parents - however inadequate - whose children are taken into care. There is no suggestion that the Harts were other than loving foster parents. But Debra Pritchard and her legal advisers argue that her right to information about her children, and her shared parental responsibility for them, was not acknowledged by the authorities.

Debra Pritchard has an appalling record as a mother. At 35 she has had six children by five different men. All the children have been in care; her eldest daughter Sarah is the only one whom she is able to see regularly, after Sarah sought her out when she reached 18. Her own background provides a clue to her problems - she was taken into care at three, and spent her childhood in and out of children's homes. She was raped at 15 and became pregnant. At 16 she married a man who beat her, quickly became pregnant again and had a second daughter. She suffered a nervous breakdown at 18 and started taking tranquillisers. Her children were taken from her and she fled her native South Wales to an aunt in Essex. There her life followed the same disastrous pattern - relationships with violent men, pregnancies, children taken into care. "I wanted to give my children everything I didn't have," she says, "but I recognise that I couldn't cope and they were better off in care."

In the last year before Claire's death, Debra Pritchard had begun to think her luck was changing. For the first time in her life she had found a supportive and loving man. Her eldest daughter, Sarah, had found her, after years of believing that her mother was dead, and the two have rebuilt their relationship. She is doing an information technology course, hoping to get a job after years on benefits. She had redoubled her efforts to find out more about her other children, concentrating on Claire and her half-sister Michelle because their social workers were in Essex, where Debra lives.

Claire and Michelle were taken into care when they were aged four and two, while staying with relatives. Although their mother visited them, at first her access was stopped by social workers. "I was told they were getting upset, that I was giving them false hopes," she said. The girls were moved to a foster home in Shropshire until 1994.

Natural parents have a legal right to be kept informed of decisions made about their children's care at six-monthly review meetings. If the parents are not allowed to attend the meetings, then they should be sent minutes. Debra says she was not sent such minutes, and that when she asked social workers for information about her daughters she was given only vague statements.

She also says she did not know that Claire and Michelle had moved to Cheshire to live with the Harts, and that her permission was not sought to change the girls' surname. She consulted a solicitor and wrote formally to Essex Council in September. A partial response was received in December, but contained no detail. Her lawyer, Denise Lester, says: "We were not satisfied with the information."

In April, Thurrock Council took over responsibility for the case, and Denise Lester renewed her attempts to obtain information. Debra's new social worker promised to help her find out more, and at least update the photographs she had of the girls. But no more news came from the council until Debra found the note pushed through her door. She called the police several times that weekend, and was told only that Claire was missing and she would be kept informed. "I was hopeful she might be back in the morning," she said. But the next day a friend showed her a newspaper report with an unmistakable picture of her daughter. Debra read that Claire's coat had been found, and police feared the worst. There was still no word from Thurrock Council, which was responsible for Claire's care.

Debra's next contact with the authorities was a call from Macclesfield police asking her to go to her local police station to give a blood sample for DNA testing. There, as she waited for the police doctor, she was told that Claire's body had been found. She was so distraught that she suffered asthma attacks and developed a severe stutter.

She went to Cheshire to see her daughter's body. "I needed to go and see her one last time to say goodbye. I had never seen a dead body before, and it was worse than I expected. I felt so angry, helpless and frustrated. I looked at her body, then I looked again, and I could see the real person. She looked really young, and as if she was sleeping. I had waited so long to see her again, and this was not the way I wanted to see her."

She feels that there was pressure on her to agree to have Claire buried in Cheshire. In the end, the Harts mourned Claire at a memorial service to which Debra was not invited, and her body came back to Essex to be buried.

It was a hard decision to make. "I wanted to bring her home. I'm not being selfish - who knows where Michelle will be in the future? If she blames me for what I've done I shall tell her that this was Claire's home and this is her home, too." Although Debra is not a Catholic, Claire was given a Catholic funeral. Her headstone will read "Claire Pritchard - latterly known as Claire Hart". Debra is mourning a daughter she hardly knew: "I sit and talk to her at night, telling her how much I miss and love her, asking her to watch over her brothers and sisters."

A spokesman for Essex County Council said that the council's policy was to respect confidentiality and not to discuss individual cases. "In general, however, where the directorate's plan is alternative substitute care, it is not uncommon for direct contact to be stopped; this may follow an agreement by the Court. Decisions on contact for children are always considered at statutory reviews based on their best interests. Parents would normally be invited to express their views and would receive general details about their children's situation."

Some good has come from the tragedy. The foster-mother caring for Debra's 15-year-old son Daniel contacted her for the first time, to tell her how upset Daniel was to hear of his sister's death. He and his foster-parents have sent flowers, and they are hoping to meet. Debra's face lights up as she talks about her son.

"It is wonderful when everyone involved with a child in care - including the natural parents, the foster-parents, the social workers and all the professions can work in partnership to promote a child's welfare," says her lawyer, Denise Lester. "Claire's death is a tragedy, and I hope that Debra Pritchard's position will now be sympathetically considered by those responsible for the care of her children."