Leading article: The national tragedy behind the poignant tale of the Bramleys

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The Independent Culture
THE STORY of Jeff and Jennifer Bramley, who ran away with their foster-children Jade and Hannah, is disturbing. Not simply because two parents should feel so desperate that they have to disappear in order to keep the children they love, but because the prevalent assumption throughout the nation is that the Bramleys must be right and Cambridgeshire social services must be wrong.

It has come to something when the reputation of one of the agencies of the state that touches so directly and intimately on people's lives has fallen so low that it is regarded with universal suspicion.

Politicians - and leader-writers, for that matter - like to talk about freedom and justice as sweeping expanses of abstract principle. But this is what freedom is about in real life. If ordinary people live in fear of social services, not because they have done anything wrong but simply because they feel powerless in the face of what seems to them to be an arbitrary bureaucracy, that is a cancer at the heart of our democracy.

It should be stressed that we do not know why it was decided that the Bramleys were not fit to adopt the five- and three-year-old half-sisters whom they had been fostering since last March. It may be that there are other facts that are more convincing than the feeble stuff offered so far about lacking the "special parenting skills" the children need - facts that are being kept secret, quite rightly from the point of view of the children's privacy. But certainly, if the account given by the Bramleys in their open letter this week is true, they, as prospective adoptive parents, have not been given satisfactory reasons for Cambridgeshire Social Services' change of mind.

What is more frightening is that the couple seem to have sought legal redress against the council only to fall foul of procedural red tape - or should that be pink legal ribbon? - which would not allow the courts to consider the children's interest.

In law, the rights of prospective adoptive parents are too limited - and, especially in cases where an authority changes its mind, the burden of proof should be reversed. In any case, it should not be necessary for people to go to law to achieve swift and effective remedy against social services when things go wrong; there should be some method of appealing to an independent body before resorting to law.

Frank Dobson should intervene, not just to ensure that justice is both done and seen to be done in the Bramleys' case, but to try to restore public confidence in social services generally. As long as the social services appear to wield unaccountable power, too many people will feel they live in the repressive shadow of the "family police", which is a terrible state for a free country to be in.