Such childish behaviour

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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE INVOLVED in the saga of the runaway foster-parents Jeff and Jennifer Bramley believes that what they are doing is for "the sake of the children". The police say it, the social workers insist on it, the various parents are all convinced of it. Certainly that is what the Bramleys themselves believe. In fact, the letter that they have written to the world at large pleading their case, begins: "We, Jeff, Jenny, Jade and Hannah, write this letter to tell the plight of a family that love each other and wishes to stay together." This is misleading in at least one respect. Jade is five. Hannah is three. They did not write this letter. Grown-ups wrote this letter, just as grown-ups created this mess.

I do not know why the Bramleys decided that now is the time to tell all. Perhaps, after 17 weeks on the run, they are growing tired of it all. Undoubtedly they have become obsessed with their plight - who wouldn't be? - and have decided that the only way to right things is to tell the world about their injustice. Thus they sat down at their secret location and addressed a letter "To Whom It May Concern". The letter fills three- and-a-half sides and tells us much that is supposed to be secret. They say they are good, honest, caring people who were rejected as adoptive parents because they were observed to say "no" too often.

It is the kind of stuff that makes your heart ache and you can see that they really do believe that they wrote the letter for Hannah and Jade. But it was two adults who decided that the only way forward was to run away from the system. It was the adults who have now decided they want to come in from the cold. And now it is the adults who believe that the great god of publicity will somehow put things right.

They are not the only ones who believe this. "If only we could get this story out, everyone would see how crazy it is and they would let me keep my daughter," one young mother said to me years ago. She, like the Bramleys, had chosen to disappear with her child rather than abide by a social services decision. She, too, was outraged. She, too, had a heartbreaking tale and good reason to rail against a system that is secretive to the point of obsessiveness. It was against the law for me even to talk to this mother. Eventually the High Court got involved. "The upbringing of a young girl is at stake here!" said a barrister. He was wrong, of course. What was at stake was not a child's life but a system that tries to be caring but can also be ruthless.

That mother never got her publicity, and I don't know what happened to her. If she is still out there, hiding, then she will be noting that the first result of the Bramleys' plea has been not vindication, but soap opera and chaos. Everyone who ever touched the lives of these girls has been getting in on the act.

First came the natural mother, Jackie Bennett. This is a woman who has given up her children, then fought to get them back, and now has decided that the Bramleys should have them after all. "I want my children to be settled in one place, in one school, with a loving family like yourselves," she says. I'm not sure whether we should believe her, but it certainly grabbed yesterday's headlines.

The next one to care and share was Paul Duckett. He is the father of Jade but has never had much to do with her upbringing. Not that this stopped him from appearing on the Today programme. The Bramleys, he says, cannot really love the children. "If they did, they wouldn't be dragging them around England in this nomadic style." He loves Jade very much, he says, and "this is hurting me a lot." He added: "You don't see me writing these big letters. It's a ploy purely to get the public on their side."

Social services are also worried. Not, however, about whatever circumstances led to this sad situation. By the way, we still do not know everything about these circumstances. The Bramleys did allude to them in their letter but some bits of it have not been printed. It just goes to show that, though the soap opera is played out in public, in private the system continues to protect itself. Secrecy remains paramount. It is often said that the system has to be so secretive to "protect the children". This is true almost all of the time but when it breaks down - and drives people to abduct children - then secrecy is part of the problem, not the solution.

Anyway, it turns out that Liz Railton, director of Cambridgeshire Social Services, is also worried for the sake of the children. "Are they going to school? Clearly it seems not. Are they going to the doctor? Are they having contact with other children? They need all that contact." Then she appealed to the Bramleys "to put the children first, over and above their own distress - even though I know that is incredibly difficult". It was time, she said, to give the children back.

It is enough to make you want the Bramleys to stay fugitives for ever but, I suspect, this is not to be. It seems inevitable that they will come back, after making contact in such a dramatic fashion. In fact the letter shows two people who are desperate to come home: "Jade and Hannah are two bright, intelligent, articulate children who love us with all their hearts. We ask therefore, will someone help us to be legally their Mummy and Daddy for ever, making the hopes and dreams of these two wonderful girls come true." The Bramleys are looking for a fairy-tale ending. They want Jim to Fix It for them. They want someone to kiss it all better, just like that.

But if they are acting childishly, then they have company. All the grown- ups believe that they are right, and have found some moral reason why this is so. To hear Cambridgeshire Social Services going on about whether or not Jade and Hannah are visiting a doctor beggars belief. The problem is not whether Jade and Hannah are visiting a doctor; the problem is that the system has messed up to such an extent that Jade and Hannah are fugitives whose foster-parents have had to appeal to the nation. That is what should be talked about, not doctor's appointments.

This is a dire state of affairs. The adults have messed up - and badly. In fact, if anyone should be giving lectures, it should be the children. Perhaps they should get their own lawyer to demand that all the grown- ups sit down now and figure out a way for the fugitives to come in from the cold and get a fair hearing. Then, after the adults all feel better, perhaps someone could figure out what really is in the best interests of these two little girls, who could be forgiven for thinking that unconditional love is a pretty hard thing to come by these days.