Fighting to bring their children home: A woman alone, not coping well, needs help, but loses her child. A familiar tale, says Angela Neustatter, but can there be a happy ending?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Next month, Karen Smith (not her real name), aged 29, will sit in court waiting to hear whether her four-year-old son is to be given up for adoption or whether the miracle for which she has battled for the past 18 months - the chance to bring up her own child - will happen at last.

Karen's child was taken into care 18 months ago although, she says, there is no suggestion that she or anyone has either physically or sexually abused him. She has a second child, Mark (not his real name), who lives with her and has never been on the at-risk register. A recent independent psychologist's report considered her fit to be a mother and suggested rehabilitation with her child. But the local social services, which has charge of the boy and has placed him with adoptive parents, is adamant it is in his best interests.

It is a sadly familiar tale. A mother alone, not coping well, who clearly needs help with parenting skills, but who instead ends up losing her child. Too many cases which come before the Family Rights Group (FRG) and Pain (Parents Against Injustice) indicate that some local authorities favour taking children into care with little or no attempt at support and rehabilitation. And this in spite of recommendations in both the Children Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the Government, that every effort should be made to keep children at home and to support their families.

Bridget Linley, legal adviser for the FRG, says: 'We see this far too often . . . it is well known now how much trauma children suffer when they are removed from their natural parents, and it should only be done if there is absolutely no other way. We would like to see far more support for families in the early stages.'

One can understand, hearing Karen's story, why the local authority felt it necessary to be vigilant. She was living in a single parents' hostel when her son was born and, when he was a year old, the father 'went off with another woman'. Karen admits: 'I got into a bad state over that. I didn't cope very well and my son had a couple of accidents because I wasn't being careful enough. I agreed to put him voluntarily into care, under pressure, but I made it clear I wanted to sort myself out and have him back.'

On one occasion, says Karen, her son fell from a low window when being baby-minded. The next accident happened when the toddler pulled a bowl of hot porridge, perched close to the edge of the cooker by her then boyfriend, over his naked chest. She hugs 11-month-old Mark close and asks: 'Don't most people's children have a few accidents?'

On this occasion her child was returned after a week and things went well for a year, but then there was another accident. This time the boy rode his trike into the bedroom that Karen shared with her current boyfriend and caught his hand on the hanging wire of a television aerial, which came down on top of him, badly bruising his shin. Again social services stepped in.

Given that local authorities get blamed if they leave a child in danger, it is not surprising that the social services took action. But rather than try to find a way to avert further accidents, social services told Karen that her child was going to be adopted. She says: 'I was so upset, I kept asking them what I had to do to be allowed to keep him, wouldn't they help me, but it was like a brick wall.'

That was more than a year ago. Since then her son has been been moved to foster homes twice, before finally, a few months ago, arriving at the home of prospective adopters. Karen says access visits have been cut: 'I am sure that has been done so that social services can argue I've had so little contact with him that it's better to leave him where he is. It seems nobody cares that my circumstances have changed.'

And it seems that they have changed. During this time Karen has become engaged to marry, the couple are buying a house together and her fiance wants to adopt her son. A neighbour who helps out with Mark says: 'Karen has really grown up, calmed down, and she's a very good mother with the new baby; he's never been considered in need of protection. Surely if she's fit to look after him, she is able to look after her other child?'

The local social services is not prepared to make public the way that the case is being handled. But its spokesperson Nick Court says the department is guided by the Children Act: 'We have to be clear we believe the child will suffer significant harm if he is left. You can draw your own conclusion from that.'

A veil of secrecy is frequently drawn over bureaucratic decision-making about children on the grounds of protecting children's confidentiality. Yet legally severing children from their natural parents is of course a momentous move; and Susan Amphlett, who runs Pain, is one who believes that there should be public accountability. 'There must be a change of ethos by the Department of Health and by the Audit Commission, which came up with very bleak findings on how children's lives are disadvantaged by being taken into care.

'At Pain we like parents to come to us at the beginning of the process, before it gets to care or adoption. We recognise how powerful the system is and how very important it is to start fighting early on.'

It was precisely this recognition which led to a group of women in the same county as Karen who had had children taken into care to form a support network to fight care orders and get children back home. Jacqui Seddon is one of these women. She fought and eventually won a nine-month battle to get back her son Doran, who she had been told would be adopted.

'I was on my own from the beginning with Doran. I worked as a Royal Mail driver doing shifts from 5am to 1pm - I had paid child care for this time - so that I could spend most of the day with him. But then my hours got cut down and as I was paying for my home on a mortgage it was repossessed. I got no help from the DSS. My best friend killed himself and I was terribly upset - it brought back awful memories, as my Dad was murdered some years ago.

'I took unpaid leave from work but then I had no money and I felt desperate for someone to help sort things out, to help me see what options there were. I asked the social services for help but nothing happened and it was then I told social services Doran was alone and they came and took him. Next day I asked for him back but they said they were taking him into care for three months. I went mad and hit the social services person.'

Jacqui found a lawyer, who went to court and Doran was returned, but under a supervision order: 'Somebody used to visit me almost every day, but there was nothing supportive about it. I felt they were looking for a reason to take Doran back. I took off to Scotland for a holiday, and it was so relaxed, but I wasn't able to cash my welfare benefit, so I went to the police to ask advice and they phoned social services. They were told Doran was neglected, beaten and abused. It absolutely wasn't true and there was no record of it but the police panicked and took out a protection order.

'Six police officers and two social workers came in and dragged Doran from me. He was screaming and trying to hang on to me. We were torn apart and I could hear Doran screaming all the way to the car. I went so mad the police had me sedated.'

Two days later, Jacqui says, she received an apology from the police after they had seen Doran's report: 'They said if they had known the truth they wouldn't have taken him. But by this time he had been sent back to the county town and I had no idea where he was.

'When they allowed me a visit and brought him into the room Doran wouldn't look at me or talk to me. All his trust had been broken. It was just terrible.'

It was meeting other women, including Karen, who were also fighting for children that helped Jacqui to decide that she could fight too. She found a legal aid lawyer and obtained a court hearing - at which it was decided that Doran should go for adoption.

On her lawyer's advice Jacqui, who was in 'better emotional shape by now', pushed aside her anger and set about convincing social services that she was fit to be a mother. Her solicitor helped her to find a house through the council, and when she was given a list of things to do by social services - which included not going back to work and remaining in the area - she complied without argument. Three months later, Doran was returned to her.

Jacqui was lucky. Bridget Linley at FRG can recall only one other case when a woman, with the help of a social worker, persuaded the courts to return a child to her from prospective adopters. It is extremely rare, and, Ms Linley says, 'The best hope is that parents act to reverse any action being taken from very early on. But it takes a lot of resources - emotionally and materially.'

The difference support can make is something Homestart knows plenty about. Founded 21 years ago to train volunteers to go into homes and help families through crises, last year the organisation supported more than 1,000 children on the protection registers. Angela Plowman, assistant to the director, Margaret Harrison, says: 'Our aim is to keep families together and help them see how they can sort out problems or how to be more adequate parents, which may not be difficult at all. Our volunteers are like friends. Families know they are there to help them and not judge or monitor. If local authorities did something similar and could give families more time if they needed it, who knows how many break-ups might be prevented?'

FRG campaigns to persuade government and local authorities that funding should be shifted from protection to support. Such a move would benefit everybody. Social services, caught in the 'damned if they do, damned if they don't' situation, may feel the safest option is to take children into care, and given the way resources are allocated at present, it must often seem as if that is the only option. But it is time to find a more imaginative, less traumatic way to protect our children.

(Photographs omitted)