The Bramleys' flight with their foster children reads like a fairy- tale of heroes and villains, but is it all so black and white?
He is a balding, bespectacled postal worker with a penchant for knitted jumpers. His wife is mousy and slightly nervous-looking. Their home is a neat detached house on the outskirts of the sleepy market town of Ramsey in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where they lived ordinary-seeming lives with their two young foster children. That was until 13 September last year, when Jeff and Jenny Bramley switched off the lights, locked the doors, drew the curtains, bundled Jade and Hannah into the back of their car and drove off into the night.

The Bramleys' flight from authority is like a modern-day fairy-tale, with the public casting the couple as righteous outlaws defying the social workers who would have them hand back the children they love. Yet in Ramsey last week the rights and wrongs of the case were rather harder to pin down.

The area the Bramleys left behind is most people's idea of an ideal environment in which to bring up children. The house is set on a peaceful, well-planned estate called The Malting. There is very little traffic, and plenty of open green space in which to run around in safety. The estate backs on to open countryside.

In the Bramleys' back garden stood a toddlers' red plastic slide. A pair of child's fluorescent-green hair-clips containing wisps of blonde hair had been left on the windowsill of the front room. By the front door a plant was slowly dying.

Childcare experts have suggested that the house appears too pristine. Vivian Hill, a child psychologist at the London Institute of Education, says: "The place looks so squeaky clean for somewhere that has children. Even the slide in the back garden is positioned perfectly straight. It doesn't look like a house that has the normal rough and tumble of a home with young children."

Ms Hill believes that this reflects too much of a controlling aspect to the Bramleys. Certainly Cambridgeshire social services felt that the couple - who had become foster parents to five-year-old Hannah and three- year-old Jade in March last year - should not be allowed to keep them any longer. The authorities cannot go into details of why they thought the Bramleys were unsuitable to bring up Jade and Hannah, but, according to Ms Hill, "there is a suggestion that the parents were over-obsessive with the children".

The Bramleys departed The Malting in the same manner as they had lived; quietly and without drawing attention to themselves. Private people who did not mix with their neighbours, they were seen as dedicated, loving parents.

ONE of the few people who knew the Bramleys well was a near neighbour, Susan Gray. She was one of several local people, including their vicar and GP, who provided the couple with references in preparation for an abortive legal battle against Cambridgeshire social services' decision that they could not adopt Jade and Hannah.

Mrs Gray, 36, told the Cambridge Evening Telegraph: "I wrote a letter saying they were very loving parents and that the children were very well looked after. They were always dressed nicely, and the children had plenty of interaction with other children. I was also amazed by how many toys the girls had.

"My daughter, Kayliegh, used to play with their children and they were very happy. They appeared like a normal family, and at first I didn't know the girls were fostered. It was a complete surprise when they disappeared because we had been on outings together."

Other Ramsey residents say they accept the Bramleys have done something wrong but their real anger is aimed at the Cambridge social services. Michael Armstrong, a local historian who is well known in Ramsey, says: "I think everyone feels the Bramleys have made a big mistake, but they also really don't like the social services who have a very bad reputation." In the Jolly Sailor pub on Ramsey's main thoroughfare the lunchtime drinkers were more blunt. "Do-gooders who do no good, they should sack 'em all," said one of them. Even Jade's natural mother, Jackie Bennett, has backed their cause.

The Bramley saga is the latest in a series of controversies involving social services in Cambridgeshire. The department has been heavily criticised for its part in several high-profile blunders involving children. In 1997 it was seriously embarrassed after a former senior manager, Keith Laverack, was given an 18-year prison sentence for a catalogue of child- abuse offences at the county's children's homes spanning 20 years.

This followed the killing of Rikki Neave - a six-year-old found strangled near his Peterborough home despite being on the council's "at risk" register. An investigation ordered by the Government exposed serious shortcomings in the way Cambridgeshire social services handled the case.

The boy's mother, Ruth, 29, was cleared of his murder but jailed for seven years for child abuse. Although Rikki had been placed on the council's special register, the worst excesses of his heroin-addicted mother went unnoticed. Vital case notes were lost, and staff morale was said to be at an all-time low. Indeed, the Cambridge MP Anne Campbell hinted last week that the department was "over cautious" in the Bramley case because of the past disasters. For its part, Cambridgeshire social services insists that it has acted correctly.

"We have tried to act in the best interests of the children," says Liz Railton, the head of the county's social services. "That has meant we have had to make some decisions that were distressing to the couple." None the less, it was seen as a significant breakthrough on the Bramleys' part when, after they wrote an impassioned letter to the press last week, Ms Railton explained that the authority would be happy to let a court decide the children's destiny.

Adoption experts believe there is more to come out about the Bramleys. A spokeswoman for the British Agency for Fostering and Adoption says: "Social services would not have removed the children from adoption unless they had to. It would not have been a decision taken lightly. The adoptive process takes into account any possibility of teething problems, so the social workers must have had profound concerns."

The leak to the press last week that Jeff Bramley had been a disturbed adolescent who had persistently truanted and had concealed the fact that he had spent a short period of time in care was telling. Indeed, he may well have found this experience so horrific that he was determined that Jade and Hannah would never again be placed in an institution.

What is clear is that the Bramleys, with no family of their own, felt an aching need for children. Jeff and Jenny had met and fallen in love while working at the Post Office in Peterborough. They married in 1984 and wanted to start a family immediately. However, natural child birth proved impossible, and they embarked on a course of fertility treatment. But after several years they remained childless.

In 1996 the couple moved to their Ramsey home. With no children of their own but comfortably off, they applied to become foster parents with a view to adoption, and in March were put in charge of Jade and Hannah. It was love at first sight.

BY THE time the girls were fostered, both had led troubled lives, their natural mother, Jackie, having lived in a series of scruffy bedsits. She was still a teenager when Jade was born in November 1993, and her relationship with the father, Paul Duckett, was already strained. She spent three months in hospital being treated for post-natal depression. Shortly afterwards she and Mr Duckett split up.

After the birth of her second daughter, Hannah (the identity of whose natural father remains unknown), Jackie broke down and put both the girls in care - not, she said, because she did not love them, "but because I did". She was initially impressed with the home selected for the children but later became concerned. She told Mr Duckett that she thought the Bramleys were "weird". He believes that the Bramleys' control over the children was inconsistent - at times strict disciplinarians, at others allowing the girls to run wild.

While the Bramleys' disappearance is a matter for the police, the likelihood of an independent adjudicator being appointed to the case means that immunity from prosecution is also possible. In the past, where natural parents have abducted children from their foster parents, they have received hefty prison sentences.

If the Bramleys ever were to be granted the right to adopt Jade and Hannah it would mean ripping up every guideline written on adoption. They have put the two little girls through a traumatic experience which could cause long-term damage. The children may well need counselling, says a spokeswoman for the British Agency for Fostering and Adoption.

If the rules are to be followed, the Bramleys should never be allowed near a child again. Michelle Elliott, director of the children's charity Kidscape, sympathises with the Bramleys but believes they will lose in a court of law. "What they have done will go against them. It's just too bad a compromise could not have been reached earlier."