`I would cry to myself: Why? Why? Why have they done this?'

Imagine if social workers took your children away for five years. That is what happened to three families in Ayrshire, whose children were ordered to be returned yesterday. John Arlidge spoke to one couple about their agony of waiting

At 9am on 23 June 1990 a 46-year-old builder left home and drove to the offices of the Strathclyde social work department in Ayr. He had never been there before; the only reason he was going there at all was that he had agreed to give a lift to a relative attending a care hearing.

It was a bright morning. He dropped the man off outside the office block and told him he would meet him later in a seafront car park. He had been assured that the hearing would not last long.

After several hours, the man had not shown up. Worried, the builder decided to pick up his daughter in Ayr and return to the social work offices to look for his relative. It was a decision he was to regret for the next five years.

At the door, a policeman who had been discussing an investigation into alleged child sexual abuse in Ayrshire with social workers asked the builder his name. When he replied, the officer paused. Did he have a 10-year-old daughter? "Yes, she's in the car." The officer asked the man to bring the girl to the office.

There, social workers who had been attending a Children's Panel hearing into the alleged abuse earlier that day, said they wanted to "take the girl away for a few days for tests". Why? "Just a routine medical matter." The builder was reluctant, but it was made clear he had no choice. "Just a few days?" he asked. "Aye," one social worker replied. He kissed his daughter goodbye, found his relative, and left.

It was four months before he heard from his daughter again. Social workers told him and his wife that the girl had been taken into care but they would not say where. A short letter written by their daughter arrived in October 1993 from the residential home run by Strathclyde Regional Council where she was being kept. "I want to come home," it said. But by that time the operation had widened. Seven other youngsters from two closely-related Ayrshire families had been removed from their homes and taken into care by the council. One, a seven-month-old girl, was snatched from her mother's arms.

All eight children had been removed by social workers and police, who feared that they were the victims of a 90-strong group of adults who were abusing children in ritualistic games at Satanic parties. The allegations, which first came from the mentally disturbed mother of one of the children, were fantastic. Devil worshippers had dressed as animals, drunk blood, placed children in coffins and smeared the youngsters' faces with faeces. There had been sacrificial killings in graveyards.

It was unbelievable - indeed, the mother later retracted her evidence and the police dropped the case - but social workers, relying on interviews with the children, convinced the courts there was enough evidence of abuse to keep them in care. That was five years ago. Since then, six of the children have not seen their parents.

Yesterday, however, all that changed when Scotland's most senior judge, Lord Hope, ordered the children's return. One child returned to her parents last week and last night the process of reuniting the other families began. A lawyer for the families said: "The emotions were mixed - great joy at seeing their children again but great sadness because of the injustice of their ordeal."

Lord Hope had earlier ruled that the Satanic allegations surrounding the families - who cannot be named for legal reasons - were unfounded. The claims were not the distraught revelations of abused minds but the "unjustifiable" conclusions of social workers with "a fashion" to seek out abuse. Care workers from Strathclyde Council who conducted the initial abuse investigation had "massaged" evidence and conducted "appalling ... leading" interviews with the children in their single-minded determination to "prove" the allegations. The case, Britain's most serious child abuse scandal, was, Lord Hope said, "a tragedy of immense proportions".

Although the parents are jubilant that they have been cleared of guilt by suspicion, the task of rebuilding their families will be a long one. Four of the children were so young when they were taken away they have no memory of their mother and father. Most do not even know their parents' names. Kate Phillips and Maurice Smyth, two solicitors who have fought Strathclyde Council for the past four years, said the damage to the children and their parents was "incalculable". The families could receive counselling for up to 10 years.

Two of the three families are too upset to talk about their experiences. One mother, who became pregnant after her three children were taken into care, was so frightened that social workers would remove her fourth that she fled to Ireland to have the child.

But one family, the builder who lost his daughter at Ayr social work department and his wife, have spoken about their ordeal. In their new home on the west coast of Scotland, they spoke yesterday of how they "never gave up hope" that they would be reunited.

The mother, aged 47, described how the memory of her daughter - her only child - sustained her for the five years she was in care. "When she was taken away I no longer really worried about myself. I would hang around the house all day and cry myself to sleep on my daughter's bed at night. It got so bad that I moved in with my sister. I loved my daughter and I knew from her letters that she loved me too. I could not understand why we were separated.

"Wherever I went I took a photograph of my girl. I used to put it by my bed at my sister's house and kiss it before I went to sleep and, again, when I woke up. That kept me going. It was all I had. At times I just could not bear it. Any mother can imagine what it is like. I used to go out shopping to the town and I would see a small girl with ribbons in her hair. When my wee girl was taken away her hair was in ribbons. I would cry to myself: `Why? Why? Why have they done this to me?'

"I would go to the social work department and beg them to return my girl but they would not listen. They said that the courts had made an order that she and the others should stay in care for their own good. I was furious because I knew that the court was wrong. We were given limited access to our daughter after six months but everywhere we went the social workers came with us - even into the loo at McDonald's. We could see her twice a month but only for a few hours. I got more upset, but it made me more determined that one day we would be back together again permanently."

The girl's father, now 50, who lost his job after his daughter was taken into care and has not worked since, said that despite the extraordinary allegations levelled against him and his wife, most local people were supportive. "I can honestly say that never a wrong word was said to us. I mean we were supposed to be part of these sex parties. It was just unbelievable and thankfully, few people round here did believe it."

The girl herself, now 15, who has described how social workers tried to bully her into making allegations against her parents during "interrogation" sessions, said she was "just so happy I can't tell you" to be back home. "I have stayed in two foster families. They were OK but I love my mother and father. All the time I was away, I just wanted to come home. I kept telling the social workers I hadn't been abused but they never listened. I just knew one day I would be back here. Now that I am, I feel closer to my parents then ever before."

In July 1993, after a lengthy legal battle, lawyers for the three Ayrshire families persuaded Lord Hope to order a new hearing into the "evidence". Sheriff Colin Miller, who conducted the year-long hearing, found that the evidence had been "ineptly" collected and was "contaminated". Lord Hope upheld Sheriff Miller's judgment last week.

She is not bitter towards the care workers but her parents are determined to seek damages. "These people have destroyed our lives," the girl's father said. "Taking your child away is worse than a death. A death you can come to terms with. But knowing your daughter has been removed for the most awful reasons - which you know to be lies - is so much more unjust."

His wife said: "The social workers in this case have families. How can they carry on with their lives knowing what they have done to us? They have caused so much harm. They have destroyed five years of our lives. I can honestly say I hate them." Lawyers for the families are to meet next week to discuss an action for damages. Compensation could be as much as £3m.

But all the families agree that money cannot make up for the loss of the five years of their children's lives. The girl's mother said: "My daughter is quite old and she has been able to cope well. For the other families it is different. Some children were so young they will not know their mum and dad. What do you say to a parent who has lost the first five years of their child's life?"

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