Deborah Holder's friend left her children to a religious group
WHEN I sent off a Christmas card to a close friend last year, I didn't expect one back. I'd known Patricia for 20 years. We'd kept in touch, even when she became a Jehovah's Witness five years ago. JWs don't celebrate Christmas, but I sent a card anyway. In the event, the card remained unanswered for quite different reasons. Patricia had died suddenly in November from a brain tumour. She was 36. The bizarre circumstances of her death and the months that followed emerged only recently when I received a phone call from her ex-husband, Bill.

A week before her death, Patricia could barely string a sentence together, yet she was driven 50 miles out of town by fellow JWs and "helped" to make a new will. She died leaving her home and her two children to the JWs. Bill, who was only informed of her death five days after it happened, was stunned to find his children already in the care of a JW family. After snatching them back, he was given temporary custody. He then found himself having to fight a court battle to regain custody of his children.

At some stage he found my unopened card and phoned to break the news.

Bill won. But far from being a one-off, custody battles involving religious movements are increasingly common. Bill was warned to prepare well for the case in view of the JWs' experience. Their book, Child Custody Cases, is devoted solely to preparing members for court.

James Beckford, Professor of Sociology at Warwick University, is accustomed to being asked by JWs and non-JWs to appear as an expert witness in child custody cases. He always refuses. "As someone still conducting research," he says, "I'm not going to take sides on any issue." Beckford's book, The Trumpet of Prophecy, written 20 years ago, is still the only academic book on life inside the group, making Beckford a rare "expert". He does not regard the JWs as a cult but as a harmless religious sect. He does admit, however, that there is much dispute over exact definitions; one man's cult is another man's religion.

For many, a cult is distinguished by the extent to which the group attempts to cut members off from the outside world. This both facilitates indoctrination and makes it hard for members to leave. The JWs deny this, though they teach that "independent teaching is of the Devil". Even Beckford considers that the JWs do cut members off. "Be ye not yoked to unbelievers, is how they put it," he says, "and they repeat that endlessly."

According to a JW spokesman, "It's a question of semantics. One person's 'discouraging strongly' is another person's 'mild advice.' We try to follow the Bible, which lays down that Christians will be selective about the company they keep. It isn't for us to make rules for people." He insists: "Any rule a member is asked to follow is in the Bible."

The JWs are growing - going from 97,000 to 130,000 members over the past decade in Britain alone, "with about as many more again sympathisers," says the JW press office.

Patricia had long-term mental health problems and perhaps, just perhaps, the JWs offered her something she needed. The problem is that her children did not need them but got them anyway. Bill's experience has left him sceptical. "The law can easily fail you," he says. "The case-worker's word is very important and often they haven't got time to worry about whether the child is happy, as long as it isn't in actual physical danger. That applies to all cases, not just those involving cults. I would say possession is nine-tenths of the law. If you want your kids - take them. The Children Act is designed to protect a small proportion of children who are in danger of abuse, but others are injured by it."

The JWs' response is measured. "Whenever a marriage breaks up, custody and contact are an issue between the parties and the JWs are no exception," said a spokesman. He claims the religious aspect is overplayed: "Whether someone is a JW is no more relevant than whether they ride a motorbike or take sugar on their cornflakes. The guidance we give to our members is that they must be reasonable if they are parting company with someone who doesn't share their faith," he concludes. Yet when pushed to think of a set of circumstances in which he thinks it would be better for the children to leave the JWs for a non-Witness parent, he was not able to be specific.

I am sure the JWs concerned were sincere when they said they wanted the best for Patricia's children. But the question is whether they were actually capable of determining what was best in anything other than a religious sense. The children are back with their father now, but a lot of questions remain. Despite the reassuring explanations offered by the JWs, the effects on this family have been divisive and destructive. How will the children deal with the divided loyalties engendered by the court battle? Patricia was an inspiring person and a wonderful mother, but how will her children look back on her now? And how could a good father have come so close to losing his children to a group of strangers?

What should you do?

ALTHOUGH there was probably little Bill could have done to prevent what happened, the issue of child custody in the event of death is often something that is left until it's too late. Few people have any idea what would happen to their children if one or both were to die. Do grandparents have rights? What about uncles and aunts, godparents, friends or cults?

The situation is the same whether a religious group is involved or not. The appointment of a guardian is the only way a parent can legally establish who should have custody in the event of his or her death and even then can take nothing for granted. At the heart of every case are the best interests of the child, which means there are no hard and fast rules.

Ideally the appointment of a guardian should be part of a will, although it can be done separately. Should both parents die without appointing a guardian - "Anyone with an interest can make an application," says Eleanor Platt QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association. "They have to reach agreement between them or fight it out in court." Battling grandparents are not uncommon.

In cases where a couple are married and one parent dies without appointing a guardian, the other automatically has parental responsibility. The same applies to divorced parents. If, instead, the deceased parent appoints a guardian other than the estranged spouse, as is the case when cults are involved, the spouse has to challenge this in court.

There may be other good reasons for appointing a guardian other than the surviving spouse, such as a history of violence or abuse. Assuming this is not the case, the natural parent will be in a strong position to win custody, although there are no guarantees.