They gave them up, short-term, voluntarily. But then they couldn't get them back. Esther Oxford on the parents who kidnapped their own children

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Denise and Graeme Holland set off to attend court three weeks ago, they expected to be back by dinner time. "They left their towels dumped on the floor and their pyjamas in a heap on the bed," says Gina Gunn, the friend they were staying with.

It wasn't until mid-afternoon that Mrs Gunn heard the news. The Hollands had both been jailed for abducting two of their own children, Kieran, 8, and Nicola, 7, from foster parents. "I was in shock," says Mrs Gunn. So was Denise Holland. She was put into the prison hospital immediately and has been there ever since.

Today Mr and Mrs Holland will appeal against their prison sentences of 18 months and 12 months respectively. "They are not criminals. They should never have been put in prison in the first place," says John Austin, their solicitor.

The Hollands' story is a tragic one. They married, looking forward to a family life. Both had stable careers: Mr Holland is a computer consultant, Mrs Holland a qualified pharmacist. They dreamed of a sprawling house, a garden, two cars, holidays with the children.

But there was one catch: Mrs Holland was apt to get depressed. "She told Graeme that she'd had a breakdown, but I don't think he understood the extent of the problem," Mrs Gunn says.

In 1986, just months after their marriage, Mrs Holland became pregnant. The first few days after the birth were full of joy. But then the depression came back. Mrs Holland was put into a psychiatric unit for three months, without her baby. "She was distraught," remembers Mrs Gunn.

"I opened my front door one day and there was Denise. She was still dressed in the fluffy blue hospital jumpsuit. 'Where is my baby?' she kept saying. 'I want my baby.' She was gibbering like a child."

The depression returned after the second birth - and it hit hard. "She was low. She would get weepy. She felt she couldn't cope," says Mrs Gunn. When, in 1988, Mrs Holland fell pregnant for the third time, the Hollands admitted that they needed help and agreed to have the two older children placed with foster parents. "When you're better, your children will come back home with you," East Sussex social services reassured her.

By spring 1990, when her third child, Leanne, was two, Mrs Holland had stabilised. The couple decided to get the family back together in time for Christmas. But that autumn social services dealt the Hollands a bitter blow: access days to Kieran and Nicola would be limited to four a year. Worse was to come: social workers wanted to put the two children up for adoption. The Hollands should take legal advice, the council said.

In March 1993 the Hollands' plea to have the care orders lifted finally came to court. By then, they had been separated from Kieran and Nicola for almost five years. Clearly anguished by the decision he was faced with, Judge Rolf Hammerton ruled that he could not turn the clock back. The family had to remain divided.

But he did make his views plain about the social workers involved in the case. He described the letter cutting the parents' access to their children to once every three months as one that would "take a prize for hypocrisy". And he condemned an instruction that Christmas and birthday presents should be "ignored" as a "disgraceful and inappropriate" action.

From then on, every day was agony for the Hollands as they waited to hear that a family had been found for Kieran and Nicola. Nor were they happy with the way their children were being treated. They were upset, for example, when Nicola's waist-length hair was cut short under the foster parents' supervision. And bedtime rituals at the foster home were not what the children were used to.

When Nicola had to have an operation in order to correct her squint, social services said that the Hollands were not allowed to visit her in hospital because "the foster parents are there". Important decisions - such as which school to send the children to - were taken without consultation. Holidays with the children were forbidden; birthday presents and Easter eggs had to be passed on to the children by a social worker.

Occasionally there were problems with visiting days: "One time Denise and Graeme had done all the cooking in advance so they could spend more time with the children. Then the foster mother called up and cancelled. It was heartbreaking to watch," says Mrs Gunn, who lived close by.

Early this year the Hollands cracked. Without telling Mrs Gunn of their plan to kidnap their own children and flee the country, they asked if they could stay at her flat for a few weeks. "They told me they'd sold their Brighton house and were looking for something bigger," she says.

For a while nothing happened. Mrs Gunn moved into her son's room; the Hollands stayed in the main bedroom. Then, one night in January, the Hollands failed to come home. "I got a call from the foster mother at 10pm demanding to know where the children were. Shortly after, the police came. Graeme and Denise, they said, had 'abducted' their own children."

In court this month, Mrs Holland broke down when Judge John Gower QC sentenced her to a year in jail. Who would look after six-year-old Leanne? Was this an excuse to put her into care too? Her husband took the news without flinching, but dissolved into tears two days later when Leanne was taken to see him in prison.

East Sussex social services feel they have done the best they could: "We tried hard to make the family work," says Nicholas Holbrook, director of social services. "But Mr Holland would not co-operate."

Neglect was the big worry, says Jennifer Clark, area manager for children's services: "We were worried that the children were failing to reach developmental milestones; that there was poor speech development; that their home was dirty and they were failing to bond with their parents."

Mrs Gunn does not agree: "Yes, Kieran and Nicola were given speech therapy, but that was after they had lived with the foster parents for a while. Occasionally Denise let the housework slip a little - but the house was disorganised rather than dirty. As for the children not bonding, that is just not true. They used to crawl all over Graeme - he was good at getting down to their level. Denise was a little more restrained, but the children would draw and read with her."

Hurt by the criticism of their handling of the case, East Sussex social services have arranged for the High Court to re-examine the long-term plans for the children. "The door has not been closed on the Hollands," says Mrs Clark.

Meanwhile, Mrs Holland is trying to cope with separation from her family. She can seldom bear to talk to Leanne on the phone from prison: she is apt to dissolve into tears. Mr Holland is bearing up. But he yearns for the day when the family will be together.

Then there are the three children. Kieran and Nicola screamed and cried when they were taken away from their natural parents in March, says Mrs Gunn. Leanne misses them terribly: "I love you ... I miss you," says her scrawly writing, in a home-made card waiting to be sent off.

"I've taken her to see her mum in prison, and she has been to see her brother and sister," says Mrs Gunn. "The social services are quite helpful now - picking her up in a taxi, taking her to see her brother and sister, then bringing her back. Why couldn't they have been like that in the beginning?"