Deadlock in hunt for foster family

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEKEND, everyone is hoping for a homecoming. The police, social services, relatives, the natural mother and the public at large: everyone wants Jeff and Jenny Bramley to show up with their foster daughters, Jade and Hannah, safe and well. Everyone wants a happy ending.

But for some reason the Bramleys are not playing ball. After sending letters to seven different media organisations this week, begging to be allowed to keep the girls, there has been no word. "It is stalemate. We can do no more," said Bob Pearson, spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council social services department. "We had expected them to have made contact by now but there has been nothing. As the hours go on we become increasingly concerned."

So concerned, indeed, that late on Thursday evening, the authority decided to try to force the issue and made a U-turn on its previous position.

At a meeting at the council's headquarters, the chief executive, Alan Barnish, the social services director, Liz Railton, and the council's lawyers dropped their opposition to the Bramleys' application to adopt the girls. The courts - rather than the council's social workers - could decide whether the couple were suitable parents.

Mr Pearson insisted the key reason for this was the safety of the children, but he admitted the council's decision had been influenced by the public support for the the Bramleys. This support has been a central and conspicuous element of what might otherwise have been a routine missing persons case. While the police will not admit it, there is a suspicion that since they disappeared from their home at Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, on 14 September, just hours before they were due to hand back Jade and Hannah to the council, the Bramleys have been helped by one, or more, members of the public.

The police also recognise that the public may have been slower to offer information and news of sightings than they would if the Bramleys had not elicited such sympathy.

Matt Tapp, Cambridgeshire Police's senior press officer, said: "We had our first press conference the day after the family went missing. I went back to my office and thought, `Well we'll just wait and someone will call us pretty soon'."

But that phone-call never came. "I was sure they would be back by the following Friday and that day came and went."

He added: "There had been so many public appeals and we could not understand why nothing was coming back - though we had a good idea. We were thinking that the public did not want us to find them."

But the longer the Bramleys stay away, the greater is the chance of public sympathy starting to slip away. While anyone with children could initially side with the frugal hard-working couple doing their best to raise the girls and being penalised for being too strict, the longer they refuse to return, the more likely their behaviour may be seen as an act of selfishness.

Dr Michael Humphrey, a former reader in psychology at London University, said the girls would have been very unsettled. "The past 17 weeks will have been hugely disruptive for children of that age," he said.

"But what is horrifying is the way the foster parents have been trying to blackmail the local authority into giving them what they want and now they have won some concessions.

"They are caught. If they stay in hiding any longer they will never get the children back but if they do come back they run the risk they may not win in court."

It would be cynical to say Cambridgeshire social services is counting on a shift of public feeling, but it is certainly aware of the factor. "We have offered them [the Bramleys] what they wanted," said a spokesman.

The girls have had short, troubled lives. Jade's father, Paul Duckett, split with her mother, Jackie Bennett, while Hannah's father is unknown.

In 1997 Ms Bennett decided someone else could provide a better home for her daughters. For nine months they were fostered by one couple - who left them with other foster parents when they took a two-week holiday - before they went to the Bramleys.

After four months and withmoney running out, Mr and Mrs Bramley must be aware their time on the run is nearing the end.

Everyone from the social services to Britain's tabloid press is asking them to get in touch. Their friends and family are hoping they ignore the pressures and put first the welfare of two little girls they clearly love very much.

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