Family on the run: A letter ends the nightmare

THE DECISIVE moment in convincing the Bramleys finally to come out of hiding was the open letter to them written by Liz Railton, director of Cambridgeshire social services, which offered the couple the hope of keeping their foster children, writes Julian Kossoff.

In her personal appeal, published in newspapers last Friday, Ms Railton conceded to the Bramleys that their case should be heard in court. "The Bramleys asked for the girls' future to be determined by someone independent of the county council. We feel the best way of doing this is to ask the courts to determine what is best for the children," she said.

The bold move finally broke the four-month deadlock between the fugitive couple and Cambridgeshire social services. Up until that point, the department had been portrayed as the villains in the Bramley saga.

Jade and Hannah, who have different fathers, arrived at social services in 1997 after their mother, Jackie Bennett, 24, who suffered from depression decided she could no longer cope as a single mother.

They were immediately taken on by short-term foster parents, as are the vast majority of the county's children in care. By that time the Bramleys had already embarked on the lengthy process of assessment to become carers.

After eight years of trying unsuccessfully for children of their own, they had decided they wanted to adopt. Like all prospective carers, they underwent a thorough assessment of their suitability, background and financial position. Several months later they were approved as carers. In March last year it was agreed that Jade and Hannah would be placed with them, subject to continuing monitoring, with a view to the Bramleys eventually adopting them.

Experts say the age of the children, five and three, is perfect for bonding with new parents and the Bramleys clearly formed a close attachment with the little girls. However, by last August social workers decided that the relationship was not working and said the Bramleys could not adopt the girls. Child-care experts say teething problems are expected in adoption cases and the Bramleys must have been considered totally unfit to keep the children.

The Bramleys were heartbroken and took their case to the county court but the judge backed the department. It is hard to establish the precise reasons the Bramleys were considered unsuitable carers for Jade and Hannah, but in their letter to the press last week, the couple claimed they were regarded as having been too strict and obsessive.

It has also been suggested by some that Cambridgeshire social services were being over-cautious because of a series of recent scandals involving children in their care.

Though the Bramleys agreed at first to return the children, to the council, privately they started to plan their dramatic escape. Instead of taking the children to their social worker on 14 September, they bundled the girls into the back of their car and vanished.

With the dramatic return of the Bramleys last night the decision on the future of Jade and Hannah has now been handed to the courts and, given the intense interest in the case, the judge will have difficulty reaching a decision that all parties can live with. Whether any court would find in favour of a couple who had been refused adoption, and then abducted the children, remains to be seen.

But once the Bramleys case is resolved, there will be intense soul searching within the social work profession. Stories abound of people denied adoption for bizarre and exotic reasons, for being too fat, too old or because they did not like pop music. Given the desperation of childless couples who long for a family - now personified by the Bramleys - the standards applied can often seem too arbitrary.

Focus, page 20

TIMETABLE

MARCH 1998: Postal worker Jeffrey Bramley, 34, and wife Jennifer, 35, from Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, foster four-year-old Jade Bennett and her half-sister Hannah, three. The girls had been given up for adoption by their mother Jackie Bennett, 24.

AUGUST 1998: The childless couple were hoping to adopt but are told by Cambridgeshire County Council social services department that they are not suitable and the placement is being terminated - the first time in a decade they made such a decision.

LATE AUGUST 1998: The Bramleys appeal to the High Court. They lose.

14 SEPTEMBER 1998: Mr and Mrs Bramley are due to hand over the children to social workers. They fail to attend a meeting with social services staff. Their home is found to be empty and their car missing. Police make an appeal for help to the media.

15 SEPTEMBER 1998: Police hold a press conference giving descriptions of the Bramleys and circulating photographs.

17 SEPTEMBER 1998: Relatives of the Bramleys appeal for them to give themselves up.

23 SEPTEMBER 1998: Reported sightings around north Norfolk. Jenny's brother, Dave Bodle, appeals to her to return.

25 SEPTEMBER 1998: Reported sightings of the Bramleys' car in the Milton Keynes area.

8 OCTOBER 1998: Sightings in Blackpool and Llandudno.

12 OCTOBER 1998: Bramleys' car sighted in Worthing, Sussex. Suggestions they may be in the Irish Republic.

NOVEMBER: Children's pictures appear on milk cartons and details on Missing Persons' Helpline.

14 DECEMBER: TV appeal made on the BBC's Crimewatch.

30 DECEMBER: Bramleys' car found abandoned near York railway station. Police believe it had been left five weeks earlier.

1 JANUARY 1999: The Rev Jack Cooper sees and speaks to the family on the North Yorkshire Steam Railway near Pickering. He does not realise who they are until two days later.

11 JANUARY: Police realise video stills taken in Pickering showing four people, believed to be the missing family.

12 JANUARY: A number of media organisations receive a letter believed to be from the Bramleys saying they want to be the girls' "mummy and daddy forever".

15 JANUARY: PR adviser Max Clifford is reported to be handling the sale of the Bramleys' story to the media.

16 JANUARY: Foster parents and the two children fly to Stansted Airport, Essex, from the Irish Republic and are met by Cambridgeshire social services staff and Cambridgeshire Police.

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