How Mr and Mrs Average took on the council social workers and won

IT WAS a case about which everyone in Britain had a vehement opinion, though they had never met foster parents Jenny and Jeff Bramley or Jade and Hannah Bennett, the two children they took into hiding last year for an astonishing four months.

When the Bramleys, from Ramsey, near St Ives, in East Anglia, disappeared last September, exactly why social workers had decided they were not suitable to adopt Jade, then 4, and Hannah, 3, after fostering them for six months, was a mystery. In its defence Cambridgeshire County Council would only say that they rarely took such a drastic step.

That left ample space for unsubstantiated and contradictory rumours. It was whispered social workers considered the Bramleys too strict with the girls. And it was suggested the couple, who had tried for children for years, were babying their charges - spoonfeeding them when they were old enough to feed themselves - because they truly craved for an infant.

Yesterday's hearing was private. Social workers' concerns - which the judge yesterday said were valid - remain confidential. The evidence ran to nine lever-arch files.

What was beyond doubt, however, throughout the fiercely-contested public debate over whether the Bramleys' abduction of the girls was an act of love or selfishness, was that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people supported them.

It was another bitter pill for social workers, legally-bound to keep the reasons to themselves. Ever the losers, whether they step in to remove a child, or leave him where he is.

So great was public sympathy that detectives believed the Bramleys could only be escaping detection because people were loath to turn them in. One officer confided that even a retired policemen had told him that if he met the Bramleys he would not only fail to turn them in but offer them money to help them on their way.

Their story certainly had pathos. Jeff Bramley, 34, and his wife Jenny, 35, were first-time fosterers, offered care of Jade and Hannah Bennett. The girls' natural single mother, Jackie, 24, wanted them adopted. She could no longer cope.

Perhaps novice foster parents were a poor choice. Social workers later claimed the childrens' needs were so special the Bramleys were ill-equipped.

The Bramleys went on the run on September 13, the day before they were to hand the children back to Cambridgeshire Social Services. Neighbours recalled them in front of their little bungalow on the private estate, loading up their blue G-registered Honda Concerto.

Jeff, a postal worker, and Jenny were friendly but quiet. Neighbours considered the family, with the two adorable little girls, to be healthy and happy. Very few knew they faced losing the girls and that the Bramleys had been suffering for months.

In August, only five months after Jade and Hannah's foster placement began, the Bramleys were told by Cambridgeshire Social Services they were not suitable and the placement was being terminated.

Dave Bodle, Jenny's brother who appealed publicly for the Bramleys to turn themselves in, said that the couple were "devastated" by the decision. So devastated they appealed to the High Court. The couple lost, but Mr Bodle claimed the Bramleys never really had a fair hearing because of legal technicalities.

Whatever the truth the Bramleys decided to run . "Mr and Mrs Average" was how they were described. They led the police on a four-month wild goose chase across Britain and Ireland.

The police became extremely frustrated during the search. Sightings stretched from Ireland to Lanzarote. Police said they could easily melt in with the crowd.

Aware of the support for the Bramleys, the police appealed repeatedly to the public to put the children first.

The girls, they argued, had already suffered so much disruption that the Bramleys had to be found, so that the girls could have stability. The day Jade was due to start school came and went. By Jade's fifth birthday on October 28, embarrassed police still had no firm sighting or good leads.

So bereft were they of clues, that officers had to consider the awful possibility that the Bramleys had, by design or accident, driven off the road into one of the deep water channels which start close to Ramsey and criss -cross east Anglia.

The children's pictures appeared on milk cartons. There was a television appeal on BBC's Crimewatch. Then the breakthrough the police had been praying for finally came at the end of December.

The Bramleys' Honda Concerto was found abandoned in a residential street in York. Inside was Hannah's pink fluffy anorak with the white fake fur trim and jackets belonging to Jeff, Jenny and Jade. The children's car seats were still in the vehicle. An empty handbag lay abandoned alongside a pile of plastic-wrapped tea bags.

It transpired that the car had been sitting in the street for at least five weeks. No-one had reported it, although its description had been endlessly publicised by the police.

Ironically that clue, so long in coming, sent police - and some members of the public - off on the wrong track. A retired clergyman working on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway brought detective teams scurrying north with a "strong" sighting of a harassed couple struggling to control two little girls.

Reverend Jack Cooper painted a picture of parental inadequacy with the children out of control and the Bramleys - for he was absolutely sure it was them - looking depressed, worn out and beaten, particularly Jenny. Ten days later police said they believed that a CCTV video had recorded the Bramleys and the girls in Pickering, Yorkshire. The net seemed to be closing in.

Less than a week later the Bramleys surprised everyone by flying into Stansted Airport in Essex from the Irish Republic. Four days after writing a rather cloying letter to newspapers, pleading for them to be allowed to be the girls' "Mummy and Daddy forever", they had finally arranged to hand themselves in to waiting police and social workers.

They had in fact spent most of their 17 weeks on the run in a holiday caravan in Fenit, a remote village in Co Kerry.

Child care professionals will worry that yesterday's court ruling will encourage others to take off rather than hand back children to the authorities. .

Professionals speculated during the abduction that the Bramleys were actually strengthening their case to keep the girls. A decision would eventually have to be made in the best interests of the children. How much more damaging would a separation be considered if the couple and the girls were missing for one or even two years?

But most people will no doubt be delighted by the decision. Though Cambridgeshire Social Services has reason to be cautious about child care decisions. It has been heavily criticised for the death of little Rikki Neave, who was on Cambridgeshire's at risk register, five years ago. After Rikki's mother was jailed for child cruelty the council admitted that it had tried too hard to keep Rikki within his birth family.

Two years later Keith Laverack, a former Cambridgeshire senior social services manager, was sentenced to 18 years for assaulting children in council care. Ironically the conclusion of those sympathetic to the Bramleys will simply be that the social workers had got it wrong again.