It is too early to say whether Jeffrey and Jennifer Bramley left their home this week because they found the prospect of separation from their foster daughters, Jade and Hannah Bennett, intolerable.
But what was certain yesterday, as the couple's families appealed to them to return, was that social services had recently turned down an application by the couple to adopt Jade, four, and her half-sister, Hannah, three.
The couple disappeared from their home in Cambridgeshire, taking their passports, after social workers telephoned them last Sunday evening to ask them to attend a meeting the following morning to discuss the children's future care.
When the Bramleys failed to keep Monday's appointment, social workers notified police, who found their neat three-bedroom house deserted and their car, a blue H-registration Honda Concerto, missing. It is feared that they panicked, believing the girls were to be taken from them.
Searches in the area proved fruitless. Police say the couple have travelled extensively and have relatives in many parts of Britain and in Ireland. Sea and airports are on alert. "We are concerned about them and want to ensure they are safe and well," a spokesman said.
The last that anyone heard of the couple, who are on the social services department's list of approved foster parents, was when Mr Bramley, a Royal Mail worker in Peterborough, telephoned his office on Monday morning to say that he was taking the day off sick.
In a statement issued through Cambridgeshire police, their families said yesterday that they were aware of the "distressing personal circumstances" that led to them leaving home. "Our sole purpose in making this statement is to let them know we love them and are worried about them," they said. "We want them to return home as soon as possible. We offer them our unconditional love and support.
"We ask them to return home so these things can be talked through, help given and any problems sorted out."
Mr Bramley, 34, and his wife, 35, who have no children of their own, have fostered the two girls for the past six months. Neighbours on their modern housing estate in Ramsey say they appeared devoted to them.
"The children seemed very happy, and were often out playing with Jeffrey and Jennifer," one said. "They doted on the children."
Liz Railton, director of Cambridgeshire social services, said that nothing had happened to indicate that the Bramleys might have been about to abscond. "We are concerned because of the couple's distress and their disappearance without warning or trace," she said.
Ms Railton said there was no question of them harming the little girls. "We have tried to act in the best interests of the children," she said. "That has meant we have had to make decisions that were distressing to the couple. I am entirely clear in my own mind that we have acted properly."
Police are treating the incident as a missing persons inquiry. The girls' natural mother is being kept informed.Reuse content