Police on trail of runaway foster family

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THE COUPLE with the two blue-eyed girls in the train carriage next to the dining car seemed like any other family enjoying a day out. Noisy, excited, rather boisterous. They had not looked like a family on the run.

But police believe the family spotted on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway last Saturday were the Bramleys - missing for the past four months since the social services demanded the couple return their foster children.

The Rev Jack Cooper, 54, a volunteer ticket collector on the Moorlander steam train, said last night: "I saw a piece on the television appealing for information about this family and the two little girls and I said to my wife, `I know where they were on Saturday - they were on my train'. To be honest I only noticed them because the children had been misbehaving so much. They were clambering all over the seats and I had to speak to them and politely tell them to shut up."

Police believe Mr Cooper's sighting is the most reliable of many reported since the family disappeared from their home in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, 113 days ago. On the strength of it they dispatched a team of officers yesterday to Pickering, North Yorkshire, where Mr Cooper said the family had left the train.

The officers spent yesterday in the small town carrying out door-to-door inquiries, visiting the many bed and breakfast establishments and distributing posters of the family. With the assistance of the North Yorkshire force, they have also been making inquiries in the Scarcroft Hill area of York where the family's G-registration blue Honda Concerto sedan was discovered abandoned close to the railway station on 30 December. "We believe there is a good chance the family is in the North Yorkshire area," a police spokeswoman said. "The sighting on the train - like all the others - is not corroborated, but the description that was given is very good."

Jeff and Jenny Bramley with their foster children - half- sisters Jade Bennett, five, and Hannah, three - were reported missing on September 14. That day the Bramleys had been due to hand back the children to Cambridgeshire County Council's social services department which, after six months, had decided that the couple were unsuitable parents.

"In many ways they were too strict. It was not one thing in particular. It was a lot of little things. Things were not going as smoothly as they might," said a council spokesman, Bob Pearson. "Our social workers regularly spoke to the Bramleys to point out where they thought they were going wrong. In the end, a decision was taken."

A court ordered that Mr and Mrs Bramley should not be allowed to adopt the girls and that they should no longer be able to foster them. They were ordered to hand them back to the authorities at 10am on the day they were reported missing.

The social services staff are aware the Bramleys have attracted much public sympathy - a frugal, hard-working couple fighting against bureaucracy being penalised for trying to instil a little discipline. Even staff within the department have been overheard voicing their support for the couple. A Cambridgeshire police spokeswoman said: "There is no doubt they love these little girls very much."

Mrs Bramley's brother, Dave Bodle, has spoken of her desperate struggle to keep the children. "It was clear that Jenny wanted children very much," he said. "They did everything that they could to keep Jade and Hannah. They appealed against the council's decision and started legal proceedings, but nothing worked."

But then, of course, there is the other side. The girls' natural mother, Jackie Bennett, who said she gave them up after suffering from depression, told one newspaper: "I made a huge mistake and I've been suffering for it ever since. Mr and Mrs Bramley have been so selfish, so cruel. I only ever wanted my children to have a better life. I thought there was something wrong with the Bramleys on the one occasion I met them. I mentioned my concern to social services but was told they were okay and would love the kids.

"Only later was I told there were growing concerns. Now I just want Jade and Hannah home with me."

Last month, a High Court judge involved in civil proceedings concerning the children appealed for public help in tracing the family. Mrs Justice Hogg was concerned that the children's health and education needs were not being met.

Cambridgeshire social services also remains adamant its decision was correct. "These two little girls had a lot of special needs. They needed a lot of love and attention," said Mr Pearson. "It might have been all right if the Bramleys were looking after children who were several years older."

The Bramleys did not leave Ramsey completely unprepared. After phoning his employer, the Royal Mail, to say he was sick, Mr Bramley withdrew about pounds 5,000 from the couple's savings. But since they went missing the couple have not attempted to take out any more money and police believe that however frugally they have been living, their funds must now be running low.

Police are convinced Saturday's sighting is their best lead yet and there is a sense that the net may finally be closing on the runaway family. The irony has not been lost on officers that they were tipped off about the Bramleys - penalised by the authorities for being too strict - only because the children had been misbehaving.