When Johann Harrison and Louise Carley emerged from the High Court in London last Wednesday with their daughters India and Ashleigh, they should have been ecstatic.
The two women had been fighting a court case against their local council in Corby, Northamptonshire. They insisted that the council had caused their children to be born with serious deformities by releasing dangerous materials into the atmosphere during destruction of the town's steelworks.
While Corby Borough Council was found negligent, the judge stipulated that his ruling did not apply to the two youngest of the 18 children whose cases had been heard. India, nine, and Ashleigh, 10, were those two children.
"We just couldn't get words out," said Ms Harrison, 37. "For the council to be held responsible for all the children except for her was such a kick in the stomach. When we got home, India said to me: 'I'm the same as the rest, mummy, so why did the judge not say yes to me?' She couldn't get her little head around it."
Mr Justice Akenhead ruled that between 1983 and 1997, Corby council had been "extensively negligent" in managing the toxic metal waste generated by its destruction of the steelworks. But he said that as there were no breaches of duty after this time, the council could not be held liable for India and Ashleigh's birth defects.
For Ms Harrison, who sat beside her daughter at the High Court last week as the children around them celebrated with their families, the ruling was difficult to swallow.
"I just felt cheated, because we were all there, and our children all have the same or similar disabilities. It was like the judge had said to India: 'Everybody else, except for you.' I thought: 'My God, my daughter suffers as much as any of the others have.' We're still in shock."
Despite this crushing disappointment, Ms Harrison said she was unable to feel angry because she was surrounded by jubilant mothers who had fought just as hard as she had. On Sunday, Mandy Thorpe, whose 13-year-old son Curtis won his case, came to visit her to tell her how disappointed the other families had been with the judge's decision to exclude two of the children.
"She told me she couldn't talk to me on Wednesday because she didn't have the words to say how bad she felt," Ms Harrison said.
India was born in September 1999 with a twisted left arm and deformed fingers. She has had eight operations and is likely to need more – including a procedure to reform the bones in her forearm. She is in constant pain and takes tablets to help her sleep.
Life is similarly difficult for Louise Carley, 35, and her daughter Ashleigh, who had her first operation on her deformed hand when she was six months old. Ms Carley said she had always wanted a big family but had decided not to have any more children because she feared that the toxic metals she had inhaled while pregnant with Ashleigh might still be in her system.
"The result was heartbreaking for the children, because they've been through a lot," she said. "Both Ashleigh and India were crying, because they couldn't understand why the judge didn't like them. We've been forgotten about. It's an eerie feeling."
Both women are furious with the judge; they say he witnessed evidence from toxicologists who said the harmful materials given off were able to remain in a person's system for up to eight years after being inhaled or absorbed through the eyes or skin.
"We lived and breathed all the chemicals that were in Corby prior to being pregnant," Ms Carley said. "I can see it, everyone else can see it, but the judge just chucked it away."
Along with the other 16 families, they were stunned by the council's refusal to apologise to the children after the ruling. It maintains that until a causal link between its work and the children's physical deformities has been proved, it will not take responsibility.
"The council are still sitting there denying all knowledge of this, saying it's not their fault," said Ms Harrison. "I want to say to them: come along and see what India goes through – see the surgery she has, the way she fades away to skin and bone, the way her hair falls out. Nobody being held to account? To me, that's not on.
"We just need everybody to know – the public, the people of Corby – that what's happened is very unfair. It's not about the money, or how much we can get from the council. It's about holding them responsible."
In the aftermath of the ruling, it became apparent that up to 60 additional families could pursue cases against the council, making Corby the biggest child poisoning case since thalidomide.
Ms Harley and Ms Harrison are talking to solicitors about appealing the decision to exclude their children.
"I want India to know I've done my best by her, that I haven't given up," Ms Harrison said.
"If we get to an appeal and it goes through, then great, but even if it doesn't at least she'll know I've tried, so when she's 18 or 20 I can take out the judgment and tell her to read it. It would be nice to stand outside that court again, and this time not feel sad."
Timeline: The unfinished battle
*In 1980 Corby steelworks closed.
*Corby Borough Council was given the task of cleaning up the hundreds of acres of contaminated land left behind.
*For the next 15 years the buildings were demolished and the site reclaimed. The harmful waste, steel dust and slag was taken to a nearby quarry.
*It later emerged that the rate of birth defects in Corby during the clean-up was 300 per cent higher than in the surrounding area.
*In February, 18 young people took their cases to court to establish if the council could be held liable.
*Last week 16 of them won after the judge ruled that a "statistically significant" cluster of babies had been born with defects. These children can now seek compensation.
*However, the ruling did not apply to the two youngest children, as they were born after August 1997, when the council had improved its practices.
*The ruling is significant because it is the first time a link between atmospheric toxic waste and birth defects has been established.Reuse content