Mothers unite in fight over care cases: Lancashire self-help group campaigns for independent inquiry into alleged misconduct by social workers. Tim Kelsey reports

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DIANE feared that if Lancashire social services knew of her pregnancy, they would deem her irresponsible, and keep her daughter in care. Four-year-old Charlotte had been taken from her following allegations of paedophilia against her husband.

Diane's social workers, who never doubted that the child wanted to live with her mother, had said that they were prepared to let Charlotte come home, on condition that the father did not have access.

Diane, frightened that they would change their minds, decided to terminate her pregnancy. When, in August 1992, a social worker came to her flat, she confessed her pregnancy and asked him if she really had to have an abortion. He allegedly said: 'If you have the child, then we will take your daughter away.' The following day he drove her to an abortion clinic in Manchester.

After two weeks, social services claimed to have evidence - disputed by the rest of the family - that Diane (not her real name) had seen her husband, and Charlotte was removed again. Three weeks after the abortion, Diane collapsed with internal bleeding. Then she tried to kill herself.

Charlotte is still in care, and social services have applied to have her adopted. Her grandmother's repeated requests for custody have been refused on the grounds that the child needs 'specialist' attention. Charlotte's grandmother - whose son is the father - was the first to report her suspicions of possible abuse to social workers.

Under the terms of the Children Act, and government guidelines, social services should make every effort to ensure that a child lives with his or her relatives, if it is unsafe for them to remain with their parents.

The grandmother, who is a part-time clerical worker, owns her house and works with a number of local charities, has no contact with her son. Both the court officer and the current guardian of the child have agreed that she is a good and important influence on her granddaughter.

Social services are now going to court to override Diane's refusal to allow Charlotte's adoption. She received a summons last week. The grandmother, meanwhile, received a letter from the council telling her: 'It has always been our intention to terminate face-to-face contact when a family was found (to adopt the child) . . . '

Until now, the grandmother has had weekly access to Charlotte. Last September she decided to complain about the council's conduct. She had not done so before because she was worried that they would terminate her access. She has applied for an internal review of the case by the local authority, but this has not yet been convened.

'I will not give up, but it is so difficult,' she said. 'It is the child who is suffering most, of course.'

Recently, she realised that she was not alone in claiming misconduct on the part of Lancashire social services.

A mother, who nearly lost her children because social services made a 'mistake', which it has now admitted, has set up a local self-help group called Mothers in Action, which is campaigning for an independent inquiry into Lancashire social services. The group held its first public meeting two months ago, and has started to compile a dossier of complaints.

The group has become aware of about a dozen cases of alleged injustice. The Independent has looked at some of these claims, and at others from people who have not made contact with the group. Social services has declined to comment on any of them.

'Every day we are learning of new cases,' the founding mother, who has asked not to be identified in order to protect the anonymity of her children, said. 'This is about accountability . . . There is something wrong with social services in Lancashire. There are so many complaints.'

Most of those focus on the apparent unwillingness of local social services to take allegations of misconduct seriously. In 1988, this mother voluntarily placed her two children, aged two and seven, in care while she convalesced from an operation. Social workers then told her that foster parents had found evidence that her daughter had been sexually abused.

'You can imagine how I felt,' said the mother. 'I mean I was the one who had put them into care in the first place.' A doctor's examination demolished suggestions of abuse.

The children had been made wards of court and after the allegations of abuse had been dismissed, the judge ordered an assessment of the mother. This was conducted by the same social worker who had accused her of abuse. The mother and her solicitor discovered that social workers, in an attempt apparently to glean evidence of abuse during an interview, provided the children with vibrators and anatomical dolls, without court permission.

The children were returned to their mother after nine months. Two years later, her son saw the foster mother by chance in a car park, and then alleged sexual abuse by the foster parents. The Crown Prosecution Service has yet to decide whether to proceed against the foster parents.

However, the mother has been given legal aid to bring a case for compensation against the social worker who allowed the use of the vibrator, the local authority which declined to investigate the allegations, and the foster parents.

Last January, Tom Dervin, the deputy director of social services, wrote to the mother: 'I offer you a formal apology on behalf of the department for the distress caused.' But his department did not plan to take any further action against those involved.

(Photograph omitted)