When Pauline Goodwin went into hospital to give birth to a baby daughter in June 2005, two people came to see her in the delivery room: they were social workers asking her to sign the papers that would entitle them to put the baby into care. Goodwin refused.
When the baby was just three days old, Goodwin was summoned to court and instructed to leave her baby in the care of the hospital. The judge issued a care order and by the time Goodwin left the courtroom, the social services had already dropped by the hospital to collect her baby.
"They said that because the baby had never lived in a family unit, she didn't have a bond with us so it didn't matter if she was taken away," says Goodwin. "I don't know where she is now and I'm not entitled to know."
In a case that could make legal history, Goodwin plans to go to the European Court of Human Rights to prove the adoption of her daughter was fraudulent.
The irony of Goodwin's situation is that, initially, she welcomed the intervention of the social services. For 10 years she had been in an abusive marriage in which she had had five children. When the marriage collapsed, Goodwin had a breakdown. At the time, her youngest child was three months old and social services came forward offering to help.
But within a few weeks, the social workers' attitude had changed. "They started visiting two or three times a day and phoning the children's schools daily." Social workers turned up during the middle of one of the children's birthday parties and sometimes would arrive to carry out spot-checks at 10pm, shining torches into the sleeping children's faces to check it was them.
Then the threats started. One social workers said it was her aim to get the children into care. "They also said that they'd had two or three people phoning in daily to say they'd seen my kids out playing till all hours or that I had left them and gone out drinking. The stupid thing is that often I had a social worker round at the moment this was meant to be happening."
The social services claimed to have issues in three areas. First, with the state of Goodwin's house. "It was messy," she admits, "but it was just toys and clothes; it was never dirty." So Goodwin stripped the house, redecorated and bought new bunk beds for the children. "When I did that, all they said was 'Where did you get the money from?'" She was also criticised for her children's poor school attendance. "I did find it difficult to get them all up and out in the morning. I was sending them to school in a taxi and that worked fine, but the social services decided I wasn't allowed to." And third, they highlighted missed medical appointments. "I missed two dental appointments," says Goodwin, "and I refused to give my two youngest the MMR because I wanted more information."
The social services decided to push for a an interim care order and Goodwin soon found herself in court. The youngest four children were ordered into foster care for six weeks while the eldest was allowed to stay with Goodwin, "which was ridiculous because she had the worst school attendance of all". Goodwin told her children they were going on holiday and packed their bags. "Two social services cars and a police car turned up and just took them. One of the very first things they did was dish out the MMR." Two were sent to foster carers and two to their father, "a violent alcoholic who's been arrested 10 times. The court psychologists seem to think that if you're an alcoholic it doesn't affect your parenting skills." That was 2004; Goodwin has been fighting for them ever since.
"Pauline Goodwin's case is one of the more extreme examples of appalling behaviour among people in the area of public family law," says MP John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat member for Birmingham Yardley, who is chairman of the Justice for Families group and is helping fight her case. "I have great difficulty in understanding how what has been done has benefited any of these people. The mere fact that the judges resisted providing her copies of the judgment, which she needs in order to appeal [it took her over a year to get them] rings alarm bells as to whether the rule of law is in operation in Liverpool County Court."
Social services refuse to comment on individual cases, but Hemming believes Goodwin's story is part of a wider phenomenon that started seven years ago when the government decided to speed up the adoption process. A target was set to increase adoptions by 50 per cent between 2000 and 2006; the number of babies taken into care rose from 1,600 in 1995 to 2,800 10 years later, while the number of adoptions jumped from 810 in 1995 to 2,300 in 2005. This has led some to say the social services are acting to to meet quotas.
"Pauline is the tip of the iceberg," says Hemming. "Statistics suggest there are about 1,000 cases in this country where children have been wrongfully adopted. It's possibly even more than that. I know of a number of cases where all sorts of intimidation is used to discourage people from fighting back."
More worrying is the increasing number of very small babies who are being taken. "This is a disturbing trend," says Hemming. "I am aware of cases where babies are put in care because their mothers get post-natal depression. This is an evil way of working."
Goodwin is now helping other women in her situation and is part of a mounting campaign to stop unnecessary adoption. Recently, she helped organise demonstrations in Manchester, Derby and Liverpool. "There were three other mothers in the square where I lived who all had their children taken away within a matter of months," she says. "We happened to live by some malicious people, who thought it was fun to ring the social services and see the reaction. It should never have been allowed to happen."
Goodwin believes a lot of her problems have been caused by the secrecy of the family courts. "There is no jury and we're not allowed witnesses or character references. They allow hearsay from professionals but not from us, so it comes down to their word against ours." Goodwin claims to have had problems with one social worker in particular. "She's well-known in Liverpool and has been involved in various cases. I put in a formal complaint about her and she was moved."
Goodwin now gets to see her children six times a year. "We meet for an hour and a half in contact centres with social workers watching over me," she says. "I've never been accused of harming or hurting them. They say the visits are supervised in case I say anything to the children about coming home."
In the meantime, Goodwin's priority is to get her baby back. "That baby never even had the chance to come home from hospital. The social workers might have had issues with my other five children, but at that point my baby wasn't even born."
"I haven't missed a court or contact appointment and I've met every care plan they've asked for. Now they say they don't think I'll keep it up. Well, I'm proving to them that I can keep some things up, and that's this fight. I'm going to keep this up until the day I get my baby back."
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