By Christopher Booker
A system involving social workers, police and courts took a child away from loving parents for no apparent reason, writes Christopher Booker.
Two weeks ago I reported as shocking a story as this column has ever covered. It described how a loving family was torn apart when the parents were arrested by police on what turned out to be wholly spurious charges, so that their three children could be taken into care by social workers.
However a new case has lately been surfacing, if anything even more shocking. This also involved the arrest of two parents and the abduction of their child by social workers, in a story so bizarre that, at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown was asked about it by the family’s MP, Charles Hendry, who has long been concerned with the case because the mother is a branch vice-chairman in his local Conservative Association. The family’s horrified GP says that, in 43 years of medical practice, he has never “encountered a case of such appalling injustice”.
I first planned to describe this case in April, but was pre-empted by the draconian reporting restrictions on family cases, which, for reasons that will become tragically clear, have now been partly lifted.
The story began in April 2007 when “Mr Smith”, as I must call him, had a visit from the RSPCA over the dog-breeding business he ran from the family home. He had docked the tails of five newborn puppies – a procedure that had become illegal two days beforehand. Unaware of this, he promised in future to obey the new law.
Three days later, however, at nine o’clock in the morning, two RSPCA officials returned, accompanied in cars and riot vans by 18 policemen, who had apparently been tipped off, quite wrongly, that Mr Smith had guns in the house.
Armed with pepper spray, they ransacked the house, looking for the nonexistent guns. The dogs, released from their kennels, also rampaged through the house. When Mr Smith and his wife, who was three months pregnant, volubly protested at what was happening, they were forcibly arrested in front of their screaming five-year-old daughter “Jenny” and taken away. Two hours later, with the house in a shambles – the dogs having strewn the rabbit entrails meant for their dinner across the floor – social workers arrived to remove the crying child.
Held for hours in a police cell, Mrs Smith had a miscarriage. When she was finally set free, she returned home that evening to find her daughter gone. It was the beginning of a barely comprehensible nightmare.
Her husband was charged with various offences connected with the dogs, including the tail‑docking, but was eventually given a conditional discharge by a judge who accepted that he was “an animal lover” who had not been cruel to his dogs.
Far more serious, however, was that the social workers seemed determined to hang on to the child, now in foster care, on the sole grounds that they had found the house dirty and in a mess (the “animal entrails” played a large part in their evidence). This was despite the testimony of a woman Pc (who had visited the house a month earlier on a different matter) that she found it “clean and tidy”. Two hundred horrified local residents, who knew the couple as doting parents of a happy, well-cared-for child, were about to stage a protest demonstration when they were stopped by the police, on the social workers’ instructions that this might identify the child.
For more than two years the couple have been fighting through 74 hearings in the courts to win their daughter back. From a mass of evidence, including psychiatric reports and tape recordings made at meetings with her parents (only allowed in the presence of social workers), it is clear she has been desperate to return home. The family believe that considerable pressure has been brought on the child to turn her against her parents.
One particularly bizarre psychiatric report was compiled after only an hour-long interview with the little girl. When she said she had once choked on a lollipop, this was interpreted as signifying that she could possibly have “been forced to have oral sex with her father”.
After the parents had been subjected to four different psychiatric investigations, which came up with mixed findings, they refused to submit to a fifth, and this apparently weighed heavily with the judge who last December ordered that “Jenny” should be put out to adoption.
In the Appeal Court 11 days ago, Mr Justice Bodey ruled that, because the father had refused that fifth test, indicating that the parents put their own “emotional wellbeing” in front of that of their child, the adoption order must stand. When this judgment was reported, an independent social worker, who had earlier been an expert witness in the case, wrote to Mr and Mrs Smith to say he was “horrified” to learn that Jenny was “not back in their care”, having assumed for over a year that “she must have been returned home”.
Their equally horrified GP, saying that he had never “encountered such a case of appalling injustice”, wrote “the destruction of this once happy family is in my opinion evil”. So shocked was their MP, Mr Hendry, that he last Wednesday took the highly unusual course of raising the case at Prime Minister’s Questions. Numerous others who know the family well have expressed similar dismay. One neighbour, herself a former social worker, whose own daughter often played with “Jenny”, said: “I worked with children in social services for 25 years and I have never seen anything like this. It is disgusting.”
What is clear in this case, as in so many others, is that a system involving social workers, police and courts in what is an obviously very close alliance should yet again have left a happy, loving family destroyed for no very obvious reason. Almost equally alarming is the way that system manages to shield itself from the world, through reporting restrictions which it claims are designed to protect the children but which too often end up by protecting only the system itself.