By Christopher Booker
State child snatchers: As social workers hand back a child they falsely claim was abused, an investigation exposes one of the great scandals of our age
Daily Mail readers will have been horrified yesterday to read the story of the South Gloucestershire couple whose two young children were removed from them because social workers thought their son’s bone fractures must have been caused by physical abuse.
Only after a nightmarish 18-month ordeal, which drove the couple apart, were they finally able to produce medical evidence to indicate that the boy’s injuries were caused naturally, by brittle bone disease.
The council dropped the case, and Amy Garland and her children are now happily reunited.
When I spoke to her last night she told me how lucky she’d been to be put in touch with a medical expert who established the truth.
I listened to her story with particular interest because it is only one more example in a very dark area of our national life I have long been investigating, and which I have come to see as one of the greatest scandals unfolding in Britain today — as shocking as anything I have come across in all my five decades as a journalist.
In the past two years, since the furore over Baby P, the number of children being taken away from their parents by social workers has soared by almost 50 per cent to an all-time record level of nearly 10,000 a year.
And having followed scores of such cases in detail, it is abundantly clear to me that in far too many of them there is absolutely no reason why the families should be torn apart in this way.
Forcibly separating happy, well-cared for children from loving, responsible parents creates a tragedy which will last for the rest of the lives of all those involved — even if they are eventually reunited. The emotional agony if the children are permanently removed hardly bears thinking about.
Of course there is no objection to social workers removing children from parents who have genuinely abused them. As we know from many notorious examples, social workers have failed to take into care children who died as a result.
But a key reason for the rise in the number of children now being seized from their parents is that, precisely to avoid such scandals in the wake of the Baby P case, social workers have gone to the opposite extreme, becoming trigger-happy, snatching children for no good reason.
What is most shocking about this is that the families then find themselves in the grip of a system which seems horribly rigged against them. Too often these cases will begin on the flimsiest of grounds, as when the social workers are tipped off by a malicious neighbour or an over-zealous teacher.
One mother I know, who holds down a responsible job, lost her two children when her only mistake was to tap her daughter’s arm with a roll of clingfilm.
The next day this was twisted by a foolish teacher into a charge that the girl had been ‘hit with an implement’, and the council paid a psychiatrist £14,000 for a 235-page report arguing that the mother suffered from ‘a borderline personality disorder’, one of the vague, unprovable claims they love to use.
Another lost her three children after she had tripped up on a charity walk, pulling the daughter holding her hand to the ground. When a health visitor reported the bruises the child suffered as a result to social workers, without asking how these had arisen, they sent the mother to one psychiatrist after another until they also found one prepared to say she had a ‘borderline personality disorder’.
One of the sanest and brightest mothers I have come across had her baby removed after the woman had accidentally fallen from a window, because the social workers alleged that she had tried to commit suicide.
They rang to tell her they were taking her baby while she lay temporarily paralysed in hospital.
On such dubious grounds, the social workers may arrive to snatch children from their beds, all too often accompanied by a gang of four or more policemen, who seem only too willing to comply with any demands the social workers make.
One mother was breastfeeding her three-hour-old baby on a hospital bed when two social workers and four policemen burst into the room to take the child forcibly from her arms, after a series of false allegations were made against her.
The parents in such cases often find themselves treated like criminals, held for hours in police cells before being released without charge. But worse is to come when they arrive in a family court, where all the normal rules of British justice seem to have been reversed.
The social workers can produce hearsay evidence which may be a tissue of lies, but which the parents are not allowed to question, or submit damning documents to the judge which the parents are not even allowed to read.
If they are represented by solicitors, in most cases forced on them by the council, they often find that their lawyers refuse to oppose the council’s application for a care order — which allows the children to be removed for a longer period — and accept every allegation the council makes.
Most family judges are as much part of this broken system as the social workers themselves — one rare exception being the senior family judge who last year castigated the behaviour of Devon social workers as ‘more like Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China than the West of England’.
Meanwhile the children, generally bemused and distraught at what is happening to them, are placed with foster carers, who receive on average £400 a week or £20,000 a year for each child from the state.
The biological parents and children may be allowed to meet for only a few hours a week of rigorously ‘supervised contact’, in a grim council ‘contact centre’.
Any expression of affection or mention of the court case is strictly forbidden and can be punished by suspension of the contact, possibly permanently.
It may sound hard to believe, but I know of cases where children have been groomed by the social workers and their foster carers to believe that their parents no longer love or want them. In several cases I have followed, it is clear that children in foster care are being maltreated or even sexually abused.
Finally, this travesty of justice may wind to its conclusion when, after anything up to two years, a judge agrees that a child can be sent for adoption — although in recent years our adoption rate has markedly fallen, leaving ever more thousands of these children as fodder for a ‘fostering industry’ which is now costing taxpayers more than £3 billion a year.
Obviously there are happier exceptions to this dreadful picture. Some children are rightly saved by social workers from genuine abuse, and there are many good and caring foster homes. But in far too many cases, the other, more tragic scenario has become the norm.
So, if things have gone so terribly wrong with our child protection system, why has this happened — and why have we not heard more about it? It is difficult for outsiders to realise just how corrupted it has become until they experience it at first hand — because the entire system has managed to hide itself away behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy.
Supposedly designed to ‘protect the interests of the children’ by ensuring that they cannot be identified, this secrecy had been used by the system to conceal its workings from public view, by threatening parents with prison for talking about their case to outsiders, and even journalists like me for trying to report what goes on.
It is this cloak of secrecy which more than anything has allowed the system to go so far off the rails. Too many social workers are in the grip of a self-righteous, politically correct ideology which drives them to abuse the power the Government has given them over other people’s lives, in the conviction that they are doing good in the world.
The secrecy which surrounds the way they wield that power means they are hardly ever called to account.
Nothing did more to distort the system in this way than Tony Blair’s personal crusade a few years back to drive up the number of adoptions by setting councils targets for the number of children they place with new families.
They were given huge cash incentives to fulfil their quotas thanks to a policy which, though now technically abandoned, has left a terrible legacy in convincing both social workers and the courts that one of their prime duties is to seize children from their parents, even when there is no good reason for it.
It is time this astonishing national scandal was recognised for what it is, and for the trail of horrors it is perpetrating to be dragged into the light.