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Forced Adoption and the Mums on the Run

Duration:
26 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 15 January 2014

Hundreds of parents have already fled the UK to avoid having their children forcibly adopted by social services. And more will follow, it's predicted , as the number of contested adoptions continues to rise. John Waite meets some of the "mums on the run" and some of the clandestine support networks that are helping them. Providing shelter, food, advice and money - all the things that are necessary for a new life abroad.

He also hears of growing international concern about the actions of British social workers, most notoriously in the case last month of an Italian woman who was forced into giving birth and having her child put up for adoption because she was deemed to be a risk to its safety.

Presenter: John Waite
Producer: Joe Kent
Editor: Andrew Smith.

  • Brian Rothery

    Brian Rothery
    Journalist turned activist Brian Rothery.
  • Safe house

    Safe house
    A safe house, used to house mothers and their children who have fled the UK.
  • Safe house - bedroom

    Safehouse bedroom
    A bedroom in the safe house.
  • TRANSCRIPT

    THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY

     

     

    FACE THE FACTS

    Forced Adoption and The Mums on the Run

     

    Presenter: John Waite

    Producer:  Joe Kent

     

    TRANSMISSION: Wednesday 15th January 2014  1230-1300   BBC RADIO 4

     

     

    Rothery

    This used to be the safe house but unfortunately it’s become a little well known to the local social services.

     

    Waite

    It’s very roomy.

     

    Rothery

    [Indistinct words] that it used to be an old cow shed and you can see it’s got oil fired heating.

     

    Waite

    And a big kitchen.

     

    Rothery

    Well reasonable sized kitchen, bathroom, pretty rustic.

     

    Waite

    In rural Wexford in the South of Ireland, Brian Rothery shows me the building that’s provided a secret refuge for families on the run from British social services.

     

    Rothery

    So we’re going up the stairs now to the loft.  Two beds for parents.  Mattresses have been brought up here for children.

     

    Waite

    So how many families would this have been a safe house for?

     

    Rothery

    Well over the summer four were here.

     

    Waite

    The 79 year old journalist turned human rights activist offers a safe haven for parents who are victims of what he believes is an increasingly draconian British child protection system. Parents who fear losing their children forever, sometimes at birth. Parents considered to be so unsuitable that their children can be taken for adoption against their wishes.

     

    Clip – Montage

    The most daunting thing was thinking that the baby could be removed from me.  I could not live with that.

     

    We were coming with no job, no money.  It’s very hard for us at the moment.

     

    It would be nice to go back to England but that’s just not possible.

     

    Waite

    Today on Face the Facts we hear from parents on the run from social services and what’s known as “forced adoption”.  How a series of underground networks is helping these fugitive parents. And we reveal for the first time the extent of forced adoption and the mounting international concern about it and the way these cases are being dealt with in the UK.

    First though Andrew Webb, President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, has been telling me how the system should work when social services are so concerned that they move to take a child away from its parents. They will have done everything possible, he told me, to work with the family but if those efforts are deemed to have failed, then they will apply to the court for a care order.

     

    Webb

    To get a care order the local authority has to demonstrate that the child has suffered significant harm or is likely to suffer significant harm.  What that means is emotional abuse or physical or sexual abuse or neglect and a care order essentially gives the local authority the rights of parents.  So the council can decide what sort of placement the child will live in – whether it’s a foster placement or perhaps a specialist residential placement for an older child.

     

    Waite

    And what happens then?

     

    Webb

    If a child cannot return home – and many children do return home – then the local authority has to look at the child’s best interests and find a permanent solution.  Now permanence can take many forms, one of them being adoption.

     

    Waite

    Last year nearly 1900 children were formally adopted without the consent of their parents, an increase of around 20% on the year before. The equivalent of five children forcibly adopted every day.

     

    And that’s beside the thousands of others placed with prospective adopters, but not yet formally adopted. So, although 330 children were placed for adoption with the consent of their biological parents, in almost 10 times that number of cases local authorities obtained a court order instead.

     

    Social workers like Andrew Webb however stand by those rises.

     

    Webb

    Following a series of high profile cases, the most high profile of them being the death of Peter Connolly, the child protection system started intervening earlier in the lives of children who’d been abused and neglected and we saw a rise in the number of children coming into care and then the number of those going for adoption rose.  So yes more referrals were made and social workers were more likely to intervene.

     

    Waite

    And it’s because of that increased willingness to intervene, even before a baby is born, but based on an assessment that it might be at risk when it is, that’s leading some parents taking drastic action.   

     

    I have travelled hundreds of miles to the outskirts of a European city.  The people I’m going to meet don’t want me to reveal where because they are in hiding.  The 19 year old couple, recently married, let’s call them Sarah and James, are expecting their first child but they know that social services would take that child into care if it were born in England.  So they’re setting up a whole new life here, paid for and helped by James’ mother.

     

    James’ Mother

    I will have to sell my house to support them.  The future’s not rosy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  They need time to prove that they can be good parents, that they are loving to each other and they will be loving to a baby.

     

    Waite

    That “young loving couple” first met four years ago.

     

    Sarah

    We got placed together in a religious class to start with and I think I secretly fancied him really but just never really let you know did I?

     

    James

    No.

     

    Sarah

    No.  But we started hanging around in the same group didn’t we?  And then slowly our relationship progressed.  We thought we were best friends but we were a lot more.

     

    Waite

    And a lot more was to follow. Pregnancy, marriage and an argument that they say was to change everything. The police were called and because Sarah was already known to social services, having spent much of her life in care, they were informed. And it's because of that argument, the couple told me, that social services would eventually conclude that their unborn child was at risk of harm.

     

    Sarah

    We know we were wrong and if we could turn back time we would but we can’t.

     

    Waite

    And this argument what was violent, was alcohol fuelled?

     

    Sarah

    No just a heated argument over baby names.  No charges were pressed, nobody was hurt – nothing.

     

    James

    We tried so many times to try to get them to see it from our point of view but everything we ever said to them was twisted and turned into a way which suited their argument.

     

    Waite

    Well I’ve seen just some of the documents from social services and it’s clear they do have serious concerns beyond merely a single argument. The child is at “imminent risk of harm” they believe and if necessary the police will be used to stop the couple removing the baby from hospital after it’s been born. But that won’t happen as they’ve skipped the country - adamant that social services have got it wrong. So now, at just 19, the couple have started a new life – a daunting prospect for anyone - in a new country but a country in which, unlike the UK, their baby wouldn’t be adopted without their consent.

     

    Well of course you were married just a few days ago, for most people that would mean they’re on their honeymoon, you’re in effect on the run.

     

    Sarah

    Well this is my honeymoon because this has actually turned my life around and I feel like I can happily give birth to the baby without her being taken off the birthing table.

     

    Waite

    Aren’t you a bit frightened?

     

    Sarah

    Yes but not so much now I’ve moved.

     

    Waite

    What James and Sarah and many others like them have done is not illegal. As they left the UK before the baby was born it cannot be the subject of a court order. If it were then they and anyone who helped them could be guilty of child abduction. The family knows this because they are being advised by a group James' mother found online, a network of people willing to aid those mums on the run from social services. 

     

    James’ Mum

    You think you’re the only person this can possibly have happened to.  When you start doing research you start looking into forced adoptions, you start to see that there’s a mass of fear and very few answers.  This network was invaluable.  We’ve got such good advice and it made up feel like we weren’t criminals, that we were just trying to defend our human rights.

     

    Rothery

    You see the right turn coming up and then you’re really back of beyond.

     

    Waite

    In making this programme we’ve discovered that there are at least four different groups willing to help those on the run. Scattered around Europe, they say they’ve helped hundreds of fugitives.  It was to 79 year old Brian Rothery that Sarah and James turned. He says they were among the 50 or so people to contact him last year. Most he advised to stay and fight – 10 went on, though, to flee the UK.

     

    Rothery

    Within my network in the UK we have three volunteers who operate virtually full time and three here including myself.  Now in addition to that we have friends, whom we call good Samaritans.  There’s a lady in France, there’s an English lady living in a mountain village in Spain and we did have a lady in Northern Cyprus.

     

    Waite

    And do you break the law, would you break the law?

     

    Rothery

    I think that if I was asked to choose between the law and helping a family to justly hang on to their children I think I would break the law.

     

    Waite

    If you work say with a child that already has a child protection order on it you’ve broken the law – have you done that?

     

    Rothery

    If in the eyes of the law I’ve done it – yes I have.  But if in the eyes of the law I’ve helped a parent in trouble that’s what I’ve done as well – it depends on one’s interpretation.

     

    Waite

    The growing numbers of British mothers seeking to give birth in Ireland has not gone unnoticed. Last year a High Court judge warned parents that Ireland was not a ’sanctuary’ from either Britain’s social services or its legal system. Fleeing he said was “futile” - despite what he called “campaigning groups” like Brian’s.

     

    Have you ever to your knowledge got it wrong – helped a woman and they turned out to be an unfit mother?

     

    Rothery

    Well time will tell.  That fear is there of course but not yet.  If protecting one child means damaging innocent parents I will take my chance living in a world full of risk rather than do that because that’s a world of injustice.  I do not accept that the government knows best.  If I thought the state was using draconian methods to take the child I would resist that with my life.

     

    Waite

    What makes you think that you know better than social services – they’re the experts on this – but somehow you and your organisation know better do you?

     

    Rothery

    Well I’m very sceptical about the expertise of social services and I use my judgement and I use my experience and my age and I make what best decisions I can – I use my conscience.

     

    Clip – YouTube video

     

    Waite

    This video posted on YouTube promotes another of the networks we’ve made contact with. If you’re pregnant and social services proposes to take away your child because of a possible threat of harm in the future a caption says simply “you have friends who can help”. Friends like 81 year old Ian Josephs.

     

    Josephs

    There should not be punishment without crime.  I mean it sounds obvious but most of these parents they’re being punished by their children taken when they have not committed a crime.

     

    Waite

    Ian Josephs has had concerns about the UK’s child protection system since he saw it at first hand as a county councillor in Kent in the ‘70s. From his home today in Monaco he now acts as a middle man putting worried parents in touch with those who might help them to flee, providing advice about where to go, how to get there and how to deal with foreign authorities and on occasion he even provides money.

     

    Josephs

    I say well I will refund the travel costs on condition that you ring me up to show me you’ve gone there and you send me a letter from the social services showing they’re on your case and a letter showing that you’re pregnant.

     

    Waite

    And how do you check to ensure the people that you give help to deserve that help?

     

    Josephs

    I can’t promise that they all do deserve it, it’s the same thing – no lawyer can guarantee the innocence of their client but what I do do is ask to see, when I can, the court papers.

     

    Waite

    Millionaire Ian Josephs reckons that he’s personally advised or helped more than a hundred people to flee – and spent over £30,000 of his own money in the process. The trouble with social services, he believes, is that they act all too often on supposition when there is little or no evidence of real risk.

     

    Josephs

    Anything is better for these people, anything at all, than losing their baby to adoption and losing their baby for life.

     

    Waite

    But surely if there’s the slightest doubt that there’s a baby yet to be born maybe may be in danger when they are born well they have to be protected, we can’t protect them too much?

     

    Josephs

    Oh you can because there’s the slightest doubt that you or I could be, if we go into a car, could be killed tomorrow.  It’s too easy to talk vaguely of if you have the slightest doubt.

     

    Clip – Italian News clip

     

    Waite

    Last month Britain’s social services and that policy of acting on future risk became the focus of the world’s media. An Italian woman, Alessandra Pacheiri, who’d planned to spend just a few weeks in England, had suffered a  breakdown and been “sectioned” under the Mental Health Act. Heavily pregnant a court-ordered caesarean took place and her baby was taken into care and then put up for adoption.

     

    Clip – Italian News clip

     

    From Rome Mrs Pachieri’s lawyer told us that she will challenge the adoption ruling in court. Michelle Freedman will be watching the result with interest.

     

    She’s a barrister based in London and has first-hand experience of forced adoption cases, representing parents desperately fighting the system.

     

    Freedman

    As a family law barrister I know what goes on.  There’s been so many situations where I have sat with clients and we have gone through the local authority evidence with a fine toothcomb and each and every time the clients would look at me and say well that did happen, it just didn’t happen like that, these are the facts but they’ve twisted it.

     

    Waite

    As we’ve heard some parents, including Sarah and James, feel so strongly that their words and actions have been twisted - in their case the noisy argument they had - that their only option is to start new lives in other countries. However, they and parents like them are simply wrong according to Andrew Webb - President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

     

    Webb

    It’s not possible to either get a care order or an adoption order without proving to a court of law that the child has suffered significant harm or is likely to suffer significant harm.  I can’t accept the view that simply on a social worker’s twisting of words that these orders will be made and there are rights of appeal.

     

    Waite

    It isn’t just parents and those who help them that are critical though when it comes to legal matters pertaining to children, as president of the Family Division, Sir James Mumby is Britain’s most senior judge. So how does Andrew Webb respond to what – just four months ago – Sir James had to say?

     

    Sir James Mumby - Read

    We have real concerns, shared by other judges, about the recurrent inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption.

     

    Webb

    This is an area where very finely balanced judgements have to be taken and we need to make sure we put a much more robust analysis into every case than we do in some cases but I stand by the quality of social work in the vast majority of cases.

     

    Freedman

    I was counsel is a care case in Cambridge.

     

    Waite

    For Barrister Michelle Freedman there will always be one case in particular that represents what’s wrong with the system. Her own. Michelle was literally in the middle of a court hearing, representing a parent fighting to keep their children, when she learned that one of her own children was facing a similar fate. Knowing well, she told me, the way the system operates, she had no hesitation in deciding what to do next.

     

    Freedman

    When the judge adjourns for judgements I think we had a two hour adjournment I went to buy suitcases.  We needed big suitcases – we were basically running for our lives, we’re packing our lives into three suitcases and off we’re going.

     

    Waite

    Forty eight hours later Michelle and her two daughters were starting a new life in Israel – helped, incidentally, by advice from Monaco based Ian Josephs. A care order was granted in their absence and an Interpol alert issued. But after some months, when Michelle was able to show her daughters were doing well in Israel, the local authority agreed to withdraw the order. Michelle is now back working weekdays as a barrister in London, returning at weekends to her children in Israel. But would she ever bring them back into the country?

     

    Freedman

    They’re obviously British citizens but I can’t no – no – I might just be being over-cautious here but they’re my children, they’re my children.

     

    Waite

    As we've heard, the underground railroads, as one described itself to us, that help fugitive parents are made up primarily of English and Irish expats. But that's starting to change. I boarded the Eurostar to meet a couple who’ve been helped by a Belgian social worker. Again we’ve agreed not to reveal exactly where or who they are.

     

    So this is a scrapbook of Jane.

     

    Marie

    Yes.

     

    Waite

    A pretty child isn’t she.

     

    Marie

    Yes.  This one here is where we had her first birthday.

     

    Waite

    How old was she when she went for adoption?

     

    Marie

    About one and a half.

     

    Waite

    Jane is the reason Craig and Marie are now in Belgium. She was first taken into care and then - despite their opposition - eventually adopted. There was no suggestion that they would physically harm the child but the local authority believed they wouldn’t be able to support Jane emotionally as she grew up or put her needs before their own.

     

    Marie

    Just can’t believe it but we’ve got to accept that she’s no longer part of our lives.  You know and you think there’s got to be something else I can do but there isn’t.  There’s a hope that she might find us but sometimes they didn’t try and find you.

     

    Waite

    But it was losing her – little Jane there – that determined you two were not going to lose anymore?

     

    Craig

    I’ve got tears in my eyes – it’s hard to explain.

     

    Waite

    Dad Craig told us that he’d never had any problems with social services before and has a daughter and granddaughter from a previous relationship.  Marie though - as she openly admits – has had a more complicated past. She says she’s repeatedly been involved with the wrong men and as a result has had seven children - most of whom have at some time been in care. 

     

    But since she met Craig, she says, her life has changed.  Though it’s far from easy. Now they have a newborn baby, and are living in a country they’ve never visited, where neither of them speaks the language – though they are learning - and despite Craig’s efforts he hasn’t found a job.

     

    You see there’ll be some listeners, I’m sure, who will be thinking to themselves well actually you’re putting the baby at a disadvantage living in this hand to mouth way.

     

    Craig

    We put him first and he’s getting everything – we’ll go without to see him through.  The family we live with are very good as well – they won’t let anything happen.

     

    Thomas

    I take contact with people in England to say my home is open.  I have no money but I have place.

     

    Waite

    For the past five months “home” for Marie, Craig and their baby has been with that Belgian social worker we’ll call Thomas.  He decided to offer shelter to fleeing parents after reports of forced adoption cases appeared in the Belgian media. Because of his job, Thomas knows only too well that sometimes children have to be taken into care but forced adoption he strongly opposes. It’s too final a solution, he says.

     

    Thomas

    What I see, what I read, what I hear – there is a problem in England.  When you are a social worker you must take difficult decisions – always – but when you take a decision and you can’t go back, it’s not a good decision, perhaps it’s legal in your country, it’s not moral, it’s not human.

     

    Waite

    And high-level concerns over the UK’s child protection practices also appear to be growing. Next month a “fact finding mission” will inquire into British social services for a Council of Europe report. Then in March the European Commission Petitions Committee will debate the wider issue of forced adoption. Doubtless, too, the issue will come up again in Westminster.

     

    Actuality – Westminster

    Hemming

    As the minister is aware I’m…

     

    Waite

    Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming chairs the Justice for Families campaign and has been collating the growing international concern.

     

    Actuality – Westminster

    Hemming

    On page seven of the document I have a letter from the Czech Republic saying there’s a problem.  On page eight of the document I have a letter from the Spanish government saying there’s a problem.  On page nine of the…

     

    Waite

    Countries like Spain are concerned at the way that nationals of their country are having their children taken into care or even, as with the recent Italian case, put up for adoption whilst they’re in the UK. And we’ve established that at least six countries have raised concerns directly to the government or government bodies over the way the policy is implemented.   One ambassador told us that while forced adoptions should be the exception not the rule, they fear that the reverse could become the case in the UK.

     

    When we contacted the Department for Education, which is responsible for adoption policy, they told us:

     

    Department for Education - Read

    We are working with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice to consider how other countries can best be engaged when their nationals, resident in the UK, are involved in child protection issues.

     

    And in cases of ‘forced adoption’ a court would only dispense with the need for parental consent because:

     

    Department of Education - Read

    …the parents cannot be found; because they are incapable of giving their consent or because it has reason to believe the welfare of the child requires their consent to be dispensed with. 

     

    As for that 20% rise in the number of ‘forced adoptions’ the Department pointed out that there has been a similar rise in uncontested ones.  As a result last year 7% of children in care in England ended up being adopted - more than in any year since comparable records began more than 20 years ago. A trend that will continue as the department is committed, it says, to finding stable homes for more children in care. And so a trend that will likely see more parents go on the run.

     

    Some of those may well approach MP John Hemming as they have in the past. His advice may be simple but some will find it surprising.

     

    Hemming

    In certain circumstances it’s the sensible thing to do because you face a system which is so biased against the parents, procedurally biased.  The question is what happens to the child?  The answer is adoption.

     

    Waite

    Do you support parents who flee?

     

    Hemming

    I do assist them with advice.

     

    Waite

    But some people would find that quite extraordinary – Liberal Democrat MP, your party’s in government.

     

    Hemming

    Yeah and advice on how to do it entirely lawfully.  I advice people, actually, to deal with the authorities in the countries they go to.

     

    Waite

    But is it right that you in your position?

     

    Hemming

    It’s my job to tell people the truth, so I do.

     

    Waite

    But that’s not the truth, in fact such comments are “reckless” according to Andrew Webb of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. In his view, the British approach to child protection is one of the most child centric in Europe and is steeped in checks and balances. So how does he explain then the fact that hundreds of parents have already fled the country in fear, if there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the system?

     

    Webb

    Not necessarily, it may be that they’re putting their interests above the interests of their children.  I don’t accept the term “forced adoptions”.  The child is the centre of the focus for the local authority and there is nothing about the journey of the child into adoption that’s forced.  What we’re talking about here is having to make a decision that takes more notice of the interest of the child for the rest of their life than the needs of the parent in the shorter term.  Now we do have disputes with families about whether harm is real, other disputes about whether the harm is going to be long lasting but all these concerns get tested very rigorously in our legal system.

     

    Waite

    And how concerned are you with the action that increasing numbers of parents seem to be taking?

     

    Webb

    Any network that’s set up to work in the interests of parents I would have grave concerns about.  Every child who’s uprooted and moved, as a consequence of someone expressing concern, in my mind becomes a child at risk.  So I am concerned if they’re doing it.  But in about 90% of the cases that come to a final care hearing the parent doesn’t contest whether the harm is real or the risk is real enough.  So these are rare cases we’re talking about here.

     

    Waite

    Do you ever get it wrong?

     

    Webb

    It is possible to get it wrong but often you’ll only know whether you’ve got it wrong with the benefit of hindsight.

     

    Waite

    Obviously each case would be a tragedy for a parent who wasn’t to see a child again in the end through no fault of their own.

     

    Webb

    Every case has to be looked at as absolutely unique.  It’s not a tick box exercise where you can say easily this was right and that was wrong.

     

    Waite

    But of course if social services do get it wrong then a perfectly good parent will perhaps never see their child again after the baby is forcibly taken for adoption. That’s what worries the judges, the lawyers, the MPs and the other countries all of whom we’ve heard from on the programme. But most of all it worries the parents, like Craig, currently on the run with his partner and new baby in Belgium. They’ve already had one child taken away from them, they told me, and simply couldn’t face the trauma of seeing another removed from their lives.

     

    Craig

    If somebody dies you can grieve and get over, if a child is taken from you you’re wondering what she’s doing, how she is, where she is, who she’s with, is she safe every day, it’s worse than death and that’s why we’ve done it.  We said the only way out is to run.

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