The recent cases of the murder of BabyP and the kidnap of Shannon Matthews and the failure of Social Services to protect them have attracted enormous publicity and righteous condemnation - and so they should have done.
There are evil people in the world, and evil people will do evil things. It would be good if they could be prevented from doing them, but realistically we should accept that sometimes they'll slip through the net however small and well-maintained the mesh. In these two cases the mesh just wasn't properly maintained, and this is a dreadful derogation of duty by public servants who are paid to do a job and didn't do it.
But to our minds there is something even worse, and that's when self-seeking officials victimise totally innocent people. In one case in particular the consequences have been truly awful - a whole family smashed apart, and innocent children snatched from their parents and forcibly sent for adoption with the authority of an unfair and secretive legal system whose minions will stop at nothing to get their own way and to prevent the public from knowing about their activities.
The reason we use the expression "self-seeking" is that local authorities stand to gain financially from sending children for adoption, thanks to monetary payments offered by central government to encourage officials to seek out and kidnap any children they can claim to be "at risk" - however tiny and imaginary that risk may be. While social workers shy away from taking appropriate action in cases of real danger, they're quick enough to act when their victims are law-abiding families who pose little risk to themselves, and the Family Court system ensures that the families are not able to fight back effectively.
Some time ago we wrote at length about the Hardinghams (now known as the Websters, for some reason we don't understand) from Norfolk - see here, here, and here.
Now we read in the newspapers …
A couple who had their three oldest children taken away by social services after false claims of abuse went to court last week in a bid to make legal history by reversing their adoption. A lawyer acting for Mark and Nicky Webster made an impassioned plea to three appeal court judges to right the unimaginable wrong that robbed them of the children - all under nine - who can be known only as A, B and C.
And the Websters, who now have another son, Brandon, and a fifth child on the way, are hopeful of success after judge Lord Justice Wilson remarked on the brevity of the original hearing that ruled they should be put up for adoption. He told the Appeal Court `One thing that strikes one about that judgment is not only that it is very short but that there is very little context.'
The children were taken away in 2003 after B suffered leg fractures that doctors wrongly deemed were due to abuse. Speaking outside court, Nicky explained "We want to clear our names properly and we want the children to know the truth. They need to know that their mummy and daddy did not hurt them, that they loved them and cared for them."
The Websters first hit the headlines when Nicky fled to Ireland before Brandon was born in 2006 so Norfolk social services could not take him away. The couple fought a long battle to prove they had not harmed their children and last year experts agreed B's leg injuries were not due to physical abuse but a disorder that stopped him eating anything other than soya milk. At that stage, a judge concluded Brandon, now two, was not `at risk'.
But winning back the older children, now eight, seven and five, will be much harder, as reversing an adoption means rewriting the law. Nicky said "It's taken us years to get this far and this isn't the end. But we have to fight. We've been told adoption is irreversible and that however wrong it was there's nothing we can do about it so to just give up. But would you do that if they were your children? When would you decide, "Well, we've tried for long enough now. We'll just stop"?" The two eldest children, A and B, were adopted into one family while the youngest, C, went to another.
Nicky said "I gave birth to those children and we were a family for longer than they have been with their adoptive families. So it's hard to sit and listen to lawyers argue that we can't fight to have our children back because it would be unsettling. When it comes down to it the only feelings I'm interested in considering are my children's. We still "feel" the children. Brandon looks so like his brothers, it can really catch you off-guard. I know I'm expecting a girl this time and I'm excited but I'm scared. Will she look just like my first little girl?'
Astonishingly (and smugly) last week, Norfolk County Council's lawyer argued the Websters have no right to contest the adoption as the children are no longer theirs. "Adoption orders possess a peculiar finality," she said. "The child becomes to all purposes the child of the adoptive parents as if he were their natural child."
But Mark and Nicky's QC, Ian Peddie, said "It is hard to understand how the parents cope with this injustice but the children also stand to suffer if they do not know the truth of what caused them to be taken from their parents. It is assumed that the older children are aware of their Webster heritage. Child A was five years 11 months, Child B almost four and Child C two years five months when the adoption was finalised. They have sibling contact three times a year. Child A had spent more time with her natural parents than the adoptive parents and may well have memory of her time with them. We are well aware that adoptive orders are meant to be permanent and final. But we assert that this is a fundamental miscarriage of justice and denial of natural justice and in that case this court will interfere with an adoption order. We are conscious of the floodgates argument but this case is quite exceptional."
Judgment was reserved until January. In the meantime, the Websters are still unable to work with children. Nicky said "We're still on the abusers register. Mark wants to be a taxi driver but he's not allowed to drive a child unaccompanied. A friend asked me to help at a music class for pre-school children. But I'm not allowed."
We aren't lawyers of course, but it seems to us that if the original adoption order was granted illegally, then the adoption must itself be illegal - and it has to be illegal to kidnap children from their rightful parents without due cause. And in this case the authorities have now admitted that there was no due cause. QED, we would have thought, in our innocence - but then "innocence" is a moveable feast with these people, isn't it? Did you know that many years ago an American expert on child abuse proclaimed that one of the surest signs of guilt was to proclaim your innocence? No, we're not making it up; it really happened, and it has been taken seriously ever since by those in whose interests it is to do so.
We very much hope that the case will go the Websters' way. If it doesn't, we hope that (a) they will keep fighting and that somehow the financial means to do so will be found, and that (b) the case will make Norfolk Children's Services think very carefully about their future actions. This is not the only case in which they have acted in such a draconian fashion - another one is ongoing (see here and here).
What would be really good is if Lisa Christensen, the Director of Norfolk Children's Services, met the same fate as her colleague Sharon Shoesmith from Haringey who has been sacked without financial compensation.
You may be interested to read this article by Harriet Harman in which she expresses her belief that the Family Courts are too secretive.
There are several No.10 petitions open, demanding that the government reform the Family Courts. Here are three of them …
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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