I want to come home mummy

Date: 2009-07-10

Aged five, 'Jenny' was torn from her parents by social workers after an RSPCA raid. Now a court says she must be adopted...

By Paul Bracchi and Dennis Rice

We reveal disturbing questions about the fate of this bewildered child who faces fears of abandonment for years to come but who just wants to come home to mummy and daddy.

The recording begins with the sound of a child's voice. It belongs to a little girl and she is clearly bewildered and distressed.
At one point she begins to cry. At other times she is sobbing uncontrollably. 'Have you seen the judge yet?' she can be heard asking pitifully in between the tears before pleading: 'I want to go home with [you] Mummy and Daddy.'

The recording - and dozens of others just like it - was made during a supervised meeting between the youngster and her parents after their daughter was taken away from them by social workers.

They are known as 'contact visits' in the soulless vernacular of the care system, and took place in a room with a table and chairs and a few toys.
One hour. Once a month. That's the extent of the relationship now between this little seven-year-old girl and her traumatised parents.

There are some parents who do not deserve to see their children more than once a month. Irresponsible parents. Neglectful parents. Abusive parents.

According to care workers, the mother and father of this little girl were found to fall into this category after their home was raided by the RSPCA and at least 18 police officers to deal with a complaint about supposed mistreatment of dogs.

But what if social workers have got it wrong? In the light of Baby P and so many other scandals, it's hardly impossible is it?

Certainly, the recordings stored on a computer at the family's home on the South Coast seem to contradict the damaging claims by social services that the girl, whom we shall call Jenny - the girl's real identity has been suppressed by the courts - did not wish to return to live with her parents.

Jenny's father spent months taking down every word of the recordings by hand, only to be told by a judge that they had to be professionally transcribed.

By the time they were, it was too late. Moves to put Jenny up for adoption were under way.

This week, after 74 separate court hearings over two harrowing years, the family finally lost their fight to have Jenny returned to them.

The Court of Appeal in London ruled that their daughter must be given up for adoption. If and when she is, they may never see her again.

Jenny was five when she was taken away, and seven now. Before we examine the peculiarly troubling details of this case, it is worth considering the comments of the family's MP, Charles Hendry.

He says: 'This case has concerned me more than any other in my 13 years as a member of Parliament.' And, he went on to describe Jenny's mother and father as 'devoted parents'.

Furthermore, one of the experts brought in to examine the child's removal, a psychiatric social worker, concluded the local authority had 'mismanaged the case'. Needless to say, his advice was ignored.

They are not lone voices: more than 200 local people, including neighbours, friends and members of the couple's church, planned to take part in a march through their village shortly after the family's ordeal began in April 2007.

Posters were printed, which read 'Social Services Have Kidnapped Our Daughter. Please Help The Fight To Get Her Back Where She Belongs.' Above the words was a picture of Jenny.

Of course, you won't have read about the protest, because it never took place. The march was just about to begin when the police, acting on the advice of social services, stepped in.

They warned Jenny's parents they risked being jailed, as they had broken the law by identifying their daughter on the placards.

Just another example of the terrifying lack of transparency that now surrounds the removal of children from their families.

Reforms to open up cases such as Jenny's to public scrutiny were introduced earlier this year. But the truth is, an almost Stalinist culture of secrecy still exists in family courts.

Jenny was never physically harmed, and was 'thriving and happy before being taken away', the Court of Appeal was told.

One of the reasons for the decision was that Jenny's father had been unwilling to undergo a further assessment.

Wouldn't other parents in his position have done the same?

After all, the case had already dragged on for two years and he believed yet another 'assessment' would delay the tortuous process even more.

Yet, here we are today on the cusp of Jenny being spirited away from her family for ever.

No one suggests that Jenny's parents - whom we'll call Susan and Richard - are perfect. But over the past few weeks, our reporters have come to know the family. And one thing seems undeniable - their love for their daughter, and her love for them.

Jenny is a beautiful child with a mop of chestnut hair. She loved ballet, swimming and Susan and Richard paid for her to have private tennis lessons.

Her bedroom - with her own ensuite bathroom - in the family's home is almost unchanged from the day she last slept there.

Her favourite pink teddy bear is still sitting under the windowsill. And a collection of her videos are on a shelf.

'She loved Grease and pretending to be Olivia Newton-John,' her mother told me last night as her eyes filled up with tears. 'It's hard to come into my daughter's room without crying.'

Susan, in her 40s and involved in her local Conservative Association, used to be a beautician before becoming a fulltime mother - that was how important her child was to her.

Her husband Richard, 32, runs a dog breeding business from their home. They have been married for 13 years.

They were just a normal, happy family, it seems, until the RSPCA, backed up by 18 police officers, arrived at their house early one April morning in 2007, following a tip-off that dogs were being mistreated, and that there might be guns in the house.

No guns were ever found. No criminal charges were brought, nor does Richard have a criminal record.

He was later, however, convicted of docking the tails of his puppies. But the raid was to have far more catastrophic consequences.

Both Richard and Susan were arrested for failing to cooperate with officers. By the time they were released from custody later that day, Jenny was the subject of an emergency protection order.

So an operation which had begun for entirely different reasons had ended with the heartbreak of their daughter being taken away.

There were two reasons for what happened, and both have been bitterly contested by the family.

The first was the state of the house. Police said it was covered in rabbit entrails - used as food for the dogs they raised - and animal excrement.

The couple claim most of the mess was caused during the raid. They say, the doors were left open, allowing the dogs in. Normally, they insisted, their home was 'clean and tidy'.

Only a few weeks earlier a policewoman had visited them - after a puppy had been stolen - and backed up what they said.

She also said that Jenny was 'happy'. Their home, it should also be stressed, was always immaculate when we visited the couple.

Attention was drawn to the fact that there was a hole in a downstairs bedroom ceiling. But the family point out that a pipe had recently leaked and could not be repaired until the beams had dried out. It has now been fixed.

Nor, it was claimed by the authorities, were there any clothes for Jenny in her wardrobe. Did the police look in the wrong wardrobe - the one in her parent's bedroom?

The wardrobe in Jenny's own bedroom, her parents say, was full of her belongings.

'We always put Jenny first,' said Susan. 'We have receipts from Monsoon [the fashion store] proving we spent hundreds of pounds on Jenny in the couple of months before she was taken from us. If anything, we spoilt her.'

The second reason, according to social services, that Jenny was not returned to her parents, was that she had apparently made it clear she didn't want to return to the house.

But why would she? Jenny was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following the raid.

In fact, it would be impossible to imagine a more traumatic situation than the 'chaotic scenes' which unfolded at the house that morning and which culminated in her mother and father being led away in handcuffs.

In other words, not wanting to return home didn't necessarily mean she didn't want to be with her parents.

Those tapes made during 'contact meetings' in which she tearfully begs to be returned to her 'Mummy and Daddy' would seem to confirm this.

'She was hysterical when the police came in,' says Susan. 'It's the damage they have done to our little girl which really concerns us. I fear she will never be the same.'

There is also another sad twist to this troubling story. Susan and Richard didn't just lose Jenny that day.

Susan was three months pregnant with twins. She says she was in a police cell when she began to miscarry.

'I started bleeding heavily and knew that could only mean one thing,' she said. 'I was taken to hospital where doctors confirmed my worst fears.'

Even so, she was taken back to the police station later, where she says she suffered another haemorrhage. 'I rang the buzzer and they brought me sanitary towels. Later, I was allowed home.'

But another nightmare was just unfolding. Susan was charged with neglecting Jenny - on the strength, she says, of the conditions in the house.

Three months later, all the charges were dropped.

Many would also argue that this is when the social services case against the couple should also have been dropped.

But, like other families who have been through a similar experience, once they were in the 'system' they found it impossible to get out.

It is a view supported by their MP. 'I was very concerned about the case from the outset,' says Mr Hendry.

'Every time I have attempted to discuss it with the director of children's services for the county council, I have been told they cannot discuss it because of the legal proceedings.

'What it has brought home to me is how difficult it is for parents to get back a child once a decision has been made to take the child away.

'It is clear to me they are devoted parents whose only goal is get their child returned. I have never seen the evidence to justify taking their daughter away from them.'

In fact, the 'evidence' is based on the testimony of two independent experts. Two others gave the couple positive assessments. But let's deal with the critical reports.

One 'expert' suggested, after spending just one hour with Jenny, that she had been sexually abused by her father.

And the proof? He came to this conclusion, it seems, after Jenny had described choking on a lollipop which, so the expert said, could 'signify the child being forced to have oral sex with her father'.

There was indeed an incident, says her mother, in which Jenny got a lolly (a sugar-free one from the health shop, incidentally) stuck in her throat when she was playing.

'She started coughing,' says Susan. I thought: "Oh my God, she is choking." I patted her on the back and she was OK.'

The second expert concluded that Susan and Richard were suffering from 'paranoid personality disorders'.

On one occasion, the police were called when Richard began taking photographs of the social services centre where a 'contact meeting' with Jenny was taking place.

Why? Because the grounds of the building were littered with syringes and mounds of rubbish - not a fit place, he claimed, for them to meet their bewildered child.

'The social workers didn't want to challenge these experts, at all,' says Richard. 'I would say to them: "Where is the evidence for this allegation or that allegation?" Or "produce a witness".

'They felt we were being obstructive to the local authority's care plan. But what we supposed to do? Just give up. We would never do that.'

The allegations about the sexual abuse and the paranoia were dismissed by other experts, including Dr Peter Dale, a psychiatric social worker, who concluded the local authority had 'mismanaged the case'.

They made, he said, fixed assumptions about the parents at the outset, and had not done the necessary investigations to check whether those assumptions were correct.

Dr Dale said: 'Jenny had suffered significant harm as a result of being removed from her parents, and was likely to suffer fears of abandonment by them for some time to come and would be particularly at risk during adolescence.

'She needed urgent therapeutic input to help her make sense of what had happened to her.'

He continued: 'Plans for reunification [with her parents] should be established on a very urgent basis.'

Instead, Jenny is being put up for adoption. If Susan and Richard refuse to accept the decision, they could be prevented from ever seeing their daughter again. It is an outcome which their neighbours and friends can barely contemplate.

One couple are among dozens of people who have supported the couple in their desperate fight to get their only daughter back.

The pair, who have both worked in social services, say they are 'disgusted' with the way the case has been handled, and yesterday insisted the parents were 'the best mother and father a child could wish for'.

The 44-year-old woman, says: 'I worked with children in social services for 25 years and I have never seen anything like this.

'We have been friends with the family for about five years and the only criticism I could ever make of them is that they love their little girl too much. They spoil her rotten.

'She has spent a lot of time in our home playing with our daughter, who is a bit older, and our daughter was always over at their home.

'She is a bright, funny, intelligent child. She is always happy and giggling. Every time we saw her she was immaculately dressed, often showing off a new frock or jewellery.

'The way they were raided like criminals and their child snatched from their arms is disgusting.

'There are so many children out there who do need to be monitored by social services, as demonstrated by Baby P. This little girl is not one of them.'

Last night, Jenny's mother, tears rolling down her cheeks, described the impact on the family.

'I go to bed thinking about Jenny and I wake up thinking about Jenny,' she said. 'There's hardly a moment in the day when we are not thinking about her. It's torture.

'To think that our beautiful daughter is probably going to be advertised on a social services website is unbearably painful.'

No one - particularly a newspaper - has a copyright on wisdom in tragic cases such as this. But surely - in the name of justice - there are too many questions raised by the couple's MP, neighbours and independent experts, for anyone to be certain that it's right for Jenny to be torn away from her biological family.

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