UK following in US $$ footsteps

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The scandal of the baby snatchers
By SUE REID 

8th June 2007

Crystal Walton: A pawn in a shameful adoption system

This picture was used to advertise Crystal's availability for adoption - appearing in a tabloid national newspaper with an accompanying blurb describing her as a "clever, lively, cheerful toddler" who likes puzzles and swimming.

A phone number was printed alongside for anyone interested in becoming her new parents.

Perhaps a million people saw the heart-breaking advert which had been placed by a London council, and streams of callers offered to take care of her.

Yet that is not the whole story. The truth is that Crystal had become a pawn in an adoption system that should shame

In 2000, Tony Blair set new targets to raise the number of children being adopted by 50 per cent - to a total of 5,400 every year.

He promised millions of pounds to councils that managed to achieve the targets. Some have already received more than £20million for successfully pushing up the number of adoptions.

This sweeping shake-up in social policy was designed for all the right reasons: to get older children languishing in care homes into happy new families with parents.

But the reforms didn't work. Encouraged by the promise of extra cash, councils began to earmark those children who were most easy to place in adoptive homes - babies and cute toddlers such as Crystal.

The resulting nightmare is that thousands of children of under four have since been removed from their birth families and adopted. Seventy per cent of all adoptions are now in this age group.

These cases often involve mothers and fathers who may have been in previous contact with social services over alleged incidents such as being accused - though not convicted - of maltreating their children.

More chillingly, others have been told by social workers they must lose their children because, at some time in the future, they might abuse them.

One mother's son was adopted on the grounds that there was a chance she might shout at him when he was older. It was, said social workers, emotional abuse.

New figures revealed to the Mail this week show that 1,300 babies were taken from their families in England last year and sent to new homes - a 300 per cent rise in less than a decade.

More than 900 were newborn or less than a week old. The rest were aged under a month.

The Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has become so concerned about the increase and the way that the adoption system is being run that he has asked the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner to investigate the 'systematic abuses'.

He wants to know why so many tiny children are being 'snatched' needlessly from their families in what he calls a 'national scandal'.

In his formal submission to the commissioner, he said: "Children are being removed from families merely to satisfy government targets for the right numbers of children adopted."

He later explained to the Mail: "I have evidence that 1,000 children are wrongly being seized from their birth parents each year - even though they have not been harmed in any way.

"The targets are dangerous and lead to social workers being over-eager and making mistakes."

The MP's concerns have been supported by the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, an independent body which advises new mothers about how to care for their babies.

Its spokeswoman, Beverley Beech, said: "Babies are being removed from their mothers by social workers using any excuse whatsoever.

"We strongly suspect this is because newborns and toddlers are more easily found homes than older children. The younger ones are, in other words, a marketable commodity.

"I know of social workers making up stories about blameless mothers simply to ensure that their babies are forcibly taken and put up for adoption.

"One baby was removed in the maternity ward by social workers before the mother had even finished the birth process and produced the placenta.

"Suitable babies are even being earmarked for adoption when they are still in the womb."

Of course, everyone knows there are some parents who do terrible things to their sons and daughters - and social workers are often vilified for not intervening soon enough to protect vulnerable children.

But can so many more mothers and fathers - in such a small space of time - really be abusing their own babies?

One thing is certain: it is impossible to overstate the emotional damage done to families whose babies have been forcibly removed from them on what can be the flimsiest of grounds.

In Europe, only a handful of children every year are forcibly taken from their mothers to be adopted.

In Scotland, where there are no official targets, adoptions are a fraction of the number south of the border - even allowing for the smaller population.

Yet in England, the annual total for adoptions for children under 17 went up by nearly 40 per cent in four years - from 2,700 in 2000 to 3,700 in 2004.

You only have to listen to the story of Crystal Walton and her parents, Ian and Sarah, to realise that something may be going terribly wrong.

At a few days old, she was taken away by social workers. Her bereft parents were left protesting their innocence.

They have never been charged with, or found guilty of, any offence against Crystal or any other child and are now taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights because they have run out of legal avenues in Britain.

Whatever the judgment in Strasbourg, it will almost certainly be too late for them to get their daughter back. "One day, she will know that we tried our very best to bring her home," says 28-year-old Sarah.

The Waltons' story is deeply disturbing. Ian, a 42-year-old construction worker, and Sarah, an office administrator, married in 2003.

Almost a year after their wedding, Sarah gave birth to Crystal in hospital and soon afterwards carried her joyously back to their house in Enfield, North London.

But just two days later, social workers visited - without any warning - and took their new daughter away.

They claimed Ian might hurt his baby daughter. He had been married before and has an eight-year-old son, whom the Mail has chosen not to identify but whom we will call Terry.

Five years earlier, when just eight weeks old, Terry was rushed to hospital with a suspected brain injury. He had bleeding behind his eyes.

A medical expert said that Terry had been shaken viciously. A year later, Ian and Terry's mother were taken to the family court in London where a judge concluded - on the basis of the expert's opinion - that the child's injuries had been caused by one of his parents.

The possibility that the baby had an inherited condition, provoking exactly the same symptoms, was never explored.

The theory - put forward by the family's lawyers - that he had banged his head in his baby bouncer while playing with another child in the house was ignored.

The ensuing legal battle was lengthy but Enfield social workers finally allowed Terry to remain with his birth parents - Ian and his first wife - who were granted, and still have, joint custody of the boy.

Ian sees him regularly and often spends time with him alone. The police were never involved in the case and the couple simply got on with their lives.

It was only when Ian remarried and Crystal was born that the social workers reappeared.

Ian explains: "Everything was normal. Sarah and I were delighted to be having a baby. When Sarah was eight months pregnant, Enfield social workers called us in for what they called a 'pre-birth planning meeting'. We still never suspected anything."

What happened next is hard to believe in a civilised society. But Ian insists it is true. His family have confirmed the account.

He says: "After bringing Crystal home from the hospital, we were cooking a meal for my parents. While my father and I were out shopping for something we'd forgotten, the social workers visited.

"They just came straight in, walked past Sarah and my mother, and picked up Crystal from her cot and walked out again."

In other words, Sarah had her first and only child wrenched from her because the social workers had suspicions - of course unproven - about the behaviour of her husband nearly ten years before.

Nevertheless, Ian and Sarah were allowed to visit Crystal at a foster home. Indeed, on a website Ian has created as a tribute to his lost child, there is a video showing footage of the couple with Crystal, happy and at ease together.

At one point, the little girl puts out her arms to her mother, who picks her up and kisses her.

And, touchingly, when she asks Crystal where her daddy is, the toddler turns and points at Ian. It was filmed on July 18 last year. But already the clock was ticking towards their daughter's adoption.

Within a few weeks of that video being filmed, the couple were told by social services that new parents were being sought for their daughter.

Not surprisingly, Ian and Sarah were anxious to tell people what was happening. They wanted to fight in public.

But they were warned by social workers that if they defied the authorities and told anyone of what was happening, they would be in contempt of court and might even end up in prison.

In particular, they were not to complain to the Press or let anyone know the name of Crystal in order to protect her identity as a minor.

So you can imagine their horror when, last August, they first saw the advert in which she had been put up for adoption.

Ian says: "Suddenly, we saw a picture of Crystal. Sarah burst out crying. Our daughter had effectively been put up for sale - and under her own name."

In October, Ian and Sarah were told they could see Crystal for the last time. At a tense and emotional meeting, they said goodbye and then went home alone. But they had not given up the battle.

In a desperate bid to outmanoeuvre the system, Ian and Sarah went to the Court of Appeal in London in March.

They asked for a stay of execution on the adoption while their case was heard by the European Court of Human Rights. This was refused. Now they have few places left to turn.

In a separate development, Ian's son, Terry, is about to undergo a test for a rare and often inherited neurological disease.

If he is proved to be a sufferer, it will mean the disease (glutaric aciduria) is the likely cause of bleeding behind his eyes and that he never suffered the injuries as a result of being shaken.

Parents of other child sufferers of the disease have also been wrongly accused of shaking them as babies.

Indeed, there are many who now question if shaken baby syndrome (SBS) even exists.

Significantly, in 2005, Dr Jennian Geddes, a neuropathologist at the Royal London Hospital, became troubled by the number of such cases in which there was no sign of any other physical damage to the children's fragile bodies.

She demanded to know how could a parent shake a small baby so violently - those who believe in SBS say this can be done with the same force as that of a 70mph car crash - and yet there be no bruising to the upper arms or body?

There was another mystery. DrGeddes knew that when a baby is in a fatal car crash, it suffers traumatic damage to nerves in the brain, provoked by the effects of whiplash.

So she did something no one had done before - comparing the brains of 53 babies and children whose deaths had been attributed to violent shaking with those of youngsters who had been killed in car crashes.

Her findings were revealing: 50 out of the 53 brains of the so-called shaken babies showed no damage to the brain nerves.

There was no whiplash effect, an indication that the babies could not have been shaken to death.

Dr Geddes, who up to this point believed that SBS did exist, concluded that even a trivial household accident, such as a child rolling off a sofa, or banging itself in a baby bouncer - perhaps, like Ian's son, Terry - can prompt retinal bleeding and other symptoms blamed on the 'killer parents'.

Another turning point came in 2005. In a ground-breaking case, the Appeal Court quashed the convictions of two people who were separately accused of killing their babies by shaking them to death.

The court ruled that the medical experts' evidence that had convicted them was unreliable.

The judge accepted that retinal bleeding in babies, could be caused by minor falls, difficult births or genetic conditions.

All this evidence could now be used by parents fighting social workers in the battle to win back their children. Yet in the tragic case of Ian and Sarah Walton, the only winner is Enfield Council.

It has already received £1 million from the Government to help it reach targets on adoptions and other services. Another adopted child, another wodge of money.

In the past two years, the council has succeeded in getting 29 children adopted. This year, who knows? Any day now, Crystal could be placed in a new home and learning to call another couple 'Mummy and Daddy'.

Needless to say, that would break the hearts of Ian and Sarah, who, like so many hundreds of other parents in the same position, suspect that without Tony Blair's adoption targets they would still be with their beloved child.

Clinging to each other this week, they said they had no idea what the future held. Ian said: "We are scared of having another child in case the social workers come calling again. We could not face going through the nightmare of having a second baby taken by the state."

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