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Nearly 30 babies taken into care each year


Around 30 babies each year are taken away from their parents before they even reach the age of one, according to the latest figures.

In the past four years, the courts have granted care orders for 119 babies across the county, more than for any other age group.

The most common reason for children to be taken from their parents is because of abuse or neglect. Other cases include where parents have drug or alcohol addictions or where they are too unwell to look after a child.

The figures, released to the Evening News under a Freedom of Information Act request, come against a backdrop of controversial decisions by the family courts and Norfolk Social Services over the care of children.

It also comes amid ongoing calls for the decisions made by the family courts to be more transparent - a move the government rejected last week when it refused to open secret court proceedings to public scrutiny.

These calls were sparked by the case of Mark and Nicky Webster, from Cromer, who had their three older children taken from them by the courts and adopted, with what a high court judge later described as a speed he “could not understand.”

This week the High Court decided the couple should be allowed to keep their youngest son, Brandon, who was born last year. The family had been under close observation by social workers for a year.

Now they have vowed to clear their names at the Court of Appeal, by challenging courts finding which led to the adoption orders made in December 2005.

The children were taken away after the Websters took their second oldest child to the hospital in pain. Staff there found he had a rare leg fracture which the parents could not explain.

The courts found that one of the parents must have caused the injury, despite an experienced care worker saying the Websters were “incapable” of inflicting deliberate harm.

At the High Court hearing this week, an expert admitted the fracture could have been accidental rather than intentional.

This week Mr Webster, 34, of Mill Road, Cromer, told the Evening News he was not surprised to hear so many babies were being taken from their parents.

He said: “If you think your unborn child is going to be taken away it is the worst feeling in the world. Authorities really should think things through 100 pc properly before taking a child because the impact never goes away. It affects everyone in the family forever and destroys lives.

“I understand councils have a job to do but I think the methods should be looked at again because it is so devastating when it happens.”

Liberal Democrat MP for north Norfolk, Norman Lamb, who is the couple's MP and trained as a lawyer, wrote in a national newspaper at the weekend about his fears over the secrecy of the family court system.

He said: “My dealings with Mark and Nicky have confirmed my concerns about the dangers of a closed system of justice. They are articulate and determined but, more often than not, the victims of this system are low income families, incapable of fighting the legal and social work establishment.”

Meera Spillett, deputy director of Children's Services at Norfolk County Council, said going to court to gain an Interim Care Order or a full Care Order was a last resort.

She said: “Our primary aim is to help families stay together. Children are best cared for, wherever possible, within their own homes.

“We work very closely with parents to offer early help, guidance and support for families having problems.

“If the child is at risk of significant harm and the partnership breaks down or parents are unwilling or unable to work with us then we will apply to share the parental responsibility.

“We don't want to take people's children away unless that's the only way to get them safe and away from abuse, neglect or harm.

“It's the last resort to take any legal action.”

Mrs Spillett said that on occasions the family history will give the council cause for concern before a baby is born, but care orders cannot be taken out until a child is actually born.

One example of when newborn babies are taken into care is when the child is born dependent on a substance because their mother was a drug user throughout pregnancy.

But seeking for a care order for a child is a difficult balancing act for social workers. The council came under fire in 2001 for serious failings after six-year-old Lauren Wright was killed by her abusive stepmother and father in 2000.

A post-mortem showed Lauren had 60 bruises on her body when she died and had been hit so hard in the stomach her digestive system collapsed.

David Wright, Norfolk's director of social services at the time, said it was clear the department had made wrong decisions and said it was a “clear case of human error.”

At the start of this month it emerged that a total of 228 children were subject to care proceedings in Norfolk during 2006, the highest out of all counties in the East. The figures had risen from 179 in 2003.

Across the country, there were 60,300 children in care last year, a decrease of 1pc on the previous year's figure of 60,900 but an increase of 1pc from 2002.

According to crime statistics from the National Criminal Intelligence Service, babies under one year of age are at greater risk of being murdered than any other age group, usually at the hands of parents or step-parents.

Norfolk and Norwich Families' House is a charity, founded in 1994, to help families who are struggling by providing volunteer support and supervised contact between parents and children.

Manager Aliona Laker said: “I think part of the reason why Norfolk has so many children in care is because there isn't enough support for families in the county.

“What there is is quite patchy and tends to focus on deprived areas, but it needs to be universal.

“What happens in Norfolk is that the threshold for help is very, very high. Families get help but only quite late on rather than somebody picking it up at an earlier stage.”

She also said families were also fearful of approaching Families' House or the local authority for help for fear their children will be taken away.

2007 Jun 29