‘It’s a life sentence with no reprieve’
Cassandra Jardine meets parents whose children have been taken from them and asks if Britain’s closed adoption system will ever change
The Carters’ living room in south London is covered with pictures of their four children. Will and Michelle (not their real names, because family court rules prevent them being identified) yearn to live as a family again, but for the past five years they have had to content themselves with waiting and hoping.
Gone for good? The parents are fighting court decisions Following a court case in 2000 where, on the evidence of Professor Sir Roy Meadow, they were held responsible for poisoning their youngest child by giving her 12-16 imipromine tablets prescribed for their eldest child’s bedwetting, the two elder children were put with foster carers and the two younger ones adopted.
“I wouldn’t even recognise the younger ones now,” says Michelle, looking at a picture taken at the “goodbye” meeting when they were only three and five.
As their family was pulled apart, the Carters were paralysed by grief and disbelief, but Will started to research imipromine on the internet: “The quantity of tablets which Meadow said our 16-month-old daughter must have swallowed was our equivalent of the one-in-73-million chance of repeated cot deaths which did for Sally Clark [convicted of the murder of two of her sons a few weeks after their birth, then cleared by the Court of Appeal in 2003].”
But Meadow seems to have been talking outside his field of competence. According to toxicologists, less than one tablet, which she could have found lying around, would have been enough to kill a five-year-old.
The Carters have been granted legal aid to appeal in a case that could have profound implications for all those who have had their children taken from them and adopted because of faulty medical evidence or unwarranted action taken by social services.
In criminal cases the unravelling is gathering pace. Last Monday, Donna Anthony was released from prison, the case against her for killing her three children having been deemed unsound. Then, on Thursday, Professor David Southall, whose work on Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy has led to dozens of convictions, was further restricted from child protection work by the Appeal Court; this summer both he and Prof Meadow will come before the GMC again to answer further allegations of misconduct.
The trail blazed by the cases of sudden infant death syndrome is being broadened. In June, four appeals will be heard concurrently, brought by parents accused of shaken baby syndrome, another of the “syndromes”, alongside Munchausen’s, which have become catch-alls for cases where a child’s symptoms cannot be explained.
To date, those who have lost their children in the secretive family courts have been prevented by lack of legal aid and the finality of adoption from bringing an appeal. Now they, too, see a glimmer of light. A group of parents from Essex have taken their cases to the police, alleging that their children have been taken from them as a result of misleading information provided by social workers and doctors.
Among them are Emma and Martin, whose son Peter was adopted last January after a case that began when his parents took him to hospital with a bump on his head. They were held responsible and Peter was adopted. “Adoption is every bit as serious as a child’s death,” says Emma. “We are living a life sentence and there seems to be no reprieve, no matter what new evidence comes to light.”
Until recently, that was the situation. But, a few weeks ago, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, president of the Family Division, hinted that family court cases might not be so cut and dried. Giving judgment in the case of Layla Uddin, a baby up for adoption whose parents were accused of harming her, she said that where no remedy existed in law – as it doesn’t in cases of adoption – then Taylor v Lawrence applies. It means, in effect, that where you can prove fraud or procedural impropriety, a court’s decision could be overturned.
This offers more hope of change than does Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, who last year said, with reference to the cases being reviewed following the Cannings judgment: “We can’t reunite thousands of mothers with children wrongly taken from them. If the child was adopted at birth, the sensible thing is to let it stay.” But, she added, parents “would be entitled to go to the courts… and say there is new evidence.”
In Layla Uddin’s case the parents took the law into their own hands, snatched their child from the foster carers’ home and escaped abroad. Other parents who have not taken such drastic action can, however, hope that if the experts or officials who testified against them have given false evidence or not followed procedures, they might hope to see their children again. Chaos could ensue.
Falsely accused parents will want their children back. But those children will have been living, sometimes for years, with adopters who also love them. A monumental tug of love could result, with children’s lives disrupted for a second time, and possibly profound affects on their emotional stability.
“Social services didn’t seem to worry about that when they took my sons from me in the first place,” says a father whose two boys were adopted three years ago following reports, now being investigated by the police, which he alleges show social services were biased against him. “I want my children back. I understand that it would have to be a gradual process – but I am their father.”
“The ideal situation would be for the adoptive parents and the birth parents to agree on a regime of access,” says Earl Howe, the Conservative member of the House of Lords who has taken a leading role in the cross-party campaign on false allegations of abuse. “If they cannot do so, then the child’s wishes and preferences, if he or she is old enough, should weigh heavily with the court in determining the child’s best interests. If the two sets of parents cannot agree and the child is too young to have considered views, then the courts have a problem.”
An impasse might be resolved by a court order similar to those that require divorcing parents to share care of their children. Contact with the birth parents could be phased in, starting with counselling and supervised face-to-face meetings, leading to overnight stays and, perhaps, eventually, shared parenting. There would not be the same level of friction and unhappiness if the UK did not cling to closed adoption arrangements.
In New Zealand and other European countries, adoption is a more open arrangement. Britain (along with most US states) is unusual in allowing adopters to cut birth parents out of children’s lives. Elsewhere, contact with birth parents is maintained post-adoption, unless there is immediate danger to the child.
In theory, “letterbox” contact between adopters and birth parents is encouraged, but all it takes is for the adopters to say that they don’t want it – as the adopters of the Carters’ younger children said – and, rather than risk the adoption failing, social services usually comply.
Birth parents can send letters and presents for their children, but the children may never receive them; and the adopters can keep the birth parents in ignorance of the children’s welfare. As for face-to-face contact so that the relationship can be maintained, it rarely takes place.
A more open system of adoption can work. “My children see their birth parents from time to time: there is no mystery and the children do not seem confused by it,” says a London mother whose two sons were each born to mothers with severe drug problems.
“It should be a fundamental right of children who have been adopted to maintain contact with their family of origin, including grandparents and other interested relatives,” says Charles Pragnell, a social care expert. “Open adoption should be the norm and closed adoption only granted in very rare circumstances.”
Dr Lynne Wrennall, co-ordinator of the public health research group at Liverpool John Moore’s University, agrees. “Children cannot be loved too much and it is nonsense to say that closed adoption is in the interests of the child. Nor is it in the long-term interests of the adopting families. Sooner or later the issue will have to be dealt with; it shouldn’t just explode when the child reaches 18.”
At that age, a child can decide to find out about his birth parents. Some do, and it can help them come to terms with their situation; others don’t, often because they fear what they will find out.
Birth parents cannot yet initiate contact and the parents who claim to have been falsely accused fear that their children’s minds will have been poisoned against them. “Our children were told that we didn’t want to have anything more to do with them as we didn’t come to meetings,” says Will. “But that was because they told us not to come because the children didn’t want to see us. Our older children who were fostered have told us how they were turned against us.”
It strikes the Carters as odd that their solicitor, Bill Bache, represents a murderer who has admitted his guilt whose child is brought to see him once a month in prison by social services, yet they have been refused access to their younger daughters. “Children need to know their roots,” says Michelle.
Their eldest child is now of an age to make her own decisions and has left foster care to live close to her parents. “She is very angry and bitter and doesn’t trust anybody apart from us after what has been done to our family,” says Will. Their second child is about to leave foster care and is bringing a case at the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed contact with his siblings who have been adopted.
Before long, one of these assaults on the finality of closed adoption will succeed. The pictures on the walls of bereft parents may be replaced by the children themselves sitting in those rooms once again. And adoption arrangements will be blown wide open.