Lara Prendergast

Fear of the baby-snatchers

The care system’s eagerness to separate babies from parents is taking a large but secret toll

Fear of the baby-snatchers
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Baby George was born into a happy family. His mother and father love him dearly. He lives in a cottage in a pretty village, with a six-year-old sister who adores him, and his grandmother lives nearby. His parents both have good jobs and his nursery is filled with toys. By most measures, George has had a good start in life.

It was only when his mother was diagnosed with post-natal depression that George’s prospects looked bleaker. Not because his caring mother was feeling blue, but because in this, paranoid, post-Baby P era, the authorities take no chances. The slightest whiff of a mother unable to cope, and they swoop down, ready to whisk the baby away.

When Rosie first realised she was depressed, she assumed the doctor would be able to offer her advice about how to cope. She knew one in ten mothers develops the ‘baby blues’, so she had every expectation of sympathy.

Instead, her condition was code red to the authorities. Before long, Rosie found her diary filled with visits from all kinds of ominous figures: social services, child protection officers, mental health workers, who offered little practical support but made her feel hounded. Soon, the suggestion was made that George — then six months old — might be taken away from her. Unsurprisingly, this made her feel worse, and so she was put on a cocktail of strong drugs. There was no option of not taking the drugs, according to the authorities. They could test her blood, they said, and if she had missed her medication, George could be removed.

These sorts of covert threats increased to the point where Rosie began to feel that she was, indeed, incapable of caring for George, even though her baby was actually fine. George was well-fed, wearing clean clothes, sleeping well and cared for when he woke up in the night. He was a happy baby, blissfully unaware that the state was eyeing him up.

Unfortunately, Rosie’s worries that her baby could be taken from her at any moment were far from paranoid. In December, data was released which showed that there has been a ‘huge rise’ in the number of newborns taken into care: 2,018 babies in 2013, up from 802 in 2008. The report confirmed that there is now a ‘general trend towards taking more timely action’. The angle the papers focused on was that about half of the babies were from mothers with other children in care. But what about the others? What if there are a thousand mothers like Rosie who just needed encouragement?

It’s hard to find out who these poor mothers are because family courts, where these types of decisions are made, are so secretive. There is no jury involved, so the fate of the child — and the family — is usually sealed by a judge or a handful of magistrates who decide the result on a balance of probabilities, rather than the criminal-law standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Reporting restrictions are often in place and it is normally illegal to reveal court proceedings, or even the judgment. Appeals are also notoriously difficult. Families are being broken up behind closed doors, and while the culture of secrecy protects the children involved, it also protects the authorities.

Such secrecy means that we all assume babies taken into care are the offspring of junkies or teenage mothers with abusive boyfriends. But Rosie doesn’t fit this picture, and nor do many other mothers who have had to forfeit their children, if the internet is to be believed. In online chatrooms where anonymity allows mothers to speak freely, there is plenty of discussion about the fear that social services — or the SS — will remove your child if you ask for any help. Rumours about adoption targets also swirl around, with members of the ‘SS’ occasionally popping up to deny them. While it’s true targets are no longer officially in place, they were being used until 2008, with cash rewards offered to councils for arranging ‘forced adoptions’. It’s hardly surprising that some mothers still feel concerned about them.

Interestingly, Rosie says that throughout all the meetings, there was never any suggestion that her daughter should be put into care. The authorities only seemed interested in George. Rosie was convinced that this was because chubby, rosy-cheeked babies are easier to find homes for.

But even if targets are no longer being used, the world of adoption and fostering can be lucrative. As a Policy Exchange report in 2012 showed, fostering has become a profitable industry. The average cost of keeping each of the 65,000 children then in care in England was £37,000, an annual bill of £2.4 billion. According to results filed at Companies House, Foster Care Associates, the largest independent foster agency in the UK, made more than £5 million profit in 2014. As for foster parents, on average they can earn around £400 per child per week. Then there are the fees for other employees of the ‘childcare’ system — the sort of experts Rosie had so many appointments with. Does the money act as an incentive to turn minor and fixable family problems into situations from which a child needs rescuing?

Perhaps one of the most alarming elements of the new fashion for removing babies from their natural families is the lack of care provided to desperate mothers once they’ve lost their child. According to Professor Karen Broadhurst, who led the research into newborns taken into care, ‘The key issue is that England doesn’t have any statutory requirements for post-removal support.’ Until the child is removed, the system runs at full throttle, as Rosie discovered. But once the baby is gone, very little help is offered. Imagine having your child wrenched away from you, only to discover that the apparatchiks no longer gave a fig about your wellbeing. Keep taking the pills or don’t — it no longer matters to them.

There will always be children who are genuinely at risk, and social services have an undeniably hard job. But what families like Rosie’s need is support, not separation. Rosie is a good mother. Her post-natal depression has now subsided and, because she fought hard to prove her worth, George is still with her. For other families, there may be more tragic endings.

Names have been changed.