Ombudsman could investigate child ‘snatching’ by courts

An independent Ombudsman could be appointed to investigate cases in which social workers and the courts are accused of taking children from their homes without justification.

Tim Loughton Photo: UPPA
Patrick Sawer 8:30AM GMT 06 Mar 2011

Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, is considering the landmark step after he grew concerned over a number of cases where children have been wrongly taken and placed for adoption.

He says he has become aware of a minority of “very questionable judgments” made by the courts in a number of “highly contentious” cases.

Mr Loughton said: “There is work needed to make sure that the small number of cases which go horribly wrong, and are difficult to justify, are tackled as well, so that people feel the adoption system is doing the right thing for children.

“I am working hard with judges, local authorities, voluntary organisations and parents to find workable solutions – which could include some sort of Ombudsman-type role.”

Parents whose children are removed by the family courts can already appeal to higher courts against the decision. Any move to introduce an Ombudsman would need to include a clear guidelines on the circumstances in which he or she could overrule judges’ decisions.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “The minister knows there’s a problem with a small number of cases and he is looking at how the system can be made to work better. One of the options that he has suggested is an Ombudsman type figure or mechanism.”

The move follows claims by campaigners that social workers are too eager to take children into care in cases where there is little clear-cut evidence they have been abused by their parents. They also claim that secretive family courts too readily endorse the actions of social workers at the expense of children’s best interests.

Mr Loughton has appointed Professor Eileen Munro to examine child protection and the way social workers operate. He has also set in motion the Norgrove review into the workings of the family courts, which is due to publish its interim report later this month.

One of the most controversial cases in the family courts involved Mark and Nicky Webster, whose three children were taken into care in 2004 after doctors claimed that leg fractures on the middle child had been inflicted deliberately.

They were adopted before new scientific evidence came to light suggesting that the boy could have been suffering from scurvy.

Yet in 2009 the Court of Appeal ruled that even though the decision to remove the children had been wrong, the adoptions were final. The couple were allowed to keep their fourth child.

Mrs Webster, 29, of Cromer, Norfolk, last night welcomed the Ombudsman proposal. She said: “Cases like ours need to be looked at to see if mistakes have been made and if they can be put right. Its important to have someone independent doing that away from the strong feelings of social workers and court appointed guardians.”

Controversial case: Mark and Nicky Webster

Mark and Nicky Webster fought tooth and nail to prove they had not harmed their little boy after their three eldest were taken into care.

But despite the Appeal Court ruling they were victims of a miscarriage of justice they have been told the family cannot be reunited.

Mr and Mrs Webster’s three children were taken into care in 2004 after doctors claimed that six tiny fractures found on the middle child had been inflicted deliberately. All three were later adopted.

Three years later new scientific evidence came to light which suggested that they boy could have suffered from a rare case of scurvy.

However, despite the Court of Appeal ruling in February 2009 that the decision to take the children was wrong, it was too late to return them because their adoption was final.

The ruling stated that “after three years it was in any event too late to set the orders aside, and that it would not be in the interests of the children to do so”.

Lord Justice Wall said social workers and medical staff had only done what they thought was best for the injured child.

During their fight to regain custody of their children Mr and Mrs Webster fled to Ireland to prevent their fourth child, Brandon, being taken from them at birth.

They returned to their home in Cromer, Norfolk, a year later, where, after a long legal battle, Norfolk County Council dropped proceedings to take Brandon into care after accepting that he was in ‘robust good health’.

Mrs Webster, 29, said: “You see cases on the news about people harming their children. It’s beyond belief that we were put in a similar pigeon hole to that.”

Controversial case: Fifteen minute hearing

Two young children were taken from their mother by social services after a 15-minute hearing during which a judge failed to take evidence from her or her sons.

The woman said she was given no chance to say goodbye to them as police and social services took the children before had returned from the court hearing.

A High Court judge later said he was “aghast” at the decision and ordered the children to be immediately returned to their parents, saying the judge’s hasty decision was “not acceptable”.

The mother said that she was physically sick when she learned the boys had been taken without her even seeing them.

She said: “The judge didn’t want to know what we had to say. How someone can take such as decision like that without hearing from the children’s mother is beyond me.”

She said problems started when one of the boys fell in the house and banged his right ear. The mother, who was already involved with social services because the boys have learning difficulties, telephoned the case worker who recommended she take him to hospital.

He was checked and sent home. When the same thing happened a week later social services again had him examined at hospital, but this time instigated an emergency care order.

She said she was given 24 hours notice of the court hearing, in Derby, and given the necessary paperwork 20 minutes before it began.

Following the judgement, the mother said she raced home in a taxi to see the boys, only to find police and social services waiting for her outside her house. When it emerged her fiancée had taken them to a relative, she started going there but was told that the authorities had beaten her to it.

She said: “I was physically sick. I could not believe it. I didn’t even get a chance to see them.”

Controversial case: Tim and Gina Williams

Tim and Gina Williams’s three children spent two years in care because social workers wrongly believed that they were at risk of abuse.

Their son and two daughters were placed with separate foster families despite there being no evidence against the couple, from Newport, South Wales.

As a result, they missed their children’s birthdays, Christmases and their first days in new schools.

The Williams were finally exonerated at the High Court in October 2006 and the children, now aged 16, 13 and 11, were returned to them.

Two years later the High Court awarded them a “six figure” sum in compensation and Newport City Council issued them a full written apology

Their nightmare began in August 2004, Mr Williams called the police after finding his youngest daughter, then aged five, naked from the waist down with an 11-year-old friend on top of her.

The girl was taken to hospital for a precautionary check-up. Here a doctor claimed to have found evidence of long-standing abuse – but by an adult, not another child.

Mr Williams and his wife were told that they were under suspicion and the children were taken into care. A second doctor confirmed the evidence of abuse and the couple were restricted to supervised weekly visits to their children.

There were only exonerated after a US expert in child abuse examined the evidence and disputed the claims by the British doctors, who subsequently accepted that they had been mistaken.

The council conceded that the children should never have been taken from their parents on the basis of the evidence.

Speaking before the settlement awarded by the High Court, Mr Williams said his children’s ordeal had left them scared and insecure. He said: “They were ripped from us and still don’t understand why. They think it was because they were naughty, even though we’ve tried to explain it to them as best we can.

“All three are extra clingy and constantly fight for our attention. If they don’t see us at the school gates the moment the bell rings they freak out, so we have to get there 10 minutes early and stand in exactly the same spot. We take them everywhere with us because they refuse to go to babysitters.”