They wanted to take away our child'
Since the death of Baby Peter, state applications to put children into care has risen by almost 50%, and innocent families are suffering.
by Heidi Blake Published: 7:00AM BST 21 Oct 2009
George and Liz McCulloch with daughter Emily Photo: ASHLEY COOMBES
In an inn on the banks of the Firth of Clyde, with the lights of the Kintyre peninsula twinkling on the water, a small group of friends is gathering. Middle-aged, smartly dressed and chatting over ginger beer, they blend in seamlessly with the post-work pub-goers in the town of Helensburgh. But these friends are united by every parent's darkest nightmare.
All have come terrifyingly close to having their children removed by the state.
George and Liz McCulloch committed one simple crime in the eyes of the authorities. They fought for a better standard of education for their disabled daughter; it was behaviour that Argyll and Bute Council called "emotional abuse". Their friends, Janice and Rory McCulloch (no relation), are well placed to sympathise, having fought off proceedings to take their own daughter into care five years ago during a disagreement with her school.
These friends are part of a growing network of parents across Britain who have faced losing their children after challenging the judgment of doctors, teachers or social workers. John Hemming MP, co-ordinator of the Justice for Families campaign, warned last month that child protection proceedings are being used as a punishment for "uppity parents".
Jean Robinson, of the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services, confirms that "parents who question or criticise professionals about their child's care risk being referred to social services for investigation".
Child protection referrals have rocketed in the wake of the tragic death of Baby Peter, and figures published yesterday by Cafcass, the organisation that represents children in the family courts, show applications to take children into state care have risen by more than 47 per cent since last year.
Although partly a product of over-caution by professionals terrified of making another fatal mistake, this disturbing heavy-handedness seems to spring, in some cases, from an authoritarian vindictiveness almost too Orwellian to be believed. But I have spoken to eight law-abiding, professional families, with a passionate interest in their children's lives, whose stories of abuse by the authorities are far more chilling than fiction.
George, 49, a team manager for Scottish Gas, is a large, gentle man. His 50-year-old wife, Liz, has a warm smile and sparkling green eyes. Their troubles began in 2005 when they made a request to have their visually impaired daughter Emily, then 12, moved from a local school, where she was bullied, under-performing and miserable, to the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh.
The local authority rejected the request, which would have cost £34,705 a year, both at the initial stage and at appeal. Undeterred, the couple started court proceedings to demand their statutory right, under the Scottish Education Act 2004, to have Emily moved to a school that met her special educational needs. "I told them face to face, we're taking this all the way because we want the very best for our daughter," says George.
It was then that things turned sour. Through a data protection request to the local authority, the couple discovered minutes to a series of secret child-protection meetings at which they had been accused of emotionally abusing Emily by persisting with the placing request.
"I was almost sick when I read what they had said about us," says Liz. "We felt like a half-cocked pea shooter against a canon because they were all colluding against us."
With the accusation in the open, social services called George and Liz to a meeting in February 2007 at which, they say, they were told that they would be taken to the Children's Reporter, who decides whether to start care proceedings against abusive parents, unless they abandoned the request.
'Liz was unable to speak she was so upset," says George. "But I told them this was fascist behaviour and they wouldn't get away with it. I said my father fought in the war so we could have freedom and you're threatening us to try to stop us exercising Emily's statutory right. You're abusing a good family for the sake of money."
After the local MSP, Jackie Baillie, took up the family's cause, proceedings were eventually put on hold, allowing George and Liz to pursue their court case, which they won in May last year. Sheriff Valerie Johnston ordered Argyll and Bute Council to send Emily to the Royal Blind School and pay the McCullochs' legal costs, noting that "a great deal of distress" had been caused to the family. The council refused to comment on the case.
Emily started her new education in September 2008, three years after the placing request was first made. "My new school is really nice," she says. "At my old school, I thought I was a bit worthless, but now I know I'm not because I can actually do things."
She is a now a bold, articulate girl of 16, but her eyes fill with tears when we talk about her parents' battle with the authorities. "I was heartbroken to see what they were doing to my mum and dad," she says. "I used to cry about it every night because I didn't want them to be called abusers – they are the best mum and dad in the world."
The McCullochs' case is not unusual. All over Britain there are similar stories. Sarah Langton* tells me hers on a bright autumn morning at her home in the south of England. Her eight and 11-year-old sons are playing happily in the next room, but she lives every day with the fear that she will lose them.
"I'm worried social services will find out I've spoken about what happened and make our lives hell," she says, her voice trembling. The 47-year-old is a softly spoken stay-at-home mother who suffered severe post-natal depression after the birth of her sons. Her husband Philip*, 50, an electronics engineer, sought help from social services, but the couple soon became uncomfortable about inaccuracies in the records of their meetings that looked like attempts cast them in a negative light.
Sarah recovered and was signed off in 2003, but the couple continued to feel anxious and eventually approached their MP for advice. He contacted the local authority to ask if the records could be amended, and within days Sarah received a telephone call to say the family was under investigation.
"They said it was because our complaint showed there was anger in the family, which is bad for the children," says Sarah.
The investigation lasted three months, in which time the boys were repeatedly interviewed by social workers, who eventually concluded that there was "no cause for concern". The inaccurate records were never addressed. "It's shocking that however much you love your children, there is a greater power that can threaten to take them away for no reason," says Sarah.
Kylie Thompson*, 24, knows how it feels to live in the shadow of that power. She tells me from her home in Yorkshire how her troubles began in 2007, when she took her two-year-old son to hospital to check a small red mark on his cheek. The paediatrician who examined him reported the family to social services in case it was caused by a "non-accidental injury".
The social workers who first came to assess the family saw at once that there was no cause for concern, and told Kylie not to worry. But, thinking the risk to her children had passed, she made the critical mistake of complaining about the paediatrician.
"Immediately after I complained, he changed his report and said it was definitely a non-accidental injury, rather than just a possibility," says Kylie. "He said it looked like it was caused by an adult grabbing my son's face and striking him a hard blow."
Because of the altered diagnosis, social services were obliged to launch an investigation, and Kylie was questioned by the police. Her son and daughter, then three, were placed on the child protection register, and the family were repeatedly visited by social workers scrutinising the children for signs of abuse.
The nightmare finally ended last February, a year after the paediatrician changed his diagnosis, when the children were removed from the register. "Even now, I'm terrified of my son getting a bruise or a cut and not being able to explain it," says Kylie. "It could all happen again."
Social work managers admit that overworked staff, who encounter aggression and abuse every day, can become vindictive without careful supervision and support. Even Kim Bromley-Derry, the chairman of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, confesses that the phenomenon is "obviously not uncommon".
"Ultimately, if there is a difference of opinion between a family and a social worker, who are all the other professionals going to believe? Inevitably, the family are in a much weaker position, and we have to prevent all abuses of that power imbalance," he says.
Mr Bromley-Derry urges social work managers to ensure staff are rigorously supervised and says parents should be offered an independent second opinion in cases of disagreement. His suggestion is echoed by John Hemming MP, who wants to see the right to a second opinion enshrined in the Family Courts.
There is no doubt that child protection professionals provide a crucial safety net for society's most vulnerable children. But when their attention is misdirected, they possess the power to destroy happy, loving families.
Jack Frost, who fought off attempts to remove his daughter after he complained about a paediatrician, sums up the horror. "You simply cannot imagine how it feels to look at your beautiful daughter every day and prepare yourself to have to say farewell to her forever."