'Leave our grandchildren alone': How two troubled children are being separated from their loving grandparents
By ANNE ATKINS
Last updated at 12:09 AM on 12th October 2008
I was at a meeting ten days ago that reminded me of the Soviet Union at its most obstructive, bureaucratic and inhumane.
I was there to support two friends, Gail and Graham Curlew, who had been summoned by Norfolk Social Services to be told why they were being allowed no further contact with their two adored grandchildren, a girl aged eight and a boy of six, who are in council care.
Battle: The two children at the centre of a tug-of-war between social workers and their grandparents
Mr Curlew, a builder from Sheringham in Norfolk, and his wife, a seamstress and chambermaid, had been intimately involved in their grandchildren’s upbringing since they were born.
The Curlews’ daughter Claire, a drifter since adolescence, and her then partner – a heavy drinker and drug taker - had often had an unstable, volatile relationship.
Even they accepted that they struggled to look after the children properly and the Curlews began the process of trying to adopt.
Everyone agreed (apart from the local authority) that it was for the best.
And yet, for two years, without publicity until now, the Curlews, an ordinary working class couple, have fought a battle of attrition with Norfolk Social Services.
Far from being able to offer the children a little emotional consistency in the form of an adoption, the Curlews have found themselves being allowed less and less contact.
At first, the Curlews did their best to negotiate with social workers, but as they saw their grandchildren slipping further away, they contacted their Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a barrister by profession, to intervene on their behalf.
I met them in July 2007 when Graham was doing some work for my father. He knew I was a journalist and thought I might be able to help and advise them.
I was appalled by what he told me and we’ve talked often since.
Over the months, the relationship between the Curlews and the council deteriorated and two innocent and vulnerable children have now effectively been stopped from seeing the grandparents who have always enjoyed a warm and loving relationship with them.
Mr Lamb and I offered to accompany the Curlews at the meeting earlier this month. It was in a soulless room at the Sheringham Health Centre.
We all pretended to sit in a civilised circle but, in truth, we were ranged in two opposing factions.
On their side were three council officers and a note-taker. On ours were Gail and Graham, myself (invited as a friend) and Norman Lamb, though Social Services had twice rung to say his presence would be ‘inappropriate’ – hinting darkly that there could be facts that the Curlews might not want their MP to hear.
Mysteriously, no such incriminating allegations materialised.
The meeting got off to a bad start when one of the social workers mentioned the children by name.
‘Let me stop you right there,’ Mr Curlew interrupted. ‘You have been in charge of my grandchildren’s welfare for two years, and you can’t even get their names right.’
It was a tactic guaranteed not to endear him to these small-town ayatollahs.
The social worker stared at him briefly, then continued - still getting the elder child’s name wrong.
Devastated: Gail and Graham Curlew will do anything to hold on to their grandchildren
‘This is all to do with Mr Curlew not working with the department in a co-operative way,’ she said.
A key allegation was that Graham, 53, and Gail, 48, had ‘said things’ to the children.
The Curlews, apparently, had told them that when they are old enough, they can vote with their feet and come home (to their grandparents’ house).
The sanction for this shocking act was that they would no longer be allowed to see them.
I asked for clarification. ‘So this is not to do with Mr and Mrs Curlew’s relationship with their grandchildren, but their relationship with you?’
This time, the social worker turned her glare on me. Finally, she admitted: ‘Partly, yes.’
This sums up the children’s fate. They are hostages in an adult power game and are now being withheld as a punishment.
The Curlews are ordinary people who want to do what’s best. As such, they sometimes become exasperated by the social workers.
They also don’t ‘play the game’ by telling the white lies that the social workers want to hear.
As Graham said to one of the social workers: ‘We don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t swear.
But you hate us because we haven’t lain down and accepted your conditions.’ Their uncomplicated honesty has cost them dear.
From the outset, I was puzzled by the council’s stance. No one contests that the children’s parents - the Curlews’ daughter Claire and her former partner – are unsuitable.
But surely the next-best solution was for the children to live with their grandparents.
It is what everybody involved wants, particularly, according to what the children have told me, the children themselves. Except, of course, the social workers.
Significantly, perhaps, this is the local authority that took away Mark and Nicky Webster’s three children on false allegations of child abuse and had them adopted.
When the Websters complained, they, too, were met with obfuscation, obstruction and an official refusal to accept that social workers may possibly be wrong.
With the help of The Mail on Sunday, the Websters fought the case in the courts. It was found that they had never abused their children.
But because their children have been adopted, the Websters may never get them back. They are still fighting and are yet to receive an apology from Norfolk Council.
Meanwhile, the Curlews are at their wits’ end. When they applied to foster the children, they were assessed by a psychologist.
Graham’s test scores were impressive. Incredibly, the council insisted he must have cheated.
One example was a question in which the Curlews were asked what they did when the children misbehaved.
They insisted – as they insist to this day – that their grandchildren are always well behaved when they stay.
This was construed by the experts as a fabrication. Graham was judged to have failed the test.
Mr Curlew was also told he was too close to his daughter. He had admitted that if Claire came to the door, he would speak to her – though he guaranteed that he wouldn’t let her in the house if she was barred from seeing the children.
There seemed no way through the obstacle course. Finally, last May, the Curlews were promised that if they co-operated they would be fully consulted over the children’s upbringing and allowed the normal, informal involvement grandparents have.
Since then, their contact has been relentlessly reduced – from every weekend to once a fortnight to once a month.
Now, they will not be allowed to see their grandchildren alone at all. They have been offered a supervised meeting at a location of the council’s choosing.
The Curlews have refrained from making their case public for fear they would sacrifice what contact they had with the children. Now, they have little to lose.
Their story hinges around their daughter Claire, now 26, who by their own admission ‘went off the rails’ as a teenager.
She left school at 16, walked out on a couple of jobs and, when her mother insisted she earn a living, Claire rang the Social Services and demanded to be taken away.
The council put her into accommodation where she met a man more than twice her age who was a heavy drinker and drug user.
She moved in with him at 17 and gave birth to her first child in 2000. The couple lived in a tiny rented flat and their relationship was stormy, but in 2002 they had a second child.
The Curlews knew Claire needed help with parenting.
They did what they could, but if they intervened too much, the couple threatened to move away with the children. In June 2005, Claire walked out, leaving the children with her partner.
Three months later, Social Services asked the Curlews to collect the children because their father was drunk.
The youngsters stayed with them for a month before going back, with Mr and Mrs Curlew as constant back-up.
The shaky arrangement continued until a violent confrontation between the children’s father and a social worker in January last year.
Without hesitation, the Curlews offered to collect the children, but were told they must remain under police protection for 48 hours.
What possible sense was there in this? There was no risk from their father who was in custody.
The children regarded the Curlews’ house as their home from home. After such a trauma, wouldn’t they have preferred to be somewhere familiar with people who loved them?
Graham and Gail naturally assumed the children would move in with them within days.
Instead, in a decision that defies both common sense and guidelines that children should stay with their family wherever possible, they were put in foster care at a cost of £1,460 a fortnight. The cumulative bill now stands at more than £65,000.
But such a sum trivialises the real cost. When I first met the children in July 2007, the younger child was on Graham’s knee, cuddling him, kissing him and saying: ‘I love you Grandad. I want to live with you always.’
Neither child knew anything about me. In any case, five-year-olds are not easily manipulated into such convincing performances.
He clearly loved his grandfather utterly, but also with a despair at losing him that was heart-rending.
The older child was more wary but no less affectionate. She volunteered an opinion of her foster carer – a confession I won’t repeat lest it rebound on her. When I later asked Graham about the situation, he burst into tears.
The children’s mother is very much in favour of her parents caring for the children and wants them to have the family’s Christian values.
The Curlews are members of the Salvation Army and the children attend Sunday school when they stay. But the Curlews believe their faith is another obstacle between them and Social Services.
Another accusation against them is that they’ve told the children they can have ‘secrets’ from their foster carer.
This may sound incriminating – until you hear what the secret is. The children have been told by their foster carer that they can’t say their prayers: ‘We don’t do God in this house.’
They were upset and Gail reassured them: ‘You can pray in your head. God still hears. It can be a secret.’
As Graham says, if anyone treated Muslim children with such discrimination, there would be an outcry.
The Curlews first asked me to accompany them to a meeting with Norfolk Social Services in August 2007.
The children’s guardian – appointed by the State – insisted the children had told her they wanted to live with the foster mother. I asked where the conversation had taken place. She said it had been in the foster carer’s house.
‘Would it be helpful to interview them at their grandparents’ house too, in case they are saying what the adults want to hear?’
‘I’m not going to work at weekends,’ she replied. ‘Why not meet them on neutral ground one weekday afternoon?’
‘I’m not committing to anything,’ she said angrily. ‘I’m not going to be told what to do.’
I am still puzzled at the attitude of someone whose job it is to fight for the children’s interests.
So at the latest meeting, I asked the senior staff if they thought it strange, too. ‘I’m not going to answer that,’ both social workers said repeatedly.
The meeting became so Orwellian that I longed for a co-operative straight response from either of them.
When I asked why the children had to spend last Christmas away from their grandparents for the first time in their lives, one social worker talked over me for a full five minutes, as if I didn’t exist. It was bizarre.
I must have heard the words: ‘We’re not here to answer that’ more often that afternoon than in the rest of my life put together.
One of the social workers’ key complaints is that the Curlews are ‘not co-operating’. To them, co-operation is clearly a one-way thing.
Presumably because of Norman Lamb’s presence, the first social worker then backtracked frantically from her threat in a letter that ‘all contact will need to be suspended’.
The outcome of the meeting was that the Curlews will be allowed supervised contact from now on – a grim hour or two in an office.
Under pressure from Mr Lamb, the council agreed to a review. It will be interesting to see the outcome.
‘I am deeply troubled by what has happened,’ Mr Lamb said yesterday. ‘In my view, everything possible should be done to safeguard the interests of the children. Unless there is good reason otherwise, that means safeguarding their relationship with the grandparents. In cases such as this, when there are loving relatives who care about the children, the focus of public policy should be on finding a solution within the family.’
The Curlews are now determined to fight for custody. In the meantime, they expect repercussions from this article. ‘We’ll probably get a letter saying we’re never allowed to see them again,’ Gail said with tears in her eyes.
Graham Wright, Norfolk’s area director for Children’s Services, said: ‘Wherever possible our aim is to enable children to stay with their immediate or extended family and in this case we have assessed the children’s grandparents on three separate occasions to measure their suitability as carers.
‘The courts have endorsed a care plan to look for a permanent foster placement for the children.
We recognise that this must be difficult for the grandparents, but we have a legal duty to act in the best interests of the children.’
Terrible though this story is, I don’t believe that the children, young as they are, will ever forget their grandparents’ promise.
One day, they will be able to vote with their feet and go to live in the one real home they have ever really known. I only hope, in the lonely years ahead, they remember how much they are loved.