‘I saw his fluffy little head going out the door’: one woman's fight to keep her baby
Annie strokes Huw’s tiny hand with one finger. “Please don’t ever think you didn’t mean the world to me. Because you did. And you do.” Tears roll down her cheeks. “And I so want you to have a good life and to be happy, and I can’t bear” – her voice breaks – “the thought of anybody hurting you.” Huge sobs shake her. The baby, eyes closed, sleeps on, his face turned peacefully towards his mother.
Earlier that day, Annie had left the hospital to attend Newcastle family court in a last, desperate effort to be allowed to keep her baby. Social workers at North Tyneside council had applied for an interim care order. If approved by a judge, this would mean social services could remove Annie’s baby and put him into foster care, pending a longer-term plan for his future. Huw was Annie’s fifth child; three of the others, aged seven, eight and 16, had been subject to care applications at various points in their lives. Rosie, four, spent periods with her father. In December 2012, as soon as social workers discovered Annie was pregnant, they told her they intended to remove the baby at birth.
Against accepted good practice, the hearing was in front of a judge unfamiliar with her history. “She was older, and looked very forbidding,” Annie recalls. “She didn’t look at me other than to get exasperated when I didn’t understand a question.” She was still in pain and bleeding from the birth, and her milk had come in and soaked her top as she answered questions for an hour. Her barrister, whom she’d met only a few minutes earlier, didn’t seem to her to fight very hard: Annie felt he didn’t have a grasp of her situation. “He asked me at one point if I was a prostitute,” she says bitterly.
Although counsel for the local authority acknowledged that Annie posed no immediate risk of harm to her baby, the debate continued for more than two hours, until Annie could bear no more and asked for permission to leave. At quarter past seven that evening, a midwife came into Annie’s hospital room. “I asked if it was time,” Annie says. “She said, ‘Yes’ and gently took Huw out of my arms and quickly left the room. I just saw his fluffy little head going out the door.” Annie’s screams echoed through the corridors. The foster carer who came to the hospital to take the baby has told Annie she is still haunted by the sound.
The death in 2007 of Peter Connelly, 17-month-old “Baby P”, prompted a rapid rise in the number of children taken into care. When it emerged that Peter, who died due to multiple injuries caused or allowed by his mother, her boyfriend and his brother – was well known to Haringey social services, social workers were vilified by politicians and the press. Terror of being seen as responsible for “another Baby P” is thought to have contributed to a highly risk-averse culture in children’s services. This fear may be why the number of babies removed from their mothers at birth has increased so rapidly: according to professor Karen Broadhurst, it more than doubled between 2008 and 2013, from 802 to 2,018. By the end of March 2015, there were 69,540 children in local authority care.
Another factor is an increased focus on emotional harm. If proved on the balance of probabilities, risk of this is an acceptable basis for a UK court to sever a parent’s legal bond with their child. By 2013, the number of children on child-protection plans due to emotional abuse was more than six times as many as for sexual abuse, and nearly three times as many as for physical abuse.
Of the children who become involved in care proceedings, about four in 10 end up in long-term foster care or are adopted; Broadhurst’s research found that just one in 10 babies removed at birth will be reunited with their mother. As Annie was to discover, once a baby is taken into care, it can be extremely difficult to get them back.
Serious concerns about Annie’s children had been raised two years before Huw’s birth, in 2011. Annie, at 31, had been in a volatile relationship with a man who was controlling and occasionally violent. “It was an abusive cycle,” she says. “He would drink, get angry at me, hit me, reject me. I would fall apart, he would leave, and then I would let him back, because my self-esteem was so bloody low.”
One night in November 2011, unable to cope with the confusion and distress, and trying to manage her children alone, Annie was overcome by panic. She needed urgently to get out of the house: “I just had to not be there.”
She rang her close friend Jenna and asked her to come over urgently, to watch her children. Then, when she could hear Jenna’s noisy car exhaust rounding the corner, she ran. Jenna arrived to find the younger children asleep and Peter playing on his Xbox, unaware that his mother had left (Rosie was with her father at the time). After a frantic search, and concerned about her friend’s wellbeing, Jenna rang the police. Annie was arrested and handcuffed on a road near her home, and taken to the police station, where she was put in a cell.
A duty solicitor advised Annie to accept a caution for child neglect; reluctantly, she did, after being told refusal would lead to a compulsory care order. Later that day, she signed a consent form for emergency care. Danny and Grace were temporarily fostered with a local family. Peter, then 15, was allowed to stay at home. Rosie stayed with her dad.
Annie has no parental support. She was sexually abused at the age of eight by a family member, but when she told her mother, normal life resumed as though nothing had happened. Now, she finds, it is better to stay away from her family. “They are not good for my mental health.”
She was sexually assaulted in her teens by a stranger, and by 15 she was self-harming and staying out all night. She left home and went to her grandmother’s. After a period of sleeping rough, she walked into North Tyneside’s council offices and asked children’s services for help. They found her a foster placement, but when she got pregnant, after a brief affair with a married man more than twice her age, the foster carer asked her to leave. By 16, Annie was living in her own place, studying for GCSEs at college and caring for her baby. She was encouraged by her teachers to take A-levels, and found work in business banking, which she enjoyed. At 23, she got pregnant again.
Almost as soon as her baby girl, Grace, was born, she was pregnant again. Her boyfriend was unreliable, and when the babies were born he wanted nothing to do with them. It was a bitter blow to Annie’s hopes of creating a family.
A pattern had been set. When she was living in relative stability as a lone parent, or in the throes of a new relationship, Annie coped. Her friends describe her as “an amazing mother”, “incredibly engaged with her kids”. But when a relationship collapsed, so did her mental equilibrium. At her lowest points, Annie asked for help, and got it: North Tyneside social services stepped in, finding nurseries and respite childcare when they were closed. The children’s case files are now thick ring-binder folders of notes detailing case conferences, assessments and support packages.
In September 2007, after a breakdown in her relationship with a man called Richie, Annie took an overdose while her children were in bed. She survived, but knew she needed urgent help and asked the council to accommodate Peter, Grace and Danny on a short-term basis. For four months, until they returned to her care, Annie did intensive therapeutic work with her community psychiatric team, seeing her kids regularly all the while.
She describes her relationship with Richie as “volatile”: she got pregnant, but he threw her out of his house two weeks before she gave birth to their daughter Rosie, in October 2008. Her hard work with the psychiatric team meant her mental health was more resilient, and newborn Rosie was discharged from hospital into Annie’s care. The risk assessment on the older three was downgraded, and the case subsequently closed.
It was three years later, at the end of 2011, that Annie made her panicked bolt from home, and the children were again accommodated by consent. During a contact outing with Danny and Grace in the town centre one day, Danny begged her not to return him to his foster carers. He seemed frightened, and both brother and sister showed their mother bruising on their arms and legs. They said they were being pushed and shoved, and had fallen. Annie called the police to make an official complaint and, though the foster carers weren’t charged, Annie withdrew her consent for their remaining in care. Both children moved back to live with her.
By the following spring, she was struggling again. Her new boyfriend had asked her to marry him, but then broke up with her. Visited at home by the pastoral mentor from her children’s school, Annie confessed that she wasn’t coping. “And she said, ‘Annie, you have to cope,’” she says.
Two days later, while the children were at school and nursery, Annie wrote a suicide note and took an overdose. Before she passed out, she rang her community psychiatric nurse. She was almost unconscious when the ambulance arrived, and was on a drip in hospital for 24 hours. When she woke up, she felt devastated it hadn’t worked, before being hit by a wave of “the deepest, most painful, awful regret… and just desperation to be back home with the kids, doing tea and the school run.”
North Tyneside’s children’s services decided Annie’s volatile mental state and breakdowns were causing the children emotional harm, and applied to take them all into care. They accepted that during the periods when Annie was well, she was able to meet the children’s needs, but argued that “her mental health currently precluded her from doing so on a long-term and predictable basis”.
A children’s guardian, an independent professional appointed to represent their best interests, agreed. Annie accepted that the children needed stability and didn’t contest the application in April 2013, on the understanding that once she had completed a course of therapy, and her mental health was stable, she would be applying for the children to come home. By this stage, she was pregnant again and fighting for the right to be recognised as the new baby’s mother.
Sitting on the floor of her small council flat on a hot day last August, Annie, slim and neat in black leggings and a flowered dress, tucks her legs under her. In November 2012, when she found she was pregnant, she was told social workers were likely to apply to remove the baby at birth. She felt she had no option but to seek an abortion. “I went to the women’s health unit and told them why I couldn’t bear to carry this child. The doctor went very quiet. And they said, ‘Abortion day is Wednesday.’”
The procedure was booked for 12 December; she would be 11 weeks pregnant. “They said they would keep the baby and there would be a burial on 2 January. And that,” Annie’s face crumples, “would be how my new year would start.”
Annie and Richie – with whom she still had an intermittent relationship, and whom she believed was the baby’s father (a DNA test later showed he wasn’t) – talked late into the night. They scrabbled together the money for a 3D scan because, Annie says, “I wanted to be able to say goodbye to my baby.” Finally, Annie recalls, “Richie said, ‘You can’t do it. You won’t survive this. And maybe they won’t take him. Maybe we can fight.’”
But her children’s social workers were, she felt, no longer interested in supporting her effort to keep the family together: they talked over her, she felt she was patronised; once, she was shouted at. The social worker later wrote in evidence given to the court in February 2013: “I have had difficulty communicating with Ms Bertram following a meeting [when she] stated I had verbally attacked her.” The social worker noted that Annie had missed four contact sessions with her children (though it was not noted that she had attended three contacts a week for nearly a year).
In her evidence, Annie wrote: “At that meeting the social worker was so hostile to me that the independent reviewing officer had to intervene and ask [her] to be more moderate. She had made her personal dislike of me perfectly plain.” Annie admitted she had cancelled three contacts after sessions with the assessing psychiatrist that had left her distraught, and missed one further contact because she was unwell.
Annie was allowed to see Grace and Danny three times a week. On Wednesdays only, the four siblings could meet. At every 90-minute session, a contact supervisor would observe and make notes. It was not a relaxing environment: Annie knew that anything she said could be used in evidence about her ability to parent. She prepared carefully for these family sessions, scouring charity shops for cheap board games and materials for craft activities. “Grace and Rosie would naturally gravitate towards each other, and sit at a table in the contact centre, making stuff together,” she recalls. “Sometimes I brought a chess set, because Danny likes chess, and he’d often be stressed at the start. Playing chess together was a way of helping calm him down.”
To reinforce its case that the new baby would not be safe, the council relied heavily on psychiatric and psychological reports commissioned for Annie’s older children’s care proceedings. Annie maintained that she had been mentally well for the best part of a year; social workers said there had been a deterioration. Damagingly, in their report to the court, they stated that “mother was referred to [her local] community mental health team but has refused to engage on the basis that she does not trust any professionals. Mother would not work with her midwife and is no longer prepared to work with social workers… She does not take responsibility for her difficulties.”
A social worker previously employed by North Tyneside, who is now an academic and asked not to be named, is in little doubt that Annie’s wariness of children’s services was justified. “If you went undercover in a social work office for a week, you’d be horrified,” he says. “One of the reasons I left is because of this drive to take children away from their families – it’s seen as not doing your job properly if you’re not removing children.” When asked to comment, North Tyneside council pointed out that its figures are “not out of step with the national picture” and that its social workers are “actively encouraged to question our work with families at every stage, to support sensitive child-focused planning”. But according to this ex-social worker, the view is “When in doubt, remove.”
There were 5,330 adoptions in England in the year ending 31 March 2015 – a substantial rise on the number adopted in 2011, when the then education secretary Michael Gove demanded that more children should be adopted, faster. Removing and then adopting a child based on a possible future danger has become highly contentious, particularly since the timescale for courts to decide on a child’s permanent future has been reduced to an outside limit of 26 weeks, leaving parents little leeway to prove they have changed enough to safely look after their child. The government does not collect figures on the number of forced adoptions: former “adoption tsar” Martin Narey says that only half of parents fight adoption right to the bitter end; other family law experts suggest that many who are recorded as “not opposing” the final order may simply have had their will to fight ground down over months of legal wrangling.
In the months before Huw was born, Annie was diagnosed with emotional disorders that would require long-term therapy. One report said she should be reassessed after 12 months; a court-appointed psychologist recommended two years of treatment and commented on Annie’s high levels of insight, which “bodes well for any future change”. Nevertheless children’s services said her mental instability posed too high a risk of serious emotional harm to her unborn baby.
Annie gave birth to Huw on 6 July 2013. Six days later, around 8.30pm, after he was taken from her, she returned to her flat grief-stricken and bereft. Night after night, unable to sleep after expressing breastmilk for her baby, she would look for advice online. After a few weeks, she came across a blogpost with the heading “What should you do if social services steal your children?”
The author, Andrew Pack, is a local authority lawyer who writes a popular family law blog, SuesspiciousMinds. “There are a lot of people who’ve had bad experiences with social workers – some because social workers have not treated them well and they’re voicing genuine grievances, and some who’ve had a miserable time because they’ve not been able to change,” Pack tells me.
His blogpost explained that for parents to have any chance of getting their child back, they would need to demonstrate change. “The question being asked is, given that x has happened, are we going to give these parents another try?” he says. “The other thing to ask – and nobody will tell you this – is, are the professionals involved rooting for you? Do they like you? Are they optimistic about you? These are not the only factors, but they are things you can do something about.”
Annie read the post. Some time between midnight and dawn, she left her flat and walked eastwards, not stopping until she reached a bench overlooking the waves crashing in from the North Sea. The beach stretched out before her. She was convinced social workers had made up their minds about her, months before she gave birth to Huw: this was where her working relationship with the council had begun to break down.
It is difficult and sometimes painful to change one’s mind. It involves accepting we are fallible, and might have been wrong. In acknowledgment of this, social work students are taught to guard against a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, explains Brigid Featherstone, professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield. “In a social work context, confirmation bias involves looking only for evidence that confirms pre-existing views of a family, situation or issue,” she says. “Moreover, people have a tendency to maintain their intuitive beliefs even when confronted by evidence that challenges them.”
Annie describes her relationship with social workers as broadly one of trust until the summer of 2012, when they took legal action to put her older children into care. One social worker was “absolutely brilliant, a decent woman, who really tried to understand my family and supported us all”. The moment children’s services applied to a judge for care orders, however, Annie noticed an attitude change: new social workers got involved, whom she considered judgmental and biased.
“They’d decided what they thought of me,” she says. “And they twisted what I told them, and sometimes they lied to make me look as bad to the court as they possibly could.” A spokesman for North Tyneside said, “These are very emotional issues and involve understandably strong feelings, but it would be wrong to say the local authority team take a general position on any individual.
Annie is convinced it didn’t matter what progress she made; North Tyneside’s social workers would never believe she could change. And by the time she read Pack’s blogpost, it had started to feel futile to try to convince them. “But that post gave me the tools to fight,” she says. Her task from that point on, she resolved, was to work as hard as she could to convince the other professionals involved in Huw’s case that she had changed.
Annie had been adamant she wanted to breastfeed Huw. In the teeth of social workers’ opposition, the judge who granted the order that he should be removed also allowed her to see him three times a week. Over the months that Huw remained in foster care, mother and son bonded well.
Every child in care proceedings has a children’s guardian appointed, and in court their view is given considerable weight. Huw’s guardian submitted her evidence in November 2013. “She didn’t just file her evidence, she rang and told me,” Annie says, smiling. The guardian had decided it would be best for Huw to live with his mother, and that he should be returned home with “the minimum delay”.
But by the time of the final court hearing, scheduled for five days in January 2014, the local authority’s plan remained the same: Huw should be placed for adoption. The social workers’ assessment was that Annie’s history of periodic mental health crises meant she would put Huw at significant risk of emotional harm.
Just before the hearing, a judgment was handed down from the high court in London that restated in the strongest terms the statutory requirements that must be met before the legal link between a parent and child may be severed. In his ruling in the landmark case now known as Re B-S, the president of the family division, Sir James Munby, declared that adoption orders are “a very extreme thing, a last resort”, and only to be made “in exceptional circumstances and… where nothing else will do”.
As a result, North Tyneside’s social workers had to submit a “Re B-S” statement to the court, to prove that their adoption plan did in fact meet the law. On day three of Huw’s final hearing, after the guardian’s evidence had been noted, and Annie had been cross-examined, it became apparent that the social workers would have to rethink. “My legs went. I couldn’t stand up,” Annie says, remembering the moment the local authority’s counsel conceded that adoption was no longer a viable prospect.
But Huw’s case wasn’t over yet. “He had to wait for 10 more weeks to come home, because they kept coming back to court, and there was nothing different in their plan,” Annie says, angry at the memory. By the time of yet another hearing, on 11 March 2014, a full two months after Judge Simon Wood had been told adoption was no longer on the cards, the judge politely but definitively lost his temper. “It is just unforgivable,” Wood says on the court recording, his voice controlled but furious.
The council has since accepted responsibility for the unnecessary delay between the hearings, though it maintains there was no intention to be obstructive. Wood twice told the court that, should Annie seek an independent investigation of the council’s management of Huw’s case, he would be minded to grant it. Of the social workers’ refusal to allow contact between Grace and Danny and their baby brother – bar a single supervised hour, in a contact centre, just after he was born – Judge Wood said to the social worker in court that it “beggars belief”.
“I do not see this as a ‘nothing else will do’ case,” the judge said. “Every step taken [by the council]… has had to be forced upon it, and indeed the initiative has come not from the local authority, but from the mother herself.” Wood reminded the council that, in a case like this, it was bound to provide the support services required to enable Huw to return home, whether it wanted to or not
Huw came home on 27 March 2014, at nearly nine months old. His social worker handed him to Annie in the car park below her flat. “The foster carer sent me a text to say, ‘Your son is on his way home where he belongs,’” Annie says, sobbing. The day before, Huw had been brought to her house for a contact visit with all his clothes and toys. Annie and the foster mother had hugged and cried when they said goodbye.
Nearly two years on, life for this family is far from simple. Annie has sole responsibility for Huw, picks Rosie up from school and has her to stay three nights a week. She gets help from Peter, who has just turned 19 and was still living at home last summer, awaiting his A-level results. But Grace and Danny, now 11 and 12, are still with foster carers, and their mother describes the past three years of involvement with North Tyneside children’s services as “a complete disaster for my family”.
A spokesperson for North Tyneside council acknowledges that “Annie and her family have had a long and complicated relationship with the local authority. Sometimes we have been helpful. Sometimes we have had to take very difficult decisions. And sometimes we recognise we could have done things differently and better. Over the last couple of months we have sought to rebuild our relationship and to seek Annie’s help to allow her experience to positively influence our practice.” In other words, there were lessons to be learned.
Peter, curled up on the sofa, says he believes older siblings are the forgotten victims of care proceedings. “That summer [when they took Huw] was brutal,” he says. “I was 16 and in the middle of my GCSEs. I felt so alone – the strain was terrible. We were living on £50 a week, eating 15p noodles heated up in a pan. Pour on some sauce and that was dinner.”
He huddles into himself. “I don’t want to go to court or fight the local authority. I don’t want to be part of that world. Obviously, I have quite a big problem with authority now. If you go through this kind of thing, you lose trust. We’ve been completely torn apart as a family. We will never, all of us, live under the same roof.”
Peter looks up through a floppy quiff. “I haven’t seen Grace and Danny in weeks,” he says. “It’s getting to the point now that I don’t feel connected to them any more.” He pauses. “I’m exhausted. And I can’t see a way out.”
Grace and Danny have been in long-term foster care for nearly four years. Though Annie was discharged from mental health services before Huw was removed, the council is adamant that this is where they will remain. Annie acknowledges that she let her children down badly when she was ill; but she believes they have lost trust in her because of the position social workers have put her in. While Huw was still in council care, she and Peter were told not to tell Grace and Danny that their baby brother was spending long periods of time at the family home. “They made me lie to my children, who of course would wonder why on earth their baby brother was coming home when they couldn’t,” Annie says. “And social services made Peter lie to them, too.” When this point was raised in court, Judge Wood made clear his outrage at “the impossible position” in which the local authority had placed Annie – and particularly Peter, “who is still a child”. Annie was, finally, permitted to explain to Grace and Danny that Huw, whom they had seen just once, would live with her, while the council had decided they would not. Social workers, Annie believes, have never looked positively at the prospect of Grace and Danny coming home – and, in the past few months, the children have started to say they don’t want to.
On Huw’s first birthday, Annie held a party at a soft play centre near her home. “Everyone who’d helped me through the court case came; Grace and Danny, too.” At first, their social worker had refused to let them come, because it was a weekend and there was no contact supervisor to monitor them. Then Annie threatened to go to court and they backed down. “Grace wouldn’t leave my side,” Annie says. “She held me and I could feel her shaking. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ But I knew what was wrong. And she said, ‘I understand now, Mam. I understand that you had to fight for him first.’” Annie’s voice cracks. “She understood that I couldn’t fight for them to come home at the same time as doing what I had to do to get Huw back. So Grace and Danny have been the sacrifice. That, and nearly all of Huw’s first year.”
Annie has now started a website for parents who find themselves in her situation,Surviving Safeguarding, and helps to train social workers. “I can’t begin to think…” She trails off. “If I’d lost him. For the parents who don’t succeed, and when I go to court, I see them crying in the toilets, sobbing on the steps, because they’ve lost their children. Your life is over and no one gives a damn. You just get dropped. That’s what has to change.”
• Some names and details have been changed.