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  • The day they took my child away

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/ma...4/03/05/hson05
    ..xml&sSheet=/health/2004/03/05/ixhmain.html

    The day they took my child away
    (Filed: 05/03/2004)



    As concern grows over children unjustly taken into care, Cassandra Jardine
    meets a mother who fought the system and won



    Even 17 years on, nurse Alison Stevens cannot forget the horror of going to
    visit her three-year-old son, Scott, in hospital one evening.

    She and her husband, Andy, an electrician, arrived to see the boy, who had
    broken his leg the morning before, only to be told that he had been taken away.
    A 21-year-old social worker, who had never met the family, had obtained a
    "place of safety order" and Scott had been taken into care.

    "I was absolutely devastated," says Alison. "I had no idea where he was or who
    he was with for a whole week."

    Three agonising months followed, during which they could see Scott only at a
    foster home. Every time his parents left, he screamed. They feared that their
    elder child, Lee, might be taken into care, too, and adopted against their
    will. One morning, the police came to arrest Andy, even though there was no
    evidence against him. "Has he ever been alone with Scott?" Alison was asked, in
    what she took to be an attempt to sow doubts in her mind.

    As the cases of two mothers whose children were taken into care were being
    scrutinised at the Court of Appeal this week, the horror of those days came
    flooding back for Alison. Judges yesterday dismissed an appeal from a mother
    who was seeking to get her child back. In a second application, involving
    another family, they have reserved their ruling.

    These are just the latest in a large number of challenges to convictions and
    care orders in Britain. Following the discrediting earlier this year of
    "Meadow's Law" - the theory of paediatrician Prof Roy Meadow that one cot death
    is a tragedy, two in the same family is suspicious, and three is murder, unless
    proved otherwise -Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, has ordered a review
    of 258 cases in which people have been imprisoned for causing the death of
    their child. Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, has asked for a review
    of cases of children taken into care where the medical evidence came from a
    single source, or where there was medical disagreement.

    The Stevenses' brush with the care system came about because, a year before his
    second visit to hospital with a broken leg, Scott had suffered a similar
    injury. On the first occasion, he landed badly after jumping off the edge of
    the bath; on the second, he hurt himself getting out of bed. On both occasions,
    a radiologist discovered a spiral fracture. Without talking to the child or
    meeting the family, he reported that the injuries were caused by a parent
    grabbing hold of the child and twisting his leg.

    Alison found that doctors did not investigate other possibilities. Scott's
    version of events was not, she says, taken into account. Alison's objections,
    based on her experience as a nurse, that Scott would have had bruises if he had
    been manhandled, were ignored. Nor did Alison or Andy's good reputations -
    despite many testimonials - seem to count for much. "The only evidence social
    services took seriously," says Alison, "was the radiographer's. We felt totally
    alone."

    Had she not leapt into action and contacted Parents Against Injustice (Pain),
    she believes she might have lost both of her children to care and then
    adoption. But, through that organisation, she found a solicitor who specialised
    in child protection cases and secured a second medical opinion.

    The latter concluded that Scott's shortness of stature and the bluey tinge to
    the whites of his eyes were typical of brittle bone disease, which would
    account for the spiral fractures.

    But for the support of Pain - and the several thousand pounds that it cost to
    fight the case (of which the Stevenses received only a few hundred from legal
    aid) - Alison might now be one of those parents whose children have been taken
    away from them by social services departments acting upon evidence that might
    not be as conclusive as it first appears.

    Alison and Andy Stevens's ordeal was relatively brief. After three months,
    Leicestershire social services said they would not proceed further. Five
    year-old Lee was not taken into care and Scott was returned to his family.
    Nevertheless, that short period of "devastating" panic has haunted Alison for
    17 years and determined the way in which she spends much of her spare time.

    She believes she was fortunate in that she didn't lose her job, but she could
    not believe that, even though Scott was given an official diagnosis of brittle
    bone disease, the spectre of wrongdoing continued to hang over her. Long
    afterwards, she found that her children still remained on the Child Protection
    Register.

    When she saw her own medical notes, she found they contained a letter from her
    GP saying there was no evidence of Scott suffering from brittle bones. And when
    her elder boy, Lee, saw an educational pyschologist about dyslexia, there were
    references to the episode in his notes, too.

    Scott, now 20, is still living at home near Leicester and working as a forklift
    truck driver. While his mother talks, he is upstairs, bickering with Lee, now a
    chef, about who has taken whose clothes from their shared room. When he comes
    downstairs, he says that he has very few memories of the traumatic three months
    in which he was taken from the family.

    "I can just remember some faces," he says.

    But Alison, who has a habit of biting her lip, comes across as a nervous woman.
    "I used to be well - until this happened," she says, "but ever since, I have
    suffered from Crohn's disease, which I think is related to nerves."

    Despite her illness, she decided as soon as Scott was allowed home that she
    would set up a local branch of Pain so that she could give advice to other
    parents going through similar ordeals.

    "I don't know what happens to other parents after cases like these," she says.
    "Most of them we never hear of again. I think they just go and hide, they feel
    so beaten. But I felt the least I could do was try to help others."

    While working as a nurse in a stroke ward, she has advised more than 100
    families faced with the prospect of their children being taken into care. "Some
    have won," she says,

    "but in 60 per cent of cases, the children have been adopted."

    Even though she no longer receives funding from her local council to run the
    charity, she continues to take three or four new calls each week from parents
    who are trying to hang on to their children. She tends, she admits, to assume
    the parents are innocent, but because she never sees the family environment,
    she knows she has only their word for it.

    "I don't make judgments," she says. "I just give advice."

    From her wide experience, she lists some of the illnesses that are no longer as
    straightforward as they once appeared, including shaken baby syndrome,
    Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

    "There are so many possible causes of a lot of injuries. Many babies who are
    delivered by forceps can have fractured skulls - but might not show the
    symptoms of blood-shot eyes and malaise until several weeks later. When the
    parents can't explain the fractures, the children are often taken from them.
    Sometimes, it seems they get more help if they admit guilt, but why should they
    if they are not guilty?"

    Some of the cases she has come across have troubled her deeply. Shortly after
    her own case was resolved, another parent came to her with a similar problem -
    her child, too, had brittle bones. A specialist diagnosed the condition, but
    the child was adopted none the less. In another case, a child was egged on by a
    schoolfriend to steal a school caretaker's lunch: the mother was accused of not
    feeding her daughter, and she was taken into care and adopted.

    Alison has also known many families "left in limbo" after the father or
    step-father has been suspected, without evidence, of abuse.

    "A seven-year-old who drew a picture of an old man chasing her with a stick,"
    she remembers, "was put on the child protection register for five years."

    Such cases have reinforced Alison's view that social services departments are
    "a law unto themselves", operating behind closed doors. "They do everything by
    the book," she says. "They trust professionals rather than other witnesses and
    don't give any weight to parents' reputations or the child's general health and
    happiness. The result is that some children are being abused by a system set up
    to protect them."

    Yet, slowly, she believes the system is improving. Seven years ago, she fought
    for a Private Member's Bill, which means that parents can now attend the
    conferences at which their family's case are discussed. Of course, she says,
    social services have to be watchful. Their first duty is to protect children.

    Undoubtedly, too, some parents do harm their children and do not always tell
    the truth. But her advice to the distressed parents who call her for advice is
    always to do as she did: "Fight, fight, fight."



    -------------------------
    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"
    -----Unknown
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