Errors over baby at risk

STEVE DOWNES A vulnerable Norfolk mother was wrongly branded a potential child abuser and had her unborn son put on the at-risk register because of a “catalogue of errors” by social workers.


A vulnerable Norfolk mother was wrongly branded a potential child abuser and had her unborn son put on the at-risk register because of a “catalogue of errors” by social workers.

As a result of the case, the county's child protection chiefs have been forced to make 31 changes to their procedures in a bid to head off a repeat.

A number of senior officers have been hauled over the coals for “completely unacceptable” standards in dealing with the woman who says the trauma nearly tore her family apart.

They had to apologise to her and to her parents - who are high-profile public figures in Norfolk and who have fought a tireless two-year battle to clear their daughter's name.

An independent inquiry led by Caroline Ball, chairman of Norfolk's local safeguarding children board, found:

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Crucial evidence was destroyed;

Rumours were treated as fact;

A report by a social worker was “inaccurate, unrepresentative and unbalanced”;

The woman was interviewed in “oppressive” conditions while seven months pregnant - with sessions lasting up to two hours;

Social workers discriminated against the woman on the grounds of her mental health condition;

There was “insufficient evidence” to justify putting the unborn baby on the child protection register;

The chairman of Norfolk's area child protection committee “failed to carry out a proper risk assessment of the child”.

An initial investigation into a series of allegations almost completely exonerated the council and its staff. But the second inquiry chaired by Dr Ball upheld nearly every complaint last May.

Following the review, the panel said the mother should be paid £1,000 for her suffering in the case - and high-ranking council officials admitted they had got it wrong.

The then Norfolk County Council chief executive Tim Byles, in a letter to the woman on October 6 last year, said: “It is absolutely clear that the county council has fallen far short of the high standards of service that citizens have a right to expect from us.

“There has been a catalogue of errors and poor standards of service in our dealings with you that I find completely unacceptable.”

Earlier last year, on June 26, children's services director Lisa Christensen wrote: “I am deeply sorry for the wrongful registration of your child and for the distress that this caused you at the time and which has continued for this prolonged period.”

The woman, whose son is now two and who has since had a baby daughter, has disassociative identity disorder - a disorder involving a disturbance in the memory and identity of an individual where there is the existence of two or more distinct identities or personalities.

She and her parents say she was “well in recovery at the time” and had now almost completely recovered from the condition. She also had all of the support she needed from her family.

She said: “I was told that unless I did as they told me, they would take my baby away. They were threatening to take my first baby away before I had a chance to prove I could be a good mother. I had never hurt anybody, but they think I'm going to hurt my baby.

“After he was born, I spent the first three days in hospital knowing they were watching my every move and waiting for me to do something wrong.

“My condition was not an issue. I had been well for two years. But ironically, because of this case I'm still in therapy.

“Nothing is going to put right what they've done. Nobody can give back the time they've taken away. But I've learnt to live with it and I'm moving on.”

She said she wanted her name cleared. But that battle continues because the fact that her son was briefly on the register remains on the records of a number of different agencies.

The woman's mother moved in with her daughter for three months after the boy's birth to help her cope with motherhood and the ongoing trauma of his being placed on the child protection register.

She said: “It's been absolutely devastating. I was terrified that they would take my grandchild away. My daughter was terrified she would lose her child.

“We had to fight for her, and every time we challenged them they accused us of non-co-operation. We felt as though the family was being destroyed.

“We've been under a cloud for two years. We are still dreadfully upset about it. My daughter is still vulnerable. She still has the fear that her children will be taken away.

“We are a loving family and we have never done anything wrong. Other people may have suffered in the same way. They have the right to know so that they can fight the system.”

She added: “I believe the child protection system is set up to break families up. It's like being in a country like communist Russia, where you were powerless to fight the system.

“It was shown to be plainly wrong for him to be on the child protection register, but officials still want to maintain a record of the fact that he was on it.

“They've labelled my daughter a potential child abuser for life. But she's now happily married and a wonderful mother.”

Last night, Ms Christensen said: “We acknowledge that mistakes were made in this case, for which we are extremely sorry - and we have apologised to the family concerned.

“The most important thing is that we learn from our mistakes so that we can minimise the risk of it happening again. As a consequence, we have reviewed our processes and made a number of changes.”