For a mother, there can be no greater horror than having a baby snatched away by the State at birth. The women to whom it has happened say their lives are ruined for ever – and goodness knows what longterm effect it has on the child.
Most never recover from this trauma.
Imagine a baby growing in your body for nine months, imagine going through the emotion of bringing it into the world, only to have social workers seize the newborn, sometimes within minutes of its first cry and often on the flimsiest of excuses.
Yet this disturbing scenario is played out every day.
The number of babies under one month old being taken into care for adoption is now running at almost four a day (a 300 per cent increase over a decade).
In fact, hundreds and thousands of children of all ages are being removed from their parents every week before being handed over to new families.
Some of these may have been willingly given up for adoption, but critics of the Government’s policy are convinced that the vast majority are taken by force.
Time and again, the mothers say they are innocent of any wrongdoing.
Of course, there are people who are not fit to be parents and it is the duty of any responsible State to protect their children.
But over the five years since I began investigating the scandal of forced adoptions, I have found a deeply secretive system which is too often biased against basically decent families.
I have been told of routine dishonesty by social workers and questionable evidence given by doctors which has wrongly condemned mothers.
Meanwhile, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been given to councils to encourage them to meet high Government targets on child adoptions.
Under New Labour policy, Tony Blair changed targets in 2000 to raise the number of children being adopted by 50 per cent to 5,400 a year.
The annual tally has now reached over 4,000 in England and Wales – four times higher than in France, which has a similar-sized population.
During his leadership, Blair promised millions of pounds to councils that achieved the targets and some have already received more than £2million each in rewards for successful adoptions.
Figures recently released by the Department for Local Government and Community Cohesion show that two councils – Essex and Kent – were offered more than £2 million “bonuses” over three years to encourage additional adoptions.
Four others – Norfolk, Gloucestershire, Cheshire and Hampshire – were promised an extra £1 million.
This sweeping shake-up was designed for all the right reasons: to get difficult-to-place older children in care homes allocated to new parents.
But the reforms didn’t work. Encouraged by the promise of extra cash, social workers began to earmark babies and cute toddlers who were most easy to place in adoptive homes, leaving the more difficult-to-place older children in care.
As a result, the number of over-sevens adopted has plummeted by half.
Critics – including family solicitors, MPs and midwives as well as the wronged families – report cases where young children are selected, even before birth, by social workers in order to win the bonuses.
More chillingly, parents have been told by social workers they must lose their children because, at some time in the future, they might abuse them.
One mother’s son was adopted on the grounds that there was a chance she might shout at him when he was older.
In Scotland, where there are no official targets, adoptions are a fraction of the number south of the border, even allowing for the smaller population.
What’s more, the obsessive secrecy of the system means that the public only occasionally gets an inkling of the human tragedy now unfolding across the country.
For at the heart of this adoption system are the family courts, whose hearings are conducted behind closed doors in order to protect the identity of the children involved.
Yet this secrecy threatens the centuries-old tradition of Britain’s legal system – the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.
From the moment a mother is first accused of being incapable as a parent – a decision nearly always made by a social worker or doctor – the system is pitted against her.
There are no juries in family courts, only a lone judge or trio of magistrates who make decisions based on the balance of probability.
Crucially, the courts’ culture of secrecy means that if a social worker lies or fabricates notes or a medical expert giving evidence makes a mistake, no one finds out and there is no retribution.
Only the workings of the homeland security service, MI5, are guarded more closely than those of the family courts.
From the time a child is named on a social services care order until the day they are adopted, the parents are breaking the law – a crime punishable by imprisonment – if they tell anyone what is happening to their family.
Anything from a chat with a neighbour to a letter sent to a friend can land them in jail. And many have found themselves sent to prison for breaching court orders by talking about their case.
As High Court judge Mr Justice Munby told MPs: “It seems quite indefensible that there should be no access by the media, and no access by the public, to what is going on in courts where judges are, day by day, taking people’s children away.”
However, it is not only secretive and publicly unscrutinised family courts that are creating an injustice in our adoption system.
There is a more worrying factor involved. Look at the official figures. Why are they so high? Is it really true that more mothers are becoming potential killers or abusers?
Or are the financial bonuses offered to councils fuelling the astonishing rise in forced adoptions?
John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP is campaigning to change the adoption system.
“I have evidence that 1,000 children are wrongly being seized from their birth parents each year even though they have not been harmed in any way.
“The targets are dangerous and lead to social workers being over-eager.
“The system’s secrecy hides any wrongdoing. One has to ask if a mother is expected to have problems looking after her baby, why doesn’t the State help her instead of taking her child away?”
The MP’s concerns are echoed by the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services (AIMS), a body which advises new mothers.
Spokeswoman Beverley Beech insists: “Babies are being removed from their mothers by social workers using any excuse.
“We strongly suspect this is because newborns and toddlers are more easily found homes than older children. They are a marketable commodity.
“I know of social workers making up stories about innocent mothers simply to ensure their babies are put up for adoption.
“Suitable babies are even being earmarked when they are still in the womb.
“One baby was forcibly removed in the maternity ward by social workers before the mother had even finished the birth process and produced the placenta.”
Her words may be emotive. But are they true? Six months ago, I wrote an article about a young couple – who must remain anonymous because of family court law – fighting for the return of their three-year-old daughter.
She was taken within weeks of birth and is about to be adopted.
Astonishingly, a judge has issued a Draconian order gagging them from revealing anything, to anyone at all, which could identify their daughter until her 18th birthday in 2022.
Immediately after the article was published, I heard from 35 families whose children were forcibly removed.
The letters and e-mails continue to arrive – coming from a wide range of families across the social classes (including from a castle in the heart of England).
An e-mail from one father said: “Please, please help, NOW. We are about to lose our son . . . in court tomorrow for final disposals hearing before he is taken for adoption … we have done nothing wrong.”
Another father calling himself “James” rang to say his wife’s baby was one of eight seized by social workers from hospital maternity units in one small part of North-East England during one fortnight last summer.
A Welsh man complained that his grandson of three weeks was earmarked for forcible adoption by social workers.
The mother, a 21-year-old with a mild learning disorder, was told she might, just might, get post-natal depression and neglect her son.
To her great distress, her baby was put in the care of Monmouthshire social services within minutes of birth.
The grandfather said: “Our entire extended family – which includes two nurses, a qualified nanny and a police officer – have offered to help care for the baby.
“I believe my grandson has been targeted for adoption since he was in the womb.”
A Worcestershire woman told how her daughter’s baby was snatched away by three police officers and two social workers who came to the door of her house.
The girl has now been adopted.
The mother’s failure? She was said to be too young to cope.
Yet – a little over a year later – she had another baby, a boy, whom she was allowed to keep, in the same home and with the same partner.
Why on earth did she have to lose her little girl?
The grandmother emotionally explained: “All the family came forward to offer to help look after my granddaughter, and all of them were told they were not good enough.
“The social worker told us to forget her. He said: ‘She is water under the bridge.’
“We think they wanted her for adoption from the beginning.”
No wonder she, and thousands of other parents, want a shake-up of the heart-breakingly cruel adoption system which has ripped apart so many families – and which continues to do so.