Kelly McWilliams was in labour when two social workers arrived with an emergency court order authorising them to take the baby into care. Following the birth of baby Victoria, McWilliams was allowed only supervised contact with her daughter for the first four months before successfully overturning the order.
McWilliams’s case had been referred to social services by her midwife six months earlier because a stroke in 2001 had left her with disabilities. According to a report by Cafcass, the agency that looks after children’s interests in the family courts, no assessment had been carried out and no one was assigned to the case until three days before Victoria was born.
At the end of November, it emerged that a pregnant woman, having suffered from a mental breakdown, had her baby forcibly removed by caesarean section and taken into care. Essex social services obtained a high court order against the woman – an Italian national who was only in Britain temporarily on a visit for work – that allowed them to forcibly sedate her before removing the child from her womb.
The baby girl, now 15 months old, is still in the care of social services and, according to Essex county council, the Italian courts have ruled that the child should stay in the UK. The mother is claiming to have made a full recovery. A spokesman for the council said its priority was “the long-term safety and wellbeing of children”, adding: “Adoption is never considered until we have exhausted all other options, and is never pursued lightly.” The Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who is campaigning for greater openness in the family courts, is planning to raise the case in parliament this week after speaking to the mother.
This case, horrific though it appears, is far from an isolated incident. McWilliams, who has since been reunited with her daughter, is one of several women with disabilities to have faced pre-emptive intervention from hard-pressed social services using emergency measures. These cases often involve women with learning difficulties or mental health issues, with the highest-profile ones seeing the parent fleeing the country to avoid having her children forcibly removed from her.
These family cases typically involve women, more than men, and yet a case in September set a landmark legal ruling when a high court judge sanctioned the sterilisation of a 36-year-old man with learning difficulties as being “in his best interests”.
Nigel Priestly, a partner at Ridley & Hall solicitors, the firm that represented McWilliams, says the law demands that a local authority, under financial and workload pressures, must determine what support the mother and child need to stay together rather than simply separate them. “The fact that she is disabled is irrelevant,” he says. “If, with support, she can make up for any practical gaps in her ability to care, the local authority can’t permanently remove. If, in the short-term, she clearly can’t care, the extended family has to be assessed.”
Katherine Quarmby, who researched the area for her book Scapegoat: Why Are We Failing Disabled People?, says that in 2006 the Social Care Institute for Excellence reviewed existing research and found that “social workers and local authorities were less interested in supporting families with disabled members to stay together than in ‘safeguarding children'”.
“Disabled parents are constantly put on their guard about their parenting capacity, rather than supported to be good parents,” she adds. “Indeed, many disabled parents – particularly those with learning difficulties – who have children, lose them to social services, even as soon as they are born, before being given an opportunity to prove themselves.”
Hemming, as part of his Justice for Families campaign, says the extended family must be assessed when children are at risk of being taken away from their parents, something it is not clear happened in the case of the Italian woman. “[There was the] local authority’s resistance to the proposal that [the] baby should be cared within the wider family rather than placed for adoption,” he says.
Dale Coote faced an uphill battle to keep his granddaughter from being adopted. His daughter Megan, who is now 25, has mild learning difficulties and while pregnant was told by social services that she would not be allowed to keep her child due to fears over its emotional development. This led Megan and her mother to flee to Spain seven days before Megan was due to give birth, while her father remained in Britain, campaigning for a resident’s order that would allow him and his wife to share parental responsibilities of their granddaughter. Megan only returned to Britain when this order was in place, having spent three months in Spain fearing her child would be adopted.
“She’s been really hurt over this. She can’t believe what she’s had to do,” Coote says, adding that Megan was so affected by what happened that she seriously considered never having any more children so as to avoid going through a similar ordeal again.
Coote now helps other parents with disabilities who fear their children will be taken from them. “It’s just heartbreaking,” Coote says. “There’s no help out there. They don’t have advocates. There’s no one there after they’ve taken the children away. They don’t know where the children are.
“What are you putting children through, as well as parents?” he asks. “To take that [bond] away is horrendous. It does happen. It’s happening more and more.”
This article first appeared on The Guardian on 3 December, 2013.