I've fled the country to stop social workers taking my baby


November 24, 2007

Daily Mail (UK)

She is, on first impressions, just like any other first-time mother. The cot and the pram are on order, she has bought more cuddly toys than she will ever need and she has even given her little girl a name Molly.



With less than six weeks to go before the birth, the baby is kicking and it brings Fran Lyon an undeniable thrill of pleasure. At least, it does now she finally feels safe to enjoy it.

For all the innocent joys of impending motherhood have been denied Fran since social workers warned her four months ago that Molly would be taken away ten minutes after birth and placed with foster parents.

Fran, a third-year student doing a neuro-science degree at Edinburgh University, is, to everyone who knows her, a sociable, kind and intelligent woman. But to her local authority she is a danger to herself and her baby.

Pregnant Fran Lyon has run away to Europe to stop

Seven years ago Fran had an eating and selfharming disorder and spent 13 months in a psychiatric hospital followed by nine successful months of counselling.

Now 22, and with her emotional troubles behind her, Fran is outraged that she should be judged a risk to herself and her child despite a fistful of medical reports that dispute this.

Last week, fearing the worst, Fran moved from her home in Hexham in Northumberland to Birmingham, where she hoped a different authority would treat her more sympathetically.

But with the birth so close, she felt she couldn't take any risks with bureaucracy and on Wednesday, Fran took an even more drastic step. She got on a flight bound for Europe and went into hiding. Wary of revealing her whereabouts, Fran agreed to talk about her nightmare in a lengthy telephone call to The Mail on Sunday.

Practical Fran has already had an appointment with a midwife, booked a place at the local hospital and made contact with English-speaking mother-and-baby groups

She will also be seen in an exclusive report tomorrow evening on Tonight With Trevor McDonald. She said: "I wouldn't have done it unless I absolutely had to. Every time there was a twinge, I was absolutely petrified. I just kept thinking, 'Please don't go into labour, please, not yet.' It was terrifying.

"It's a lot better now that I'm away. Lots of people suggested I should leave but I always thought it was too extreme. Then when I went to Birmingham things weren't going to happen quicklyenough. Northumberland's plan stood until Birmingham made their own and I didn't have vast amounts of time.

Now it's such a relief not to be constantly looking over my shoulder. It has been so fraught with other people's interventions. For the first time this will be just us: me and Molly. I just want to enjoy it. I could never do that before.

"For months I've been reading a book called Molly The Hungry Caterpillar and feeling her kicking about. It's lovely, but all the time the fear has been in the back of my mind that these might be the closest moments I will ever have with her."

Fran is in good health apart from suffering a rare condition, angiodoema. It is possible her throat might swell and she has been given tracheotomy equipment in case of an incident.

For such a young woman, Fran seems practical and level headed. In just a few days, she has organised a lease on an apartment, had an appointment with a midwife, booked a place at the local hospital and made contact with Englishspeaking mother-and-baby groups.

It is a considerable testimony to her ability to cope given what social services had thrown at her. So why did Hexham Children's Services feel it necessary to take such draconian some might say menacing steps against a young woman who has battled to put her life in order?

As with almost all cases involving county council children's services, it is extremely difficult to discover why or how a decision has been reached. As a result, it is nigh on impossible for people to challenge what they see as a dubious outcome.

Fran's story began last April when she became pregnant. Although the baby was unexpected, she was delighted. She says: "I was shocked because I'd had the contraceptive injection. But I remember waking up the first morning after I knew and feeling secretly thrilled.

"I didn't have a clue how I was going to make it work with university and my job [for two mental health charities] but I was determined that I was having her."

The first problem began when she and Molly's father fell out. She had become unhappy about something he was doing and reported him to the police. She ended the relationship immediately and he is now the subject of an investigation by police who alerted social services.

She told them her story that she was brought up in Northampton in a middleclass household where her parents were teachers, and how at 14 she was raped by an acquaintance.

Traumatised, she became clinically depressed and spent the next three years, on and off, in residential psychiatric hospitals after being diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder characterised by self-harming instability and suicidal tendencies.

For the final 13 months, Fran had individual psychotherapy sessions and group analysis before being discharged into outpatient care. By the age of 18 she had fully recovered and the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder was removed. Despite it all, Fran earned nine A-grade GCSEs, four A-grade A-levels and her place at university.

When she became pregnant, Fran accepted that social services might take an interest in her and went out of her way to cooperate. "I was very up-front with the mental health staff," she said.

"I told them my history and gave them the names of my doctors as I assumed they would want to pursue it further. I thought I might need to see the health visitor a bit more often."

Instead, Fran received a letter informing her that a "child protection case conference" would be held on August 16. Social services contacted a number of experts. One of them, Dr Stella Newith, the psychiatrist who treated Fran as a teenager, had no doubts when called on to give her opinion about her former patient.

In a letter to Northumberland County Council, Dr Newith said: "I consider the risk of harm to a child to be so unlikely as to be negligible.

"There has never been any clinical evidence to suggest that Fran would put herself or others at risk, and certainly no evidence to suggest that she would put a child at risk."

It was a view backed up by Dr Rex Haigh, a psychiatrist who worked with Fran in the charity sector and acted as a character witness. He advised: "I have no doubt that her diligence and capacity, particularly in dealing with complex emotional situations, will stand her in good stead for the rigours of parenthood. Your efforts to protect children would be better directed elsewhere."

Yet the social workers decided, instead, to give more weight to the views of consultant paediatrician Dr Martin Ward Platt even though he made it clear he had never met Fran.

In a letter, Dr Ward Platt said: "If the professionals were concerned from the evidence available that [this woman] probably does fabricate or induce illness, there would be no option but to put the baby into foster care at birth pending a post-natal forensic psychological assessment."

Fran says she was told by social services that she was in danger of suffering from Munchausen's by Proxy, a controversial and unproven condition in which a parent usually the mother invents an illness in her child to draw attention to herself.

Apart from Dr Ward Platt's letter, there has been no other evidence presented to Fran suggesting that she was at such risk. The syndrome was first identified by Sir Roy Meadow, the now-discredited doctor responsible for evidence that led to the wrongful convictions of Angela Canning and Sally Clark for murdering their children.

Dr Ward Platt also recommended that Fran be assessed by professionals. Social services drew up their "birth plan" without doing any of these assessments. In October, Fran was told the plan would mean that Molly would be immediately removed into care, minutes after she was born. Fran was also told she could not be trusted to breast-feed her, for fear that she might try to take strychnine as a way of poisoning her own child.

Fran says: "I was just horrified. It was horrific to sit in this room with these people and realise that they could not only conceive of such a bizarre, terrible thing, but think that I was actually capable of it.

"In some ways I think the whole thing was compounded by a lack of understanding. There is no evidence that Munchausen's by Proxy exists. I was being asked to prove that I wouldn't do something. But how can I do that? They were asking me to do the impossible."

Fran engaged the help of Bill Bache, the lawyer who overturned Angela Canning's conviction, and John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the pressure group Justice For Families. And yet all the time, she tried to find a compromise with the social workers.

She says: "I asked to go to a mother and baby unit so we would be under 24-hour supervision. I thought it would show I was willing to cooperate and there could be no argument about Molly's safety, but there was a lot of resistance to the idea."

In one last attempt to find a middleway through the nightmare, Fran agreed to yet another assessment. The assessor was to be appointed by the social workers but would be officially independent. They chose Professor Douglas Turkington, a psychiatrist based at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.

In his report, he said that Fran should not be separated from Molly but should instead be "supervised during the immediate postnatal period in her bonding with Molly and be allowed to breast feed".

It is the breakthrough Fran has been hoping for but she says she can't risk waiting to see if social services view it in the same light. On November 9, the birth plan from Northumberland Social Services arrived in the post. Fran was expecting it but nothing could have prepared her for its conclusions.

"I just fell apart," she says. "It's only when you see it in writing that it becomes real. It said I would get ten minutes with Molly until the umbilical cord had been cut."

Fran and her baby would then be parted and the baby would be taken to another room in the hospital. Fran feared that the conditions of the birth plan would mean that even her mother, who she said she was very close to, would not be able to see the child.

She added: "They said if I didn't consent they would get a police protection order as soon as she was born. This effectively meant that there would be a policeman stood outside the delivery suite.

"She would be only a few minutes old and by herself. That was the one thing that tore me up inside . . . the thought of Molly lying in some horrible hospital baby cot with no one that loves her.

"I'm not an impulsive or dramatic person. I want to sit down and work things out. But this was agonising. I knew I had to do something."

She didn't know, then, that something would mean fleeing abroad. Despite the drastic upset, Fran is not bitter. "I suppose I feel very disappointed. It didn't seem possible for anyone to backtrack just a little bit, to say there was another way. That's what I found so hard. That and the fact there was no compassion. They said it was about Molly but it certainly never felt like that."

But perhaps most worrying of all is the fact that Fran's case, while undoubtedly extreme, is also indicative of a disturbing trend. Two thousand babies less than a year old were taken from their parents last year by social services three times the number of ten years ago.

Fran's story already has echoes of Nicky and Mark Webster, formerly known as the Hardinghams, whose case was highlighted in this newspaper. They, too, fled the country in order to stop social services taking away their newborn baby, a boy called Brandon, after their first three children were adopted over abuse allegations.

The Websters have since returned to England and have won a landmark case to keep their fourth child. And what does the future hold for Fran Lyon, a young mother who was dealt a rough hand as a teenager and fought to get a normal life and now just wants to do what's best for her daughter?

Perhaps social workers know something Fran is not revealing. Last night a spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said: "We are unable to comment on individual cases, and we do not believe that it is in the best interests of any mother or child to discuss personal details through the media, but unfortunately it does mean only one side is being heard.

"Safeguarding arrangements in Northumberland were rated as good in a recent rigorous Government inspection. Ms Lyon and her legal adviser have attended all of her case conferences and have been fully informed of the concerns of the professionals involved in her case.

"Where a child or unborn baby is subject to a child-protection plan and they move to reside in another authority or country, responsibility would normally pass to the new authority or relevant authority in another country. Northumberland County Council would make sure the new authority has all the relevant information it needs to make informed decisions."

Mr Hemming said: "I think it's appalling and very disturbing and, sadly, Fran's case is not unique.

"Of course there are situations where you've got to intervene but the system all too often fails to intervene where it should and then intervenes where it shouldn't. It's a steamroller of a system and it steamrollers mothers and children."

Only one thing remains certain. If Fran proves herself to be a good and loving mother, Northumberland's carefully worked-out "birth plan" can only ever be seen as an act of almost unimaginable cruelty by the State.

Fran's story is told on Tonight With Trevor McDonald, tomorrow at 8pm on ITV1.