[Chilling child abuse by social services, just the tip of the government child abuse iceberg. See Brittle bones and child abuse, Shaken Baby Syndrome]
Our son broke his leg, so social workers took our three children away...then had them adopted
Mail on Sunday May 14, 2006
NICKY HARDINGHAM'S hand involuntarily moves down to the bump on her stomach as she looks around her modest sitting room at the shelves packed with pictures of her three children.
It is as if she is gently reassuring her unborn son that she will do everything in her power to protect him.
Such feelings are natural in all mothers, but for Nicky, 26, they are also tinged with overwhelming sadness. For these happy, smiling photographs, the cupboards stuffed with toys and the tiny taffeta bridesmaid's dress and matching handbag in their daughter's bedroom are heartbreaking reminders to her and her husband Mark, 33, of the family they once had.
Now the couple must cope with the suffocating fear that their fourth child, who is due to be born in the next three weeks, will be abruptly taken away from them - like the others - on the orders of the social workers they say falsely accuse them of child abuse.
The Hardinghams' story is utterly chilling. It begins with an anxious mother
who took her son to hospital because of a swollen leg and ends with a family
torn apart. It also underlines the powerlessness of ordinary people in the face
of the combined might of social workers, doctors and the secret courts with
astonishing powers to tear children away from their parents.
It is clear, as tears silently roll down her cheeks, that Nicky still struggles to comprehend the day in November 2003 when Norfolk social services took away her three children because of a fracture in her son's leg.
To make matters worse, the children, all below the age of five at the time, have now been adopted and she knows she can never get them back.
By their own admission, the Hardinghams are not worldly or sophisticated people. But they insist neither of them has ever raised a hand to any of their children, let alone abused them. It is an accusation that has also been met with disbelief by their families, friends and employers.
Nicky told doctors and social workers about her family history - they suffer from brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta or OI) - and asked if it could be a possible cause of the boy's injury.
But each time, she says, her views were dismissed. She was told that because she did not have the disease herself, it would have been impossible for her to pass it to her son. But no one properly established whether Nicky was a carrier, and had passed the disease to her son without having obvious symptoms herself.
The couple live in a modern but neat terrace house still filled with the toys and clothes belonging to their lost children. 'We haven't got the heart to change anything,' Nicky says.
Their extended families live within a mile of their home and they have rarely travelled outside Norfolk, where they
'They told us, wrongly, that we had no rights'
earn £200 a week each in a crab processing factory - Nicky in quality control and Mark as a forklift driver.
Their nightmare began in late October 2003, when Mark and the children caught flu. 'They were all really poorly,' says Nicky, 'but all recovered within a week or so, apart from my son who was still unwell despite a week's course of antibiotics.
'We took him to the doctor, who said there was nothing wrong with him. But within a few days we were really worried because he wouldn't stand up for love nor money. It seemed as if the pain was in his hips or his right side. But when I took him to the hospital in Cromer, they X-rayed him but could not find anything wrong.
'They said he might have an inflammation due to his virus and said, to be safe, that we should take him to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in Norwich. They too X-rayed him and said nothing was wrong.
'On Sunday, November 9, I discovered that his left leg was swollen and really hot below the knee. I took him straight back to the Norfolk and Norwich, where they gave him more X-rays and blood tests. They told us he had osteomyelitis, which is an infection in the bone, and put him on a high dose of antibiotics.
'A string of doctors examined him the following day and it was Tuesday before a paediatrician came to see us to say there was an unusual feature in his left ankle and recommended a full skeletal survey, which I thought was a good idea.
'Later that day, they said they could see five or six fractures on his body. But they didn't treat them, as you would expect, by putting them in plaster. The penny only dropped about what was going on when they said they were going to inform social services.
'Mark had finished work by then and had dropped the other children at my parents' house to come to the hospital.
'The doctors told us that the fractures were called metaphyseal and could not occur naturally, but were caused by violent pulling and twisting. They insisted they did an MRI scan and said our son would without doubt have some brain damage from such violent abuse. But the MRI showed nothing.'
Nevertheless, social workers were called. Nicky and Mark were escorted into a small, stark sideroom in the hospital and accused of physically abusing their son. 'All the time, we asked, "Where is the proof," says Nicky. 'If we had abused him, why was our son coming to us for cuddles and reassurance, rather than cowering in a corner? It was beyond belief.
We took our son to hospital so they could make him better. Now we were being accused of child abuse.
The social worker and paediatrician told us our son couldn't leave hospital. We said we had no intention of taking him out. We were asked if we could sign our other two children over to my mother's care, which we didn't mind because they were with her anyway. I was in shock. I was really upset that they were accusing me. After that day, we were told that we couldn't see our son unsupervised. We weren't allowed to pick him up or carry him anywhere. We weren't allowed to touch him.
'The next few days passed in a haze. But on Friday, November 14,1 was told that the police wanted to see me and that the social worker at the hospital wanted to accompany Mark to my mother's house, pick up the other two children and bring them in for examination.
'The police officer asked me to explain why my son had the injury, and I think he knew that what I told him was the truth. We went to the police station several times afterwards, but were never charged and the matter was dropped.
'After seeing the police, we were told that the social work manager wanted to see all of us. The medical examination of the other two children had been fine, but they still wanted us to sign them over to an emergency foster service.
'It was about 4.45pm on a Friday -too late to call a lawyer - and the social work manager told us we had no rights. Either we signed them over or they called the police, which would cause our oldest child a lot of distress, and the children would be taken away anyway.
'Mark was so angry he walked out. He thought that if he wasn't in the room, they couldn't make him sign. But I was frightened about the effect on my daughter, who was old enough to know what was going on. I signed the paper. I couldn't help it. It sounds terribly naive now, but I had no idea what the implications would be.
'What I didn't know then was that we did have rights. The children had been signed into the custody of my mother until the following Monday. If I had not signed the paper, they could not have taken the children.'
Nicky's voice becomes hoarse as she recalls how, astonishingly, a social worker told her that to cry in front of her children was 'emotional abuse'.
'I was told I wasn't even allowed to say goodbye. My daughter was crying and wanted to come to me, but I was told to leave. That was it. The door was closed in my face.
'As we left the hospital, we saw the social worker leaving with our daughter saying, "I don't want to go with you. I want to see my Mummy and Daddy.'"
Nicky insists that neither she nor her husband have ever hit their children, preferring instead to administer 'a stern word if necessary'. From the very beginning, she has also provided doctors and social workers with a plausible explanation for her son's fractures.
'My mother and three of my four brothers and sisters have brittle bone disease and have had countless fractures,' says Nicky. 'I asked them if my son could have the same disease and pointed out that he had not yet eaten solids, was intolerant to lactose and had lived off soya milk for the previous year. Perhaps his diet could have made his bones weak?
'We were given a list of family law solicitors in the area and picked one at random. We knew we had got off on the wrong foot because I had signed the children over. But we assumed that when we finally got to court, that would be the end of it.'
They were wrong. Over the following two years, Nicky and Mark saw
'I cried. They called it emotional abuse'
their children under strict supervision for a maximum of two hours a day while they pursued their attempts to get them back through the courts. They claim their lawyers had no real interest in fighting their corner. They sacked one because they had no confidence in him. A second resigned from private practice and joined Norfolk County Council.
The proceedings, like all those in the Family Court, must remain strictly confidential. But in the event, they lost the case and saw their children for the last time more than a year ago.
'The last day we saw them was the day before our daughter's birthday,' says Nicky, in tears. 'We had an hour to do the cake, the candles, see our sons and say goodbye. Our little girl knew something was wrong and wouldn't let go of us.
'We gave her an album full of family photos. I often wonder whether she kept it and looks at it. Do they think of us still? Are they safe? I worry the whole time about them. I know their new parents make an effort to bring them all together, but I don't know how often.
'As for Mark and me, all we are left with is the silence around the house. And that is the most painful thing.
Now the Hardingham's case has been taken up by campaigning journalist John Sweeney, whose BBC1 Real Story documentary, to be broadcast tomorrow, suggests that their explanations for their son's fractures may have been right all along.
The doctors dismissed Nicky's suggestion of brittle bone disease because she seemed not to be a sufferer herself. But Sweeney's investigation shows that not only may she have a mild form of the condition - and therefore be able to pass it to her son - but that metaphyseal fractures can occur naturally.
Nicky adds: 'When I mentioned my family history of brittle bone disease, the paediatricians asked if I suffered from it, but I've never had a proper diagnosis and don't really know. They told me, "In that case you haven't got it and you can't give it to your son." It was not open for discussion.'
Crucially, Nicky's GP .wrote to her saying that the two paediatricians who had dealt with the case in the hospital, Dr Kate Armon and Dr Rosalyn Proops, 'categorically stated' that Nicky's son could not have OI.
But, according to Sweeney, the paediatricians' assurance is open to question. He says: 'Any categorical claim that a child did not have OI because a mother didn't seem to have it is wrong.
'The signs of OI can vary from 40 fractures to none at all. A clinical geneticist needs to check and a DNA test should be made in a case like this. Without that you would be wrong to rule out 01 categorically.'
In a disturbing parallel, Nicky's grandmother Joyce was accused 60 years ago of abusing Nicky's mother, Margaret. In 1946, the authorities gave Joyce the benefit of the doubt - and rightly so, since Margaret and three of her five children suffer from OI and have been afflicted with broken bones all their lives.
Now Nicky is waiting for the results of a DNA test that could prove she carries the 01 gene, though there is said to be a ten per cent chance that the condition will not be detected. Nicky shows some symptoms of OI , such as bad teeth and hyper-flexible joints. Indeed, she dislocated her hip while giving birth to her second child.
The most obvious sign of an OI sufferer is
that the whites of their eyes are pale blue. The geneticist who tested Nicky
said her eyes were the same shade as that of her brother, Wayne, who has the
In addition, Harley Street radiologist Dr Colin Mackintosh told Sweeney that the doctors' presumption that metaphyseal fractures could be caused only by child abuse was false.
Dr Mackintosh said: "There may well have been a miscarriage of justice because these metaphyseal changes are not true fractures. I do not think - whether there are several of these findings or just one - we should say this is strongly indicative of child abuse.'
As if to prove the point, Nicky's brother Wayne has a son who has recently suffered a metaphyseal fracture. But due to his father's medical
history, the injury has not been investigated by social services.
The fact that Nicky and Mark's son had never eaten solid food was interpreted by social workers as evidence of neglect, despite the fact that she had sought medical advice several times and was always assured he would eat when ready. So, too, was the boy's slow growth, though this can also be a symptom of brittle bone disease.
The clincher, however, was the metaphyseal fractures, despite the view of some experts that they are just indications of anomalous bone growth. Indeed, a study carried out with the help of the Brittle Bone Society found 29 innocent metaphyseal fractures in 39 children with OI.
George Hawkes, a lawyer who has taken over the case, says: 'The science of metaphyseal fractures is in its infancy. Allegations are made [in this case] on a science that is not well known. We had a child with an appalling diet, which was not the parents' fault, who came from a family with a long history of OI. Yet these two things were dismissed out of hand.
'This was a case of weak science, leading to a mantra which said, this is child abuse. It was tunnel vision.'
Deborah Jeffrey, Nicky's manager at the crab processing factory, told The Mail on Sunday: 'When she told me that their children had been taken away because they had been accused of child abuse, I was more than shocked. I can't think how anyone who has met them could think them capable of it.
'I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Nicky or Mark. He is a big man and his appearance could be seen as overbearing, but we joke at work that it is Nicky who wears the trousers because he is such a softy.'
The couple hope the DNA test will provide grounds to reopen their case. But they know that legal victory can only ever be symbolic - even hostile adoptions that may later prove wrong cannot be reversed.
Nicky says: 'It is important that we can show our children at some time in the future how hard we tried to get them back. One of my greatest fears is that they will grow up never knowing the truth. We want to be able to show them that we didn't stop fighting.
"The worst times for us are their birthdays and Christmas. We are allowed to send a card, but we have to sign it from "Nicky and Mark" rather than from "Mummy and Daddy". They won't know who we are, so we stopped doing it. Instead, we put money into bank accounts, so that if they ever track us down we can show we have saved up for them.
'We get a letter every year from their adoptive parents, which is bittersweet. We want to know they are doing well, but it hurts so much. We met our baby's adoptive parents only because social services said it would be good for them "to see we weren't as scary as we looked on paper".
'We felt they looked at us accusingly, but we cant blame them. The people we do blame are the social services, the doctors and the legal system. If any good comes out of this, it will be that the law is changed to protect people like us.'
Norfolk County Council said: 'Having heard all the evidence, a judge,
'Will our new baby be taken away at birth?'
with the complete agreement of the children's independently appointed guardian, concluded that adoption was in the children's best interests.'
But now, Nicky and Mark anxiously await the arrival of their baby boy. Their overriding worry is that social workers will be waiting at the end of the hospital bed to take him at birth.
When Norfolk social services were asked what they planned to do when the baby was born, they said: 'It would be wholly inappropriate and would breach confidentiality to respond to this question.'
But Nicky insists that it is indeed wholly appropriate to ask what will happen to her unborn child. 'We are much better equipped this time around,' she says. 'We have a new lawyer and we know our rights.
'But I am nervous that social services will be out to get us,' she adds tearfully. 'Are they planning to take this baby, too?'
• Real Story - Broken Bones, Broken Families, BBC1, tomorrow, 730pm