[back] Family Courts

How the state stole my daughter


Last updated at 17:23 18 January 2007

Reunited at last

Yvonne Coulter is on a high. Her teenage daughter, Tammy, has been arguing with her younger brother and the house is filled with excited shrieks. Their mother beams with pride.

'I asked them to help with the drying up and they started flicking each other with the dish towels. I watched them play-fight and just couldn't stop smiling. I thought: "This is the way it is meant to be." '

While most mothers would be admonishing teenagers for such noisy horseplay, Yvonne is loving every minute.

Seventeen years ago, when she was just 17 herself, the baby daughter she adored was wrenched from her by Social Services after bumping her head in an accident. Gauche, unworldly and terrified, Yvonne found herself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare - forced to watch as her healthy and happy child was taken first into foster care and then adopted.

But incredibly, after years of searching, Yvonne - a mother of three - has finally been reunited with her eldest daughter.

Now a teenager, Tammy has chosen to leave her adoptive parents and live with Yvonne at her home in Ironville, Nottinghamshire.

Yvonne, 34, says: 'I can't stop touching her because I can't believe she's come back to me at last.

'When we walk down the street, we link arms and I keep thinking: "This is Yvonne Coulter and her teenage daughter." I'm so proud.

'I spent years missing her and worrying about her - wondering what her favourite food was, or how it would feel just to hold her little hand in mine. I used to look at her younger brother playing in the room, and wonder how they would get on.

'For years, I could only dream of being a normal family. Now we are together at last.'

Yvonne discovered she was pregnant 18 years ago, shortly after leaving school. She says: 'My boyfriend, Glynn, was my first love, but the pregnancy was unplanned and our relationship was already breaking up. When I told my parents, my dad calmly gave me the options.

'He said I could keep the baby, have a termination or have the baby adopted. The minute he mentioned adoption, I knew I could never face giving my own baby away.

'I chose to keep the baby, and although Glynn and I split up when I was four months' pregnant, mum and dad supported me.'

On March 16, 1989, Yvonne gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Cheri-Louise, and says: 'The second she was put in my arms, I felt an enormous rush of love. She was so beautiful - I couldn't believe she was mine.

'I stayed awake all night, gazing at the tiny baby beside me. I told her how pretty she was, how loved she was and I remember saying: "Mummy's always going to be by your side." '

Yvonne returned to the fourbedroom home she shared with her father Trevor, a factory worker, and mother June, a laboratory worker, and her younger sister.

A close-knit family - Yvonne's parents have been married for 36 years - they helped her move into a council house four miles away when baby Cheri-Louise was a few months old.

Yvonne says: 'It was tough being a young, single mother and at times I did struggle. I kept in touch with Glynn but he was only a teenager himself. I went from being a normal young teenager to an adult overnight and often I was exhausted.

'But my parents visited every day, and I adored my daughter. Motherhood just came to me naturally.'

But in October 1989, seven-month-old Cheri-Louise had an accident which was to change their lives for ever.

'I had a couple of friends around for a cup of tea one evening - a girlfriend I had known for years, and her boyfriend,' says Yvonne.

'Cheri was sitting in a bouncing baby chair. I went to fetch her bottle, and she leaned forward, tipping the chair.

'Almost in slow motion, she fell and bumped her cheek. She howled for a few moments, but then calmed down. There was a bruise on her cheek, and I kept waking throughout the night to check she was OK, but by morning she was fine.' A few days later, however, came a knock on the door.

'It was lunchtime, and I opened the door to find a middle-aged man in a suit,' says Yvonne.

'He said he was a social worker, and that there had been an anonymous call saying I may have caused injury to my child.

'To this day I don't know who rang Social Services, although recently an old friend said they'd always suspected another young mum who had desperately wanted a baby girl, but had given birth to a boy. I've no idea if this is true, as I barely knew her.

'I showed the man Cheri's cheek and explained the accident, but he said an appointment had been made for the baby to be examined by a GP.

'I was mystified, but I agreed to go to the surgery. I had been raised to respect my elders and this man was so authoritative that I just agreed to do as he said.'

That afternoon, the baby was stripped, examined and weighed by a GP, who declared her well-nourished, well cared for and above average weight.

THE social worker asked for a referral letter for the hospital, but the GP refused,' says Yvonne. 'I was told to leave the room, and five minutes later the social worker strode out. He was carrying a letter of referral to Derby Children's Hospital.

'The social worker drove me to the hospital in silence, and I remember shaking with fear. It was seven in the evening and I hadn't eaten since breakfast.

'I was crying so much I couldn't speak'

'A paediatrician took Cheri into a cubicle to examine the bruise on her cheek. I was told to leave and I staggered down the corridor to find a payphone. I rang home, and when Dad answered the phone I was crying so much I couldn't speak.

'When I returned to Cheri, the social worker said that a safety order had been placed on my daughter. If I tried to leave the hospital with my baby, I would be charged with kidnapping.

'I had been at the hospital for only half an hour - it all seemed like a hideous dream. Then the police arrived and I was taken to the station for questioning.'

Yvonne was questioned for nearly eight hours - still with no food. She says: 'I had a drink, but I felt physically sick. The police decided that no charges would be brought against me.'

Yvonne's parents drove her home and, after a sleepless night, she returned to her daughter's ward next morning. 'I packed her a lovely little outfit to bring her home in, and almost ran into the ward.

'Cheri was sitting in her cot, crying. When she saw me she stuck her arm between the bars trying to reach me. I ran to her and hugged her, trying not to let her see that I was crying, too.'

Yvonne stayed with her baby daughter for the rest of the day, joined by her parents.

'Finally, a female social worker walked in and said coldly that my daughter had been placed into foster care, and it was best if I leave,' she says.

'I started screaming: "I haven't done anything wrong." My mum and dad began to cry, but the woman was unmoved. I had to kiss Cheri goodbye, and my parents half-carried me out of the ward.'

As she awaited a court hearing to decide her daughter's future, Yvonne was allowed to visit her baby each week at the foster carer's house.

'Cheri was always thrilled to see me, and I honestly thought it was just a matter of time before she came back to me. In those days, no one dared question authority. This was the era

of the Cleveland child abuse scandal, when 95 children were wrongly taken from their homes.

'My parents kept telling me that the judge would see sense, and she would be returned.' Meanwhile, Yvonne found herself pregnant again, the result of a brief relationship.

'The baby was due in January 1991, but when I was eight months pregnant, Social Services told my solicitor they would put a place of safety order on the baby once it arrived,' she says.

'Within hours of that phone call, I had gone into premature labour.' Nineteen hours later, baby Cameron was born - not breathing. As doctors fought to resuscitate him, an extraordinary scene unfolded.

'I was lying on the hospital bed with my legs in stirrups and my body uncovered as the doctors and midwife tried to resuscitate my baby in a corner of the room,' says Yvonne.

'The door burst open and a paediatrician rushed in. Behind him came a male social worker, who walked to my bedside and tried to hand me papers, saying an order had been placed on my baby. I screamed and the doctors ordered him to leave the room as my baby was raced to the intensive care unit.'

When Yvonne was taken in a wheelchair to see her son later that night, she refused to leave his side.

'I sat in a chair for three days, refusing to leave him. When I wanted to go to the toilet, I wheeled the incubator in with me, in case anyone tried to take him,' she says.

On Christmas Eve, Yvonne returned to her parents' home with her baby.

Days later, Social Services made a court application for the baby to go into foster care. The judge rejected their case, giving Yvonne full parental rights.

Now, she had to await a further court case to regain her daughter, still in foster care. But Social Services suddenly denied her access to the child. 'I had been seeing Cheri four times a week and bringing her to my parents' home each weekend,' says Yvonne.

'But in November 1990, a month before Cameron was born, we were suddenly told that access was being stopped. We actually had Cheri for the day when I was told. She was 17 months old and when I cuddled her for the last time and smelt her sweet little head, she still had her unmistakable baby smell.

'I buttoned up her little pink coat and told her that Mummy loved her - and then watched as they drove her away. It felt as if I was being ripped in two.'

Social Services delayed several court appearances, claiming files were not prepared, and when the case was finally heard in September 1992, two years had past.

Cheri was by then three-and-a-half and Cameron - the brother she had never met - was a healthy and happy 21-month-old.

'The social worker claimed Cheri had been living with pre-adopters for the past 18 months and had bonded with them,' says Yvonne. 'I was stunned - it was the first time I had heard the term "adopters".

'Three hours later, the judge gave his verdict. He said: "Miss Coulter, if I return your daughter home, you will be a stranger to her. I am now freeing your child for adoption."

'It was the only reason he gave for not returning her to me, and I couldn't believe he could do it.

'I can't even remember the journey home - but I knew I had to be strong for Cameron, in case they decided to take him, too.'

With bitter irony, a new social worker declared herself happy with Yvonne's parenting skills, and Cameron's file was closed eight weeks after his sister was adopted.

'Surely if there were any doubts about my fitness as a parent then Cameron's file would have remained open?' says Yvonne.

'I was always too scared to smack Cameron'

'But it was impossible to have a normal life. I was always too scared to smack Cameron, and if he ever bruised himself I would race him to the GP. Each year on Cheri's birthday I would write her a card telling her how much I loved her and how much I missed her, and I have kept each one of them over the years.

'I hated birthdays and Christmas, because I felt such an aching loss.

'If a family moved into the area with a girl around Cheri's age, I would find myself staring at her, wondering if she was my little girl.

'I thought of her every day. As I ate lunch, I would suddenly start wondering if she enjoyed her school dinners.

'I wondered what colour was her favourite, how she liked her hair, what music she was into and if she looked like me.

'Most of all, I wondered what she knew about me - or if she thought I had abandoned her.'

Eleven years ago, Yvonne moved in with Paul, an exhaust fitter, and in July 2001, their daughter Kelis was born.

Meanwhile, Yvonne launched the support group Unity Injustice to help other parents in the same situation.

Just after Cheri's 16th birthday, Yvonne placed a message on the Genes Reunited website.

'I put her name, age and details of where she was born, saying that I hoped she was well and that I was looking for her,' she says.

'A year later, on the morning of January 17, 2006, I switched on my computer and suddenly found myself staring at an e-mail from my own daughter.

'Her name was now Tammy, she was happy, but she wanted to hear from me and left a mobile number.

'I burst into tears and it actually took me three hours to calm down enough to call.

'My hand was shaking so much I could hardly dial. When she answered the phone, I said "It's Mum here," and started to cry.

'She wept, too, but we spoke for about an hour. She told me she had enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in Sutton-on-Trent, about 35 miles from where I lived.

'She had always felt incomplete, and had been told her biological

father had run off, and that as a baby she had always been in ambulances. I told her that she had never been in an ambulance and that Glynn and I were still friends.

'Tammy said she couldn't wait to meet me, so we arranged to see each other the next day.

'I couldn't sleep that night because I was so excited. I was also terrified in case I wasn't what she expected.

'We met near her home and as soon as she walked towards me I recognised her. We cried so much it was about ten minutes before we could even speak.

'I told her how she had been stolen from me - and she told me that her adoptive parents didn't know she had found me. She wanted to meet her biological father, too. He was thrilled when I rang him, and two days later, all three of us met.

'Within weeks, Tammy's adoptive parents discovered that she had been seeing us, and they were probably angry and hurt.

'Tammy didn't contact us for weeks and it was agony, because I just wanted her to be happy.

'I told her that I loved her and she didn't have to choose between us. But in July 2006, the phone rang and it was Tammy. She said simply: "I've made my decision. Can I come home?'''

The following day, Tammy moved in with Yvonne, Paul and her younger brother and sister.

'We discovered we are so similar in many ways. We share the same mannerisms, we like the same clothes, we have the same shoe size and we both love the same food, especially curry,' says Yvonne.

'When we go out I love it when people say that we look alike.

'We also went back to visit Tammy's original foster mother, who gave me a bunch of flowers and told Tammy: "You should never have been taken. You should have been home with your mum." That meant so much to me.'

Tammy - studying health and beauty at college - says: 'I knew that my birth mum had kept my brother, and I always wondered why she had kept him and not me - it was so upsetting.

My best friend saw Yvonne's message on Genes Reunited, and meeting Mum was the happiest day of my life. I waited eight weeks before telling my adoptive mum, and she turned her back on me.

'Then they stopped me using the internet and my mobile phone was confiscated to stop me having contact with Yvonne.

'So I finally decided to leave home and move in with my birth family. Since then, I can see the relationship between my mother, brother and sister and I can't help feeling as though I've missed out, no matter how much I fit in now.

'As a baby, I had a bruised cheek - and it cost me and my mother our future together.'

Yvonne, meanwhile, is busily making up for lost time. She says: 'This Christmas, I bought her so much because I wanted to make up for all the years I've missed. I treated her to a pretty manicure case, make-up, clothes and tongs for her beautiful hair.

'I spoil her rotten. That's what daughters are for, isn't it?'

Mother and daughter are now taking legal action against Derbyshire Social Services.