Tuesday, 4 December 2007

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

Full Story:
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. 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. 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."

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