Growing number of parents flee to Ireland over forced adoption fears

A growing number of fearful parents are travelling to Ireland in a bid to find sanctuary from social services. Credit: ITV News

By Juliet Bremner: ITV News Correspondent

Growing numbers of fearful parents are finding sanctuary in rural Ireland, on the run from social services in England and Wales where their children are being threatened with forced adoption.

One or two pregnant women or desperate parents are arriving in Ireland every week, trying to escape what they see as draconian powers of social workers and secretive family courts in the Britain.

Social workers are so concerned about the rapid rise in forced adoptions they are on the verge of calling for the law to be changed.

The problem of children being removed from their birth parents without consent has risen rapidly in the last three years.

Figures from the Department for Education show that 1,390 children were adopted without the agreement of their parents in 2011 and this leapt to 2,400 children by 2014.

The figures for the year ending March 31 only covered England.

The British Association of Social Workers are now so worried about the speed with which children are being removed and adopted that they intend to ballot members on a possible change to the law.

The chief executive Bridget Robb said that they want to see more emphasis on fostering or offering more support to the family.

She accepts that there is a public demand for children to be protected in the wake of scandals like the Baby P murder and that there has been a severe cut in the amount of money local authorities are given to deal with the problem of child abuse.

However, the United Kingdom is one of only two countries in the European Union to allow forced adoption - the other is Croatia - and one of only a handful of countries across the world that supports it.

One mother speaks to ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner. Credit: ITV News

ITV News has spoken several families who all tell a familiar story. Even if there is no evidence of harm, social workers and courts can use the risk of future harm as sufficient reason to remove a child permanently from the family home.

Once they are adopted, parents have no further contact with them until they are 18, and only then if the child wishes this to happen.

One woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told me how her two little girls had been taken away from her after her violent partner was jailed for rape.

Social services cited "risk of future harm" based on the mother's medical history and the father's criminal record.

A mother looks around her daughters' empty bedroom after they were removed against her wishes. Credit: ITV News

She has Asperger's but is high functioning, able to hold down a full-time job and owns her own home. None of this convinced social workers who insisted that the children should be removed for adoption.

Her parents' attempts to foster them were also rejected.

Desperate to stop the children being taken, she fled to Ireland but was brought back following a series of legal challenges.

When we visited Ireland we found it was a well trodden path. A network of supporters has been set up by former civil servant Brian Rotherty, who feels too little weight is given to parent's evidence in England and Wales.

Former civil servant Brian Rotherty has set up a network of supporters in Ireland, Credit: ITV News

He introduced us to a man who has fled to Ireland to escape the threat that his family will be broken up and placed into care with a view to adoption.

He has never harmed his children but accepts their mother has "issues."

She remained in England and he has voluntarily contacted Irish social services, who appear to be happy with his current situation. He is involved in a fraught legal struggle with UK authorities who want him to return and give up his children.

ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner speaks to a man who fled to Ireland. Credit: ITV News

Everyone accepts that the safety of the child must be paramount, but there is a feeling that adoption has become the first port of call rather than a last resort.

The most senior family court judge, Sir James Munby, has spoken about the issue, criticising the "sloppy practices" of social workers.

He is determined there should be more transparency around the court proceedings that decide whether children should be taken from their parents without consent.

The Department for Education points out that "the ultimate decision to remove a child from their family rests with the courts," adding that this would only happen "when they are sure the children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm."

They claim the proportion of cases where the court rules against the parent remains unchanged.

These girls, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, were removed from their mother without her consent.. Credit: ITV News

But at the moment the Government seems determined to push ahead with its drive to make adoption easier and faster.

Social workers have 26 weeks to come up with a care plan once the child is removed.

For families caught in this fast track approach it is very difficult to fight back. Often they are silenced by courts, who issue gagging orders to prevent the children from being identified.

For the parents and grandparents left behind it feels like a life sentence.

One grandmother asked, "How is this in the best interests of the girls? they are going to grow up thinking they weren't wanted and weren't loved, but they are."