By CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The most shocking story I have reported in all my many decades as a journalist.
Applications to take children into care in England have soared to an all-time record, for the first time topping 10,000 in just 12 months.
Since 2008 alone, the figure has much more than doubled, to some 225 cases a week — bringing the total number of children in care in the UK as a whole to at least 90,000.
The official reason given for this explosion in the number of children being removed from their families by social workers in only four years is that 2008 was the year when the nation was shocked by the events leading to the death of Baby P — later named as Peter Connelly.
He was just 17 months old when he died in North London at the hands of his mother Tracey and her violent partner, suffering more than 50 injuries.
Scandal: How many children are needlessly being taken from loving homes to the detriment of both them and their parents?
The story goes that social workers have become much more eager to take children into care because they do not wish to see any repetition of the scandal surrounding their failure to save Baby Peter, even though they and other officials had visited his home 60 times.
But one hugely important ingredient is missing from the way this version of events is being put across by the authorities responsible for ‘child protection’.
Evidence is accumulating on all sides to show that far too many children are now being removed from their parents wholly unnecessarily, often for laughably inadequate, even absurd, reasons.
No one could object if the rise in the number of families being torn apart was simply due to the increased determination of our social workers to intervene in situations likely to lead to another Baby P tragedy.
But the fact is, happy children are today being snatched from loving parents for reasons they cannot begin to fathom, leaving all concerned in a state of utter misery. And this can constitute a tragedy in its own way scarcely less heart-rending than those where a child has been genuinely abused.
Having investigated scores of such cases over the past three years, I do not hesitate to describe this as one of the most disturbing scandals in Britain today.
Tragic case: Baby P was found to have suffered 50 injuries when he died aged only 17 months
Tracey Connelly, Baby P's mother: Social workers missed many opportunities to intervene and save Peter
Violent Stephen Barker, Miss Connelly's partner, was charged along with his brother Jason in the abuse and death of baby P
The manner in which, every week, dozens of families are wantonly ripped apart has become truly horrifying. And the only reason this does not itself make headline news is that our so-called ‘child protection’ system has become so ruthlessly hidden from view by the wall of secrecy built round it by our family courts.
What is most shocking about our child-care system is the extent to which, behind that wall of secrecy, every part of it has gone off the rails,
The social workers have become far too prone to target not genuine problem families like those of Baby P or Victoria Climbie — the eight-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast who in 2000 was tortured and murdered by her guardians in London — but normal, respectable homes where children are being happily brought up by responsible parents.
The reasons given by the care industry for seizing these children these tell their own story.
Since 2008 the proportion of children removed because they are being physically or sexually abused has actually gone down.
Happy: Social workers take children from respectable homes where children are being happily brought up by responsible parents
Instead, the social workers cite vague reasons based on opinion rather than testable evidence — they use terms such as ‘emotional abuse’ the use of which has soared by 70 per cent.
In many cases the social workers don’t even need to produce evidence, only their personal view that a child might be ‘at risk of emotional harm’.
Once the social workers have made their decision, children and parents find themselves caught up in a shadowy system which seems rigged against them.
The social workers hire ‘experts’, such as psychologists, who earn thousands of pounds writing reports which appear to confirm the case planned for the courts. The reports can contain woolly allegations, such as that a mother might suffer from a ‘borderline personality disorder’. (Which of us could not have that charge levelled against them?)
Far too often the parents aren’t allowed to challenge the reports in court — even though the ‘experts’, rather than practising in clinics and seeing patients, may earn all their living from writing such reports, and endorsing what the social workers want them to say.
Judges are then presented with allegations made against the parents based on no more than the wildest hearsay. Such allegations elsewhere in our legal system would instantly be ruled inadmissible. But because of the secrecy of the family courts system, the parents are not permitted to even question these claims and the media is denied the opportunity to present them for scrutiny.
Meanwhile, countless children find themselves living with strangers in foster homes, where all the evidence shows — despite many shining exceptions — they may risk physical abuse or emotional harm far worse than anything their parents were accused of inflicting on them.
The only contact the accused parents and their unhappy children are allowed with each other is in brief, rigorously supervised ‘contact sessions’, staged in grim council ‘contact centres’. Even these are likely to be brusquely terminated if any sign of affection is shown, or if a bewildered child dares to ask its parents for an explanation of why all this is happening.
I would not believe all this and much more could happen in England if I had not heard remarkably similar stories again and again from dozens of parents and children — even though the parents are routinely threatened with prison if they discuss their case with anyone from outside the system.
Just how ruthless and Kafkaesque this system has become behind this impenetrable wall of secrecy is almost impossible to convey to anyone unfamiliar with it.
House of horror: The house in Penshurst Road, Tottenham, where Baby P lived
It makes a complete mockery of a system that has been set up in the name of ‘protecting children’, to ensure their lives are somehow better and happier than they were before.
Nothing in yesterday’s Mail report was more shocking than the statistics showing what happens to children who have emerged from Britain’s care system.
Fifty per cent of all this country’s prostitutes are girls who have been in care, and 80 per cent of all Big Issue sellers.
Half of all those in young offenders’ institutions have been in care, and 26 per cent of adults in prison have the same background.
Meanwhile, half of all girls who leave care become single mothers within two years, not least because they want someone to love.
These devastating statistics go on and on — hard evidence of just how horribly our ‘care system’ is failing those who fall into its clutches. Many of the children, of course, have already had an appalling start in life, being born to drug-addicted, alcoholic, genuinely abusive or otherwise incapable parents.
It is hard to argue that social workers and the courts were wrong to remove these tragic youngsters.
But this makes it all the more incomprehensible that among such children in care today are ever more thousands who should never have been taken from homes where they were properly cared for.
This is the real price we are paying for that impersonal statistic we saw blazoned across the front page of yesterday’s Mail: that the number of children being seized from their parents has now soared for the first time to 10,000 a year,
Having heard too many of their accounts in chillingly repetitive detail, I must say that this scandal is the most shocking story I have reported in all my many decades as a journalist.
It is high time it was pulled from behind that wall of secrecy and reported across the world.