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Monday, September 27, 2010

Death Review themes get repeated way too often

While the work of a Cleveland Ohio panel looking into a series of deaths in families is not yet done, their preliminary work is suggesting a pattern that has become all too familiar in death reviews. However, one of the more interesting is that the county child protection agency seems to lack a sense of urgency about cases. The basis for that conclusion is not yet known but they appear to point to workers being more oriented to solving immediate safety concerns rather than focusing on the long term issues such as mental health, addictions and domestic violence.

The panel also talks about something that has been seen far too often and has become a feature of social work in too many cases - cookie cutter case plans. These can include sending parents off to parenting classes - the majority of which research tells us do not create any lasting change.

One of the goals of the panel is to see how children can be returned to parents more often. Yet, a weakness in child protection is raised in this work - how long do you stay involved? How can you know whether the parent can stay sober? Will the parent keep taking the medication for their mental health? Can the parent stay out of a violent relationship? In reality, there is only so far that a child protection system can go. There is a point where resources need to be allocated elsewhere and there is hope that parents will stay connected to the systems that have helped during CPS involvement.

Are there ways to better monitor after CPS cases are closed so that the revolving door of entering, leaving and re-entering foster care can be stopped? This is a core question that can be hard to solve when a weak economy is putting more pressure on families and the services they need are seeing year over year budget cuts. Those very services that can help keep families functioning are in jeopardy financially and so are CPS budgets. More families will have fewer supports at times when the stresses arising from the weak economy grow. The recipe for more children to fall between the cracks is there. More children will suffer because we, as a society, are not prepared to really solve the problems and pay for good child protection - one that solves rather than offers band aids.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is Foster Care Better

A sad reality in parts of the Western world is that foster care may not be better than the home that the children left. Group care has major challenges as well. Children may find themselves exposed to just as unhealthy a situation in care as what they left.

A reflection of care in Los Angeles echoes this concern. A news report from KPCC in that city notes: The foster kids themselves point to problems with the families into which they are placed, which sometimes are worse than the abusive situations from where they were removed. Shimia Gray entered foster care at age 2, removed from the care of her drug addicted mother, and went on to live in 10 different foster homes and 2 group homes.

“Most of the foster homes I got put in, I was in bad situations,” explained Shimia, talking about the tense and dangerous conditions that she endured. “One of my fosters homes, I was about five or six but we used to get beat on like really, really bad. When she knew the social worker would come, she wouldn’t hit us. Before the social worker came, when she knew they was coming, she’ll threaten us like don’t say this or I’m going to do this and then you aren’t going to tell on the foster parent.”

Workers in LA County are carrying about 30 cases on average which is double what we can typically manage effectively.

The report on KPCC, public radio in California, is worth a stop by

Of course, the vast majority of foster care situations are good and provide nurturing, caring situations for children. One of the challenges in the system is that those apprehended from large families will see siblings separated because there are few situations where large groups of children can be kept together.

Children are also often not receiving the supports needed to help them recover from the early impacts of neglect and abuse in their lives. This makes it harder for the foster carer to sustain a child who is a behavioral challenge. Thus, the cycle of ever changing placements. This may lead to situations where children are placed in institutions that may not be good. In Nebraska, for example, a recent example can be seen. The World-Herald in Omaha reports, "Staffers at a Boys Town National Research Hospital program, for instance, sometimes placed children facedown on gurneys and locked them into place with belts. They used the practice, which has been discontinued, to prevent children from harming themselves and others."

The system is also desperately short of foster placements whether we are talking Canada, the UK, USA or elsewhere.

Consistently, we see the need for systemic changes. High caseloads are real and it does impact the capacity to provide good case management for children. It is the child who suffers none the less. Yet, we are not willing to pay, as a society, for good child welfare. We bury workers in paper, bureaucracy, procedures that leaves less and less opportunity for real case work. Giving good social work care is urgent because as a society we are paying bog prices - kids become young adults aging out into adult mental health, criminal justice and social welfare rather than successful, independent adults. There are exceptions of course but the research keeps telling us lack of success is more the norm than the exception.

Soon I will look at the benefits of kinship care.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Foster Care and Stability

I was recently thinking about a variety of cases where children have been shuffled between foster homes creating a pattern of instability for them. Leaving one's home, family, familiar surroundings is traumatic even if the child is departing a very difficult situation. They are leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar and must adjust to a new family, new rules, new home, new neighborhood and new schools. Each move requires the adjustments.

School is more than a place of education for children - it is their connection to peers, activities and supports. If each foster home change brings a change of schools, then roots that can hep sustain a sense of stable connections to people that matter (friends and teachers for example) also get lost. There is a point when children stop trying to sustain relationships believing that they will just be moved anyway.

For sure, foster home stability is an urgent need. Children arrive in foster care often having suffered chaos at home that has left them struggling with managing their own emotions. This makes them hard to parent which in turn increases the risk of being moved from one placement to another. Dowdell et al., (2009) in the MCN: American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing note that multiple placements can negatively impact on health and well being. Lewis et al., (2007) found similar results when adopted children experienced placement instability. Writing in Developmental Psychology, they stated, "These results suggest that placement instability may adversely affect the social-emotional development of adopted children." Regrettably, there is a long line of research that shows the adverse outcomes of placement instability. There can even be an argument that if you cannot offer a child a safe and stable place to be out of home, are you really helping the child?

One interesting debate is to find stability through school. Trying to keep a child connected to the same school can offer some stability in spite of changes of household. They get to see the same school, teachers and peers and can continue in their same extra-curricular activities (something lost when changes of school occur).

A report recently released by the New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate (USA) states "Research shows that frequent school changes are seriously detrimental to children in foster care. School mobility negatively affects these youth academically, socially, behaviorally and psychologically, research documents. It also further exacerbates the lack of continuity and stability in their lives." (p.4). Given that children in the foster care system have demonstrably poorer educational, social, employment and behavioral outcomes (see material from Chapin Hill on this point), we should strive to offer as much stability as possible and school may be one important place to do that.

As the New Jersey report notes, there may be times when school change should be done such as when a child moves into a pre-adoption situation with a family. The report suggests criteria for a best interest determination on when to change or not change schools:

"The following criteria should be used in the best interest determination:
(1) safety considerations;
(2) the proximity of the resource home to the child’s school of origin;
(3) the age and grade level of the child as it relates to the other best interest factors listed in this subsection;
(4) the needs of the child, including social adjustment and well-being;
(5) the child’s preferences;
(6) the child’s performance, continuity of education and engagement in the school the child presently attends;
(7) the child’s special education programming, if the child is classified;
(8) point of time in the school year;
(9) the child’s permanency goal, the likelihood of reunification and the anticipated duration of the current placement" (p.6).

This may not be an exhaustive list but it does help us to see how we might consider the needs of the child before making school changes. The report is worth a review. It can be found at

A poignant personal perspective can be found In this powerful look inside a life within foster care, consider this reflection on school: “There should have been somebody there,” Trayvon, who went to 10 different high schools in 4 years, told KPCC. “There was nobody there when I was going to all these different schools. I had repeated courses that I had already taken. That was the thing. I was actually completing courses and then when I went to a new school, “We didn’t get your transcripts”. I had to retake a lot of these courses. I [had a lot of] frustration and anger at that point.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dying for the wrong reasons

Children who go into foster care should be there for the right reasons and expect safety, nurturance and support as they struggle with what can only be thought of as one of the most difficult transitions that children can face. They are leaving the home that represents their known base of life - the one with parents and siblings - and going to a place that is unknown with people who are strangers. Who of us can conceive how challenging that must be (unless of course we have been there).

I have met success stories from foster care in my practice and with my students in university. They have shared personal insights into how foster care saved their lives. This is how it is supposed to work. Yet it doesn't always.

A report just published in Oregon looking into foster care raises some serious concerns that echo struggles with foster care elsewhere. Here is an interesting first recommendation:

"A foster care certifier carries a case load of 55 homes. In addition to certifying these homes, they are also recruiting, training, monitoring, supporting and placement matching. These roles require very different skill sets and cannot be effectively accomplished by one person. Certifiers, who often carry the same case load for several years, run the risk of becoming enmeshed with the foster parent because of the
relational aspect of the job."

Well - relationships are what social work is about so let's not criticize workers for doing that. But the point is fascinating - work is complex and at times, workers who are generalists may be faced with specialist challenges. Child proetction systems often don't like specialists because of the extra costs that can go with such roles.

Their second recommendation should look familiar to almost all child protection systems: A scarcity of foster homes in Oregon drives compromise, and certification violations may be overlooked due to the need for homes." Scarcity can lead to overloading homes, expecting foster parents to manage complex kids that they may not be qualified to handle or holding children in placements that are inappropriate while efforts are made to find a foster home.

Critics of child welfare will, of course, also note that children are being brought into care who should not be. With other supports, they argue, children could be maintained in their homes with family that may not be perfect but can be good enough. Critics will also argue that children are being brought into care because of poverty as opposed to real child protection concerns. That is a big discussion but one that our profession is not having widely enough. There is no doubt that poverty creates significant pressures in families and the majority of families in such situations do not abuse or neglect their children. But equally, there is little doubt that the poor are over represented in child protection cases.

The critics will further argue that if proper efforts are made to address these socio-economic conditions, fewer children would come into care thus easing caselods, improving the opportunities for more effective casework with families that truly are in need of protection and reducing the demands on foster care resulting in safer, better homes.

The Oregon study raised one very disturbing issue that has been seen in so many tragic cases - the lack of effective communication between professionals. This has been so widely discussed in child death reviews in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries that it is distressing to see it again. The Oregon study notes, "Through the examination of two sensitive case reviews released in October 2009, as
well as a random sampling of “closed at screening” files, the FCST found that the lack of communication among DHS staff and/or foster parents contributed to the initial and long term abuse of children in foster care." They also state, "There is no ability for cross county information sharing which would allow foster care providers to move to other counties without the new county office having knowledge of their history of allegations." This is a broad systemic issue that is negatively affecting children.

In my own practice, I have seen it. For example, a person doing a parenting capacity assessment will deliver a report with striong concerns only to find that the children were returned to the parents without the assessor being told while the assessor was writing their report; assessors raise serious worries about the safety of a family but never hear from the case worker.

Systemically, these types of concerns that are so broadly reported are often a refelction of high caseloads, demanding systemic pressures and complex cases that leave workers scrambling from crisis to crisis. As a profession, we need to be willing to take steps to alter the systems that keep recreating the the kinds of circumstances where these problems will keep occuring otherwise.

The Oregon report can be found at

While I am not often in agreement with the comments of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (a US based organziation)their viewpoints on some of these issues merits hearing as part of the wider discussion. In response to a recent news report, they have offered some food for thought. See their report at

In a related idea about the impact of neglect, abuse, foster care, readers might want to look at the new book Born for love: Why empathy is essential and endangered by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, M.D. In particular, the chapter on resilience which includes reference to the very powerful Adverse Childhood Experiences study (see They are the authors of another remarkable book, The boy who was raised a dog.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Children and their substance abusing parents

In 2007, Scottish researcher Dr. M. Barnard wrote the fascinating book Dtug Addiction and Families which chronicled various types of experiences that are endured by family members of addicts. In particular, her book explored how children are impacted.

In a recently published summary of their experience with chldren in the UK, Childline has summarised some fascinating information. This report really brings the voices of children front and centre:

“My mum drinks all the time and leaves me alone lots of times. I feel scared and lonely. I look after my mum when she drinks. I put her to bed. Mum shouts and hits me; she is worse on a Friday. I don't want to feel pain. I want to die.” (Angel, aged 10"

You can feel this child's pain. Children are worried for their parents, take on parenting roles and live in an environment where substance abuse is not the only challenge. As the report states:

"Children who were counselled by ChildLine about their parents’ alcohol and drug misuse often also talked about their experiences of physical abuse, family relationship problems, neglect and sexual abuse."

As the report helps us to see, it is more frequently alcohol that is the problem versus illicit drugs. Yet, the media and perhaps organziations with budgetary and political agendas will focus the story more on the illicit side. Either way, the impact on children is significant when substances take over the household daily story.

One of the most powerful conclusions of the report is the burden that children feel to make things better or take on household management and parenting duties. Regrettably, many families will have little or no intervention creating a legacy for the child that will endure through their lifetimes. Research by Johnson and Leff (1999) showed the power of intergenerational transmission of subtsnace abuse behaviors.

We have not found the keys for prevention in our society as we see use rates again climbing (see the report from SAMSHA in the US issued yesterday at ) We also know that intervention can work but that we must be persistent with it. One time in a 15 or 28 day treatment centre is not the answer. Change is a long process.

I am reminded of advice I received as a young social wokrer from psychiatrist Tibor Bezeredi - People change when the cost of change is less than the cost of the status quo.

AS WELL - you might find this journal The Future of Childern of interest - free on the internet and a high quality journal

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Delays hurt children

In recent posts, we have been looking at issues related to workloads. A report published in the UK a few days ago reaffirms that children remain at risk whne caseloads are too high or staffing inadequate to handle the cases.

It also raises an important area of debate - when high profile child abuse cases occur, referrals of new cases will soar. This adds to the workload and delays appropriate assessment. High profile cases will bring many marginal referrals for sure - but who can tell without an assessment.

Staffing is expesnive and the more limits put on staffing, the longer it will take cases to be seen and the more cursory will be some of those reviews. In the current economic crisis around the globe, the more we will see budget limitations. In turn this will lead to children being left in unsafe conditions. In turn there will be another high profile death. It is an ever repeating spiral.

What we are not doing is coming to grips with the real issues of the degree to which society wants and is willing to pay for child protection.

The UK Story:

Vulnerable children put at risk due to social worker shortage

by political editor Paul Francis

Vulnerable children in Kent are being put at risk of harm because it is taking too long to assess them and there are not enough social workers, inspectors have warned.

The county council has been ordered by Ofsted to take urgent steps to address the issue following an unannounced visit by inspectors.

Following the visit, Ofsted has told KCC it must sort out staffing and management issues.

In a letter setting out the findings, Ofsted inspector Brendan Parkinson states: "Some children in need do not recieve an adequate and timely assessment of risks and needs, leaving them at risk of harm. A significant shortfall in the capacity of qualified, experienced social workers and weaknesses in the quality of team manager oversight on child protection cases in some duty and assessment teams contribute to these serious concerns."

The watchdog carried out an unannounced inspection last month.

The report will make worrying reading for the authority, which has struggled to attract social workers and has increasingly looked abroad to recruit staff. Ofsted has told the council it will probably rate children's social services as performing poorly when the next performance ratings are made. KCC has previously been a top rated authority.

In addition to the "priority action" area, Ofsted also called for improvements in arrangements for prevention and early intervention, more in-depth risk assessments and better integration in the way children's records were kept.

In a statement, KCC managing director for children's services Rosalind Turner said: "The priority action refers to making sure there are timely assessments in all cases, but acknowledges the pressure our social care teams are under.

"This is due to the significantly increasing number of referrals while we are also carrying vacancies in social workers.

"KCC continues to run successful recruitment campaigns to increase the strength of our teams, but there is still a shortfall in the overall establishment. This is a national issue and we recognise its seriousness. We are absolutely committed to ensuring safeguarding and good outcomes for all our children and young people."

The shortage of social workers is not a problem just for Kent which, in common with other authorities, has recorded a dramatic rise in child protection referrals since the publicity surrounding a series of high-profile child abuse cases.

Referrals rose by 22 per cent in Kent last year to 17,360 - an increase of more than 5,000.

Vacancy rates at the start of the year in some child protection teams were as high as 40 per cent.

Cllr Trudy Dean, opposition Liberal Democrat leader at KCC, said: "Clearly, it is a very serious issue because if you are a child in danger, that danger increases if there are delays in assessing your needs."

Friday, September 10 2010 Kent Online - Retrieved Sept 15/10 at

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Workload and Caseload Management

As discussed in a previous post, overloading workers is contrary to effective case management. The Child Welfare Information Gateway in the USA has published a review which shows how important this is.

The state:

"Reducing and managing caseloads and workloads are not simple tasks for child welfare administrators. Agencies face a number of challenges, including negotiating budget crises and hiring freezes, addressing worker turnover, finding qualified applicants for open positions, implementing time-intensive best practices, and managing multiple reforms simultaneously (Day & Peterson, 2008). Even the basic determination of what caseloads and workloads currently are and what they should be can be thorny." (CWIG, 2010 accessed 2010/09/11 at )

Of course, it is not just the number of cases being managed that must be considered, but also the complexity of the cases. Too often, it is only the number of cases that gets considered.

The CWIG review also looks at a variety of initiatives that are being tried that range from hriing more workers, better training and case load supervision and monitoring as well as the policy issues that lie behind effective social work.

A New Zealand report just published also illustrates that poor case load management can often lead to workers simply moving from crisis to crisis and never really getting to the kind of work that makes long term differences in the lives of children.

The New Zealand report also echos what has been seen in many western child protection systems - too little opportunity for children who are going to stay in care to experience stability. The New Zealand Herald noted that the report concluded:

"A major probe by the Children's Commissioner's office has found that almost a quarter of the 5582 children in care at the end of last year had had more than six caregivers, with a maximum in extreme cases of 39." (accessed 2010/09/11 at )

If we do not manage caseloads well, then these are the kinds of results that we can expect. Crisis oriented casework only addresses that which absolutely must be addressed leaving children and families with little oppportunity or support for the kinds of changes that alter the major trends that keep a family involved with child protection.

High caseloads also lead to burn out resulting in high staffing turnover. The New Zealand report concludes:

"But a quarter (of the children interviewed) said they had been moved to new placements 10 or more times and many experienced a high turnover of social workers. Caregivers also reported overworked social workers who failed to visit every two months as required, did not respond to messages and often quit without warning. One caregiver had three social workers in four months." (NZ Herald).

This result is inevitable. One wonders when we will start to see a different trend in child protection which will allow real and effective casework to be done more as the rule than the exception.

I will look at more of what the New Zealand report has to say in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, if you want to review the full report, you can do so at

Friday, September 10, 2010

Operating policy affects outocmes

There are many who seek to criticize the performance of given social workers when a case goes horribly wrong - for example when a child dies. We have seen this in the Baby P case when social worker Shoesmith became vilified in the media. Critics might do better to focus on casework management.

A recent review in the UK has noted very high caseloads. It is not rocket science to see that social workers can only successfully manage so many cases. It is a human limitation. The metaphor of how many balls can you successfully juggle until one falls is appropriate.

If a social worker has 40 cases to manage at any given time, failure is inevitable. When we have not done a good job of staffing case loads get high, details get missed, signs of growing danger slip by unattended and the dangerous brew ferments.

Some will argue that the solution is to not open so many cases. Critics of child protection have long argued that too many cases are ones where there are no significant risks and child protection is meddling in families that are getting by at acceptable levels. They go on to argue that too many cases get opened in the wake of scandals such as Baby P in order to try and avoid another such case. The outcome is high caseloads and, perversely, more risk of another tragedy. Such critics have a point.

Equally, however, are the budget arguments that see politicians state that costs must be contained and staffing gets tightened. This also increases caseloads but it limits what cases are getting opened. This can increase the risk of a tragedy as well. As budgets get tighter and tighter, the criteria for opening a case also gets tighter. This means that the level of risk being tolerated increases within the community. It takes higher levels of damage or crisis to get child protection involved.

Researchers and policy think tanks need to work on where the balance exists. Too often this debate is informed only by the voices of those who are pro or con to child protection.

If you want to read about the UK story on high caseloads go to

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kinship Care

Incereasingly, there is a recognition that we need choices for protecting children that balance keeping chidlren away from unsafe family conditions while trying to place children in environments that will continue to support their growth and family ties. Foster care has difficulty achieving that given that these carers are not family. Kinship care has often been seen as the best way to achieve the balance.

Critics of kinship worry that such placements may not receive the same approval scrutiny that foster care placements receive. They wonder about family patterns that may exist in kinship that are the very same ones that caused child protection to be involved. Such a worry may be valid.

A recent review of kinship in the USA is suggesting that it remains an important placement option. It states:

"Kinship adoption is on the rise for many reasons, including
• increased understanding of the benefits of kinship care for children,
• state and federal preferences for kinship care,
• agency practices that place large numbers of children with kin as a means of
moving them out of foster care, and
• a recognition that relatives will adopt."

One interesting feature in this is the second bullet which helps us to see how policy drives lives in child protection. Why does the government preference exist - is the best interest of the child? Is it limited foster placements? Is it funding and cost saving? It might be all of these.

Yet, as has been discussed before, foster care is no panacea. Group care can be worse and instutional care in all but very specialized stuations is often hard on children. These placements can and do work in a variety of cases but they should not be the preferred choice. Nor should there be an assumption that kinship is the best until the kinship option is understood.

This same report from the USA also states:

"The benefits of kinship care over traditional foster care are well established.
Kinship care is more likely than traditional foster care to:
• reduce the stigma and trauma of separation from parents and family,
• result in placement with and connections to siblings and parents,
• respect family cultural traditions,
• be a stable placement, and
• result in fewer behavioral, educational and mental health problems...."

Any approach that can reduce the rates of behavioral, eduactional and mental health problems deserves attention as these are highly prevelant in child protection populations.

The report is not long and worth a review. It can be read at

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Doing harm can arise from doing good

There are cases where we did not see a child protected which then led to the death of the child. These are profoundly sad cases. Then there are the cases where we have tried to do the right thing but may over react. In these cases, children are removed from families where that was not needed creating a different kind of harm.

Some of these actions, such as in the case outlined below are driven by both good intention as well as bad policy.

The case also raises one of the most important drivers of older children who enter the system - the desire for family connection. Social media like Facebook make it possible. I have seen many cases of children who are older becoming permanent guardians of child protection who still seek out their biological roots - even when they know that those people are sick, damaged and dysfunctional. Such is the power of biology. We do better to manage those relationships than deny them.

A very sad part of this story below is the adoptive family who was dumped by these girls without a second thought. How much they must have suffered as well is not really explored. They put years into being adoptive parents to see the girls walk right out. How hard that must be is another part of the damage done.

Thursday, Sep 02 2010
‘I was stolen from my mother': The deeply disturbing truth about forced adoption
By Julia Lawrence
Last updated at 8:42 AM on 2nd September 2010

Winona was told her mother didn't love her - and was handed to another family. Nine years later, they were reunited via Facebook. But forced adoption is happening on a scandalously regular basis.

On a sunny station platform in a pretty Cornish town this summer, holidaymakers may have witnessed a touching, but at first glance unremarkable, scene.

A mother and teenage son were ¬nervously watching a train pull onto the platform, scanning the emerging crowd for the face of a loved one. Had she missed her train? Had they got the right time?

And finally, there she was: a pretty, petite 16-year-old, peering furtively through her fringe. Suddenly the boy broke away with a whoop. ‘It’s her!’
The three immediately became tangled in a hug, babbling, crying, their words tripping over each other. ‘You’ve grown so much!’ ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you are here!’

Forced apart: Winona has been reunited with Tracey - the mother who gave her away
A very unusual emotional reunion had just taken place. For Tracey Lucas, a 38-year-old mother from Truro, had just kissed her 16-year-old daughter Winona for the first time in nine years.

What took place on that station platform was a scene that the State had worked very hard for years to ensure didn’t happen. In fact, there is still a question mark over whether Tracey could face prosecution, even prison, for what happened that day.

For nine years previously, Winona and her ¬little sister, now 12, were taken from their mother and adopted by another family, given new names and told to forget their natural mother. All contact between them was prevented.

Yet in a story that raises profound questions both about British social services and the power of the internet to challenge their secretive workings, Winona traced her birth mother through the Facebook social networking site and the pair are now determined never again to be parted.

Tracey, Winona and her sister were subjects of a forced adoption, which critics — including family solicitors, MPs and wronged families — say are happening on a scandalously regular basis, on the ¬flimsiest of evidence, in order to meet government targets to raise the number of adoptions by 50 per cent.

There have been cases cited of babies taken from women considered too young or not clever enough to look after them. One boy was removed on the grounds that his mother might shout at him in the future.

In Tracey’s case, her children were sent for adoption because they were deemed ‘at risk of emotional abuse’.

No one can really know the truth, and doubtless social services would argue they acted in good faith and in the ¬children’s best interests, but Tracey is adamant she never abused, neglected nor abandoned them.

Yet because she was a young single mother, who by her own admission sometimes struggled to cope, she was forced to surrender the most precious things she had. Worse, she says the children believed that she had simply stopped loving them.
‘For years the girls believed I was a bad mother, a horrible person who didn’t love them, while I was told the girls didn’t want to see me and were ¬settled into a new life with new parents they loved. All lies,’ says Tracey.

‘The birthday and Christmas cards I wrote were never passed on. The letters Winona wrote to me never reached me. That’s real emotional abuse.’

Ripped from her home: Winona aged six, a year before a court ordered that she be taken away from her mother permanently

‘Yet my son, who’d refused to be adopted, was returned to me after a year, and I went on to have another two ¬children with a new partner, neither of whom has come to any harm. How could I have been a danger to my girls?’

Winona is just as angry as her mother about the stolen years: ‘Everyone told me what a terrible person she was, but all my memories of her were good: making Christmas decorations, reading Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach in bed. I never felt anything but love from her.’

Today, that love is palpable. The pair cannot stop sneaking looks at each other as they hold hands on the sofa of their ¬modest but cosy home.

The question is: are they ¬victims of a heavy-handed State as they claim, or does their reunion set a troubling precedent that other adopted children may be tempted to follow?

The nightmare began the day Ben was born, shortly before Tracey’s 19th birthday, in June 1992.

The children’s father, another 18-year-old, who Tracey admits was a ‘tricky character’ who’d spent a lot of his childhood in care, had a deep suspicion of social workers.

‘Once they knew who Ben’s father was, I was visited in ¬hospital by a social worker and we were told to sign a ¬document saying we would work with them,’ she recalls. ‘I trusted the system and thought once we’d proved ourselves, they’d leave us alone.’

Tracey is the first to admit that to many people, her family may have seemed less than perfect: young, unmarried and living on benefits in rented, ¬frequently changing, council accommodation as they struggled to find a decent home.
When Winona was born 18 months later, Cornwall Social Services were a frequent ¬presence in their lives.

‘We didn’t do drugs and my partner was never violent towards me or the children. Money was tight, but we were doing our best. We loved our little family.’
But they felt persecuted. ‘They were constantly putting us down, accusing us of being bad parents,’ says Tracey.

‘I remember one social worker telling me to take the children to a bird ¬sanctuary nearby, as that was what “good” parents did. I wanted to shout that I already had plans that day and what business was it of theirs? But I couldn’t win any argument.’
The crunch came in 1997 during Tracey’s pregnancy with Winona’s younger sister, when her partner assaulted a social worker, a crime for which he was rightly prosecuted.

I didn’t really understand that I wouldn’t see Mum again. I’d been seduced with tales of this new home, with ponies and cats, but I thought it was just temporary and that I’d go home eventually

Realising she could lose her children, Tracey left her partner, for nothing was more important to her than being a mother.

Yet even with him off the scene, the children remained on the ‘at risk’ list. ‘It felt like they’d made up their minds about me and nothing I did could convince them otherwise.

‘I did everything they asked of me: assessments, IQ tests, drug tests, a spell in a mother-and-baby unit (a specialist home for mothers and young children where both can be monitored). Nothing worked.’

In May 1998, Tracey suffered a ¬nervous breakdown due to stress. She spent two months in a psychiatric unit, during which time the children were, quite properly, placed in temporary foster care. ‘I refused to see them. I couldn’t let them see me in that state, in that place,’ she says.

But when Tracey returned home, social services was already looking into a permanent new home for the three youngsters.

Ben, by now a feisty seven-year-old, refused flatly to be considered for adoption and was returned to Tracey after a year. The girls remained in care, however, and Tracey was told an -adoptive family had been found for them: a housing manager and his wife, a police clerical worker.

In doing so, Cornwall Social Services had taken a step towards fulfilling former PM Tony Blair’s target, announced by New Labour in 2000, to raise the number of UK ¬adoptions annually by 50 per cent. Blair, whose own father was adopted, promised millions of pounds to councils that succeeded in getting more vulnerable children out of foster care and into permanent, loving homes.

Although introduced for the right reasons, critics say the reforms didn’t work and meant younger, ‘cuter’ ¬children were fast-tracked — with ¬councils spurred on by the promise of extra money — while more difficult, older children were left behind.
Tracey fought the adoption every step of the way, arguing that even if she was deemed an unfit parent, then her mother or other relatives would gladly look after the girls.

But in October 2001, a judge at Truro County Court ordered the adoption should go ahead. Tracey was given an hour to say goodbye.

When Winona was 16, she discovered a tool powerful enough to prise open any legal gagging order: Facebook

‘Winona, then seven, reeled off this rehearsed speech, obviously prepared for her, saying: “I know you will always be my birth mother and I will always love you,” ’ recalls Tracey. ‘Her sister, aged just three, grabbed hold of my legs and wouldn’t let go. They had to prise her off. And all the time a social worker was in the corner with a ¬camcorder, filming it all. It was the worst moment of my life.’
Winona remembers that day, too. ‘I didn’t really understand that I wouldn’t see Mum again. I’d been seduced with tales of this new home, with ponies and cats, but I thought it was just temporary and that I’d go home eventually.

‘They [the girls’ adoptive parents] told us they loved us, but it was not an affectionate, cuddly relationship. We looked the part, with a three-¬bedroom semi-detached house and family holidays in Spain, but there were a lot of rows and tension. I felt more like a pet than their daughter. I wanted my mum and my real family.

‘Every Christmas and birthday I’d sift through the mail to see whether Mum had sent a card. I devised childish plots to get a message to her, and tried writing my telephone number in invisible ink on letters.

‘I’d ask my adopted parents to drive around Truro, saying I wanted to see the parks from my early memories, but really I was looking for Mum.’

Her younger sister, however, refused to discuss their mother, believing she was a bad person who’d given her away. ‘When I tried to talk about her, she’d clam up,’ says Winona. ‘She was too young to remember Mum as she really was.’

Meanwhile, Tracey had formed a relationship with a new partner, ¬construction worker Ian Yendle, 29, and they had two daughters: Teegan, now seven, and Talia, five.

Banned from making any contact with her older girls, she had given up hope she would ever see them again, though she continued to send birthday and Christmas cards through social services in the hope they would be passed on. They never were.
Then, when Winona turned 16, she discovered a tool powerful enough to prise open any legal gagging order: Facebook.

‘It took only a couple of hours,’ she says. ‘I knew Ben had my old surname, and it was easy to find Mum through his profile. I sent them a ¬message: “Hi, I think I might be your sister/daughter.” ’

Tracey wept with happiness when she read the message, but her elation immediately gave way to terror that she could be hauled before a court and the children whisked away when she replied.

I’d ask my adopted parents to drive around Truro, saying I wanted to see the parks from my early memories, but really I was looking for Mum

So Tracey, Ben and Winona arranged to meet in secret at Truro Station days later. Numerous clandestine meetings were subsequently set up with Tracey’s sisters and extended family.

Eventually, after seeking advice from a forced adoption support group, they decided to let Winona’s younger sister into the secret, and she spoke to Tracey on the phone.

‘After my sister hung up, she said she couldn’t believe how nice Mum was,’ Winona recalls.

Winona eventually came clean to their adopted parents.

‘My adoptive father called while I was with Mum and asked where I was. I told him I was with my mother, and he was confused, saying: “But your mum’s here.” When I explained I was with my real mother, he told me I was in terrible danger and that he’d come and pick me up immediately.’

Tension in the house became unbearable after that. It is hard to imagine the pain the adoptive couple must have ¬suffered, having been rejected by two children they’d raised as their own for nine years. Yet Winona’s emotions are still too raw for her to feel sympathy.

‘I couldn’t feel sorry for them. No one forced them into this situation. If ¬everyone had been honest, it wouldn’t have happened. I didn’t love them; I couldn’t. I loved my mum,’ she says bitterly.

That was a month ago. Both girls have now left their adopted home — they packed a bag and went without saying goodbye. Winona’s sister is with Tracey, while Winona herself is staying minutes away at her aunt’s, due to lack of bed space.

‘For the first time in years I feel I’m where I belong,’ says Winona.
She has since opened a page on Facebook entitled Anti Social Services Forced Adoption — We Can Help! to assist other children in the same plight.

She is being supported by Oxford University law graduate and businessman Ian Josephs, who has championed the cause of parents whose children were forcibly removed by social workers, ever since he was a Tory county councillor in the 1960s.
Tracey has been visited by a social worker about Winona’s younger sister and still doesn’t know what will ¬happen long-term. Yet she is still acutely aware of their power — a fact that hasn’t escaped her daughters from her new relationship.
‘Talia asked me recently whether I would still be able to love her when she gets older, or would she have to go away like her sisters,’ says Tracey. ‘I told her no, she would always live with Mummy and Daddy.’

Pondering her own future, Winona says: ‘I used to want to work in ¬childcare, but I’m not so sure now. One thing’s for certain, though, I won’t be a social worker. I have seen what they can do.’

A spokesman for Cornwall Council said she was unable to comment ¬specifically on Winona’s case, but said: ‘Social services do not unnecessarily take children into care to be adopted. It is dangerous to suggest that this is happening and that the care system is not the right place for children who are at risk.

‘Children are only adopted when it can be shown that it is in their best interest, and this decision is scrutinised by an independent guardian, as well as an adoption panel with a majority of members independent of the local authority, and by the court.’