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How dare they say I'm too dumb to be a mum: Defiant mother speaks out after courts rule she's 'too stupid' to care for her child
By Helen Weathers
Last updated at 1:35 AM on 05th June 2009
Photographs of Baby K, proudly on display in her mother Rachel's home, show a pretty toddler with an engaging smile.
In one picture, taken in May, she is blowing out the candles on her third birthday cake, in another she is grinning brightly at the top of a plastic slide as she prepares to whizz down.
'What I'd really like to do is take her to the park, to feed the ducks and buy her an ice-cream,' says Rachel quietly as she gazes at the photographs, 'but I'm not allowed to do that.'
Indeed, Rachel isn't allowed to do very much at all with her daughter during their 90-minute, monthly contact meetings and what she does do is very closely monitored by a social worker.
'Every time I see my daughter, she says "Mummy, why can't I come home with you?" and I have to tell her: "I would really love to take you home, but if I do a policeman will come along and take you away and arrest me,"' says Rachel, 24.
And why should that be? Nottingham Social Services have decided that Rachel - who cannot be named in full for legal reasons - lacks the intelligence and parenting skills to bring up her own child. In short, as this week's news reports sensationally revealed, she has been judged 'too stupid' to be a good mother.
Baby K, who was born 13 weeks prematurely with severe medical complications, was placed with foster carers against Rachel's will when she was well enough to leave hospital at six months old.
Ever since, Rachel has been fighting to get back the child she claims was 'stolen' from her.
Following a number of hearings, Baby K's adoption has now been rubber-stamped and at a hearing at the end of last month a family court judge reduced Rachel's contact visits with her daughter from 90 minutes every fortnight to 90 minutes a month.
This will eventually be reduced in preparation for the adoption - which could take place in as little as three months - after which Rachel will be denied any further contact with her child.
In a last ditch-attempt to stop the adoption, she is planning to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights.
I do not believe I'm too stupid to bring up my own daughter,' says Rachel in her first full interview. 'All I am asking Social Services is for the chance to prove I can be a good mother. I am willing to be monitored, go on parenting courses and accept whatever support they think necessary.
'But I feel they have made up their minds against me. Everybody deserves a chance and every child deserves to be with its mother. How can they say I can't cope with a baby when I've never been allowed to try?
'Adoptive parents might be able to give her a nice house and drive her around in a nice car, but can they love her the same way a mother loves their blood child? I don't think so.
'If she's adopted, I've been told I won't be allowed any contact with her, apart from sending her one letter or card a year, and I won't be able to use the word daughter or mother in them. So what will I be to her? A pen pal?
'What will happen when she turns 18 and tries to find me. Will she think that I didn't want her, that I gave her away? I'll be a stranger to her. Even worse, what if she never tries to find me?
'When I walk around Nottingham, I see other mothers who are no better or more clever than me and they still have their children. Why?
'I see drug addicts and prostitutes who are allowed to keep their kids. They should be targeting parents who hurt their children, not someone who has never harmed a child in her life.'
The idea of forcibly removing a baby from its mother - especially one who so desperately wants to keep her - is one that instinctively appalls.
Rachel has the support of Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, a vocal critic of a family justice system which, he says, 'seems more interested in securing a child for adoption than preserving a natural family unit'.
However, as with many such cases, nothing relating to Rachel's story is entirely clear-cut. Listening to her, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her distress. And yet who would envy the social workers charged with making these difficult decisions?
Sitting in her council flat in Nottingham - flanked by her parents Barry, 67, and Maureen, 58, who have been married for 30 years and fully support their daughter - Rachel appears angry and defensive.
But then perhaps we all would if we'd had a child taken away against our will.
Her confrontational, argumentative nature - (she likens herself to a lioness trying to protect her cub ) - must have done her no favours with social workers.
In truth, she is not the most sympathetic of characters, her voice steadily rising as she angrily dismisses the 'mad' social workers and lawyers involved in her case as the real 'idiots' or 'bimbos'.
But though she may be far removed from the intelligentsia, she doesn't sound stupid or incapable of understanding her predicament.
She just sounds very, very angry, frustrated and upset - convinced, in her humiliation, that social workers acted out of their intense dislike of her rather than the welfare of the child.
Nevertheless, Rachel cannot see that her cramped one-bedroom flat, with its steep staircase leading up to a small living room, might not be the best environment for a lively child.
Both she and her mother smoke, although admittedly they go outside to do so.
Rachel complains: 'Social workers said this flat wasn't safe, but they've never even visited me here. So how could they know? Anyway, the council would give me a ground-floor flat if I had my daughter.'
She has a one-track mind: the child belongs to her, no matter what.
Yet while even Rachel would agree that she does not conform to the stereotype of perfect mother material, isn't that also true of many parents, and does that justify the removal of her baby or - as she alleges - the trampling of her rights by seemingly over-zealous social workers?
As to the matter of her intelligence: who is to say that clever people make perfect parents?
The younger of two children, Rachel says her childhood was happy and unremarkable, although she admits to having a breakdown at 16, for reasons she refuses to discuss, and spent a short period on anti-depressants.
She is not on medication now, nor - she insists - does she drink or take drugs. Her parents worked in a factory and she left school at 16, with no qualifications, working as a cleaner for almost three years before the long hours and low pay led her to give up.
She is now unemployed and living on benefits. She met her baby's father - a family friend - when she was 19, though they were not together for any great length of time.
Rachel admits that Baby K's conception was not planned. Indeed, she says she didn't even know she was pregnant until she was 27 weeks gone and went the doctors feeling desperately sick.
She was admitted to hospital and gave birth the same day.
'It was shocked because I wasn't expecting a baby. She was tiny, weighing one-and-a-half lb and was so small she could have fitted into the palm of my hand,' says Rachel.
'She was very ill and at one point they didn't think she was going to survive.'
Baby K was born with serious complications and needed two major operations (one on her heart and one on her bowel) and also suffered breathing problems, on account of her immature lungs.
'The social workers said I hardly ever visited her in hospital, but I lived in a room on the ward and spent hours sitting by her incubator. When she needed an operation it was me who signed the consent forms, it was me who donated my blood for a transfusion she needed, it was me who worried about her,' says Rachel.
It was a midwife who first alerted Social Services, concerned as she was that this had been 'a concealed pregnancy' which had not been registered with the NHS at an earlier stage.
Rachel says there was no intervention at this time, nor on a second occasion, when Social Services were told Rachel wasn't spending enough time with her baby at the hospital.
They became involved as Baby K approached discharge, six months after her birth, when hospital staff informed Social Services that Rachel wasn't capable of 'telling the time', amid concerns that she wouldn't be able to cope with a baby with such health problems.
'They accused me of not spending enough time with my baby, but I was told to leave the hospital room I was staying in when it was needed by a pregnant woman, and I had nowhere to go,' says Rachel, who was living with friends at the time and was eventually given a place at a mother-and-baby unit, seemingly in preparation for Baby K's discharge.
'They never once said to me that I wouldn't be taking my baby home with me. They'd say things like "If you buy two cribs, you'll be able to take her home" or "If you buy this type of buggy you can take her home", so I bought all these things for her.
'They make out that she needed day-to-day medical care, but my daughter was the first baby to reach 8lb on the premature unit. She doesn't need any more operations. She still has chronic lung disease, but she doesn't need day-to-day care because she's done so well. She's just a normal toddler now, with slight developmental delay.
'Then one day, out of the blue, the hospital phoned me and said: "Aren't you coming to take your baby home?" And when I got there, I was met by a social worker who was with two foster carers. She wanted me to sign some form agreeing to put her into voluntary care and I refused point blank.
'I was her Mummy and it felt, to me, as if they were trying to kidnap her. I was so angry, I went outside to calm down and the next thing I knew, the social worker and two foster carers were driving off with my baby. They'd got an interim care order, allowing them to take her away. I didn't even know where she was for the next week.'
Although officials felt the first-time mother lacked the intelligence to cope with the child and care for her in safety, Rachel was convinced she could, if only given the chance, and says she was willing to accept whatever conditions Social Services imposed.
'They told me they didn't think I had the parenting skills to look after my daughter, so I said "OK, send me on a parenting course", but they wouldn't fund it because I didn't have my daughter with me. I would have had to pay it myself and I just don't have the money.
'I don't think it would have made any difference, because it seemed to me they were determined to take my baby away.'
Rachel's fight to get her baby back was compounded when a psychologist appointed by the council to carry out an assessment concluded that her 'learning difficulties' would mean she would always need a high level of support in caring for her daughter.
Without support, the psychologist claimed, Rachel would pose a 'high level of risk to the child'.
It was also claimed that her 'learning difficulties' left her without the capacity to understand the family court processes or instruct her own solicitor. As a result of the assessment, the Official Solicitor, Alistair Pitblado, who acts for those who cannot represent themselves, was called in.
He declined to contest the council's adoption application, despite Rachel's wish to do so.
She told Appeal Court judges last year that the Official Solicitor's involvement had reduced her to a 'spectator' in the case, even though she had the mental capacity to take part.
'I couldn't believe it when no evidence was offered against the adoption application. They took away my capacity to be involved in my daughter's case when it wasn't theirs to take,' says Rachel.
'This council psychologist said I didn't have the intelligence to understand what was going on or the court process, but I do. I don't have learning difficulties and never have done.'
A study last year found that Rachel's IQ was rated at 71 - the 'average' adult score is between 90 and 109 - but Rachel argues that love is the most important thing and feels she is more than capable to take on the rigours of parenthood.
Or at least have the right to try, until it is proven she can't cope.
MP John Hemming, who is supporting Rachel, adds: 'Rachel does not have learning difficulties, she falls in the same intelligence bracket as 1.2 million women in the UK, and children are not being taken away from their mothers on that scale.
'How can the council make any judgment on her abilities without affording her the opportunity to care for her child? This decision was based on one assessment by a council appointed psychologist and Rachel was not allowed a second opinion.'
A second assessment by a psychiatrist - paid for by Rachel - also appears to back up her contention that she does not have learning difficulties.
It states that, in his opinion, Rachel has 'good literacy and numeracy and her general intellectual abilities appear to be within the normal range'.
'Rachel gave a coherent and relevant account of herself and current court proceedings. There was no evidence of any disturbances in her thought perception. Her moods were appropriate. Rachel did not show any evidence of abnormal mental preoccupation. She was well orientated and her cognitive functions were intact.'
Nottingham City Council says it cannot discuss individual cases, but said this week that adoption cases were 'decided by the courts, taking into account all the information presented by all parties and putting the welfare of the child as the priority'.
In February last year, Nottingham City Council conceded that social workers had acted illegally in removing a baby boy two hours after his birth without seeking a court order, amid fears the mother's mental health problems posed a risk to the child's welfare.
For now, Rachel is determined to fight for the right to see her little girl.
'My daughter belongs with me. Even the social workers accept that we have a bond. It would break my heart to lose her,' she says. 'Sometimes I feel like snatching her up in my arms and taking her home with me, but that would just make the situation even worse.
'When I see her every month, I don't want to leave her and it's getting harder for her, too, because she's beginning to ask questions about why she can't live with me.'
There is no way of knowing what kind of mother Rachel might be, but many people may feel she deserves the chance to find out.