Mrs A, the mother at the centre of a damning report into the actions of Moray Council social workers, which was published in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, is speaking over a Zoom video link.
A former civil servant, she is well spoken and mild-mannered as she describes the trauma that has engulfed her family since March 2016, when she first contacted the council for support for her 11-year-old autistic daughter.
It’s a story which has not come to a full conclusion and she is now considering legal action against the council.
The report by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman catalogues the procedural breaches and failures of the social work department but doesn’t touch on the emotional turmoil experienced by Mrs A and her daughters after she asked for help after her husband left.
She says she was belittled by social workers, had her mental health questioned, was told she was a risk to her children and was separated from them for more than 18 months.
For the children it meant being placed in a residential care home for teenagers and in temporary foster care; and it has left the older girl with severe mental health problems and an eating disorder. “At meetings, when I would be crying, they’d say, ‘Look at the state of her, she’s mentally ill’,” Mrs A recalls. “I wasn’t, never had been and it’s not a crime even if I had been – all I was was totally devastated. Even now I truly don’t understand why they took the actions they did.”
Mrs A says her elder daughter was always “a handful” but “as she was my first child I didn’t realise how different our lives were to other people’s. It was a gradual process for us to realise she was possibly autistic.
“When my husband left I realised that, as a single parent and full-time mum, I needed more help. We had a one-to-one support worker but we were paying her directly and what I wanted was self-directed support to enable me to continue to have her work with us.
“I contacted the council for an assessment of my daughter’s needs. So we had a visit and then suddenly it was all about my parenting and that I needed support with that – that everything I was doing was wrong.
“I was completely vilified by the social workers yet I was an adoptive parent of a child who had her own trauma-based needs, and that’s not something bestowed lightly. To be so highly regarded by one set of social workers and to be treated as if I was a dangerous, underhand lying person by another set was unbelievable.”
At the root of the problem, she believes, was a refusal to believe that her elder daughter was autistic. Instead, she says, they regarded her as a mother who had “ruined” her child by allowing her to “act out”.
“My daughter couldn’t handle people coming into the house, at unexpected times, judging her, telling her what to do, criticising me, so she would be having autistic meltdowns as they just used to turn up whenever they liked, and it felt as if they were doing it to provoke her,” she says. “The correct thing to do when she’s like that is to be hands-off, loving and calm, but they thought this was me being passive, that she was spoiled and didn’t have boundaries. It was so ignorant. It was as if they hadn’t met a child with autism before.
“My hands-off approach during her meltdowns didn’t go down well. At one time she tried to overturn the kitchen table and my other daughter was sitting on my lap so I carried her out the room and asked her to run upstairs and play and I would sort things out. Yet in court they said this was me favouring the child who was misbehaving to get attention and the child who was behaving was removed. That was my poor parenting apparently, that I was favouring one over the other.”
Mrs A said that a working diagnosis of autism had been given by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and by a private consultant “but they kept saying they did not have to accept it. Even when CAMHS gave an official diagnosis in February 2017 they did not accept it – for them it was all about my parenting and I was vilified.
“They were horrible, rude women. I was like fresh meat to them, a dripping roast.”
Within five months, and despite council legal advice saying there were no grounds, the two social workers at the heart of the case applied for a Child Protection Order on the grounds of parental mental health concerns and the girls were removed from their home.
“I was never asked about parenting or our daily routine, I was just told I didn’t have one. I would go to these meetings, these reports would be tabled and verbal accusations made.
“The grounds for putting the children on the child protection register were not true; and they claimed I was emotionally abusing her when I was giving her books on autism so she could understand herself better. And no other professional challenged any of it.
“I was a civil servant and was used to sitting in meetings like that, but it was so personal and unjust and twisted and I would end up spluttering and crying and looking like a basket case.
“My GP wasn’t happy about not being contacted – she had no concerns about my mental health. A practice nurse came to a meeting and reported how hostile it was and that there were no timescales and no targets, none of the things that would normally happen. It was like a rammy, the chair leaning across the table stabbing her finger at me.” She adds: “At one point I said, ‘What do I have to do to get my girls back?’, and they said, ‘You will never get your girls back’.”
By this time Mrs A’s family were “pleading” with the social workers for the girls to be in their care but they too were ignored. “That was because they refused to accept I was a risk or a bad parent.”
According to an independent social worker and Mrs A’s advocate through the complaints process, Maggie Mellon, what was established as grounds to remove the girls “could be proved against any parent”.
Ms Mellon said: “I know loads of parents with children with special needs and they can lash out at times, and that’s what parents need support to manage, and need understanding. The child needs insight and so do the siblings.
“That’s what Mrs A was trying to do with her approach. But these social workers saw autism as a minor thing.
“I think the whole situation was engineered so they could go to the sheriff. Those applications to a sheriff are not on oath and there’s no other party there, so it’s in secret and they can allege all sorts of horrors.
“In this case they said the girls were relieved to be away and didn’t want to come to the hearing or see their parents. It wasn’t true.
“In fact the younger girl had been hospitalised with dehydration because she cried so much. This is a child who had lost her birth mother, foster mother and now her adopted mother. She wrote to her mum saying she couldn’t stop crying – it breaks your heart.”
Ms Mellon added: “While the older girl was in care, her mum could visit but wasn’t allowed to say, ‘I love you, I’m working to get you home’. They never had a minute to have a hug, and if they got upset it would be reported the contact had been difficult. It was horrific.”
According to the report, the chief executive of Moray Council promised an independent inquiry into Mrs A’s case. Yet it never happened.
Ms Mellon said: “From the top to the bottom it is a failing council. Mrs A and her family have had their lives ripped apart for no reason and now these social workers are in senior places in other councils and sit on Scottish Government groups. That’s worrying.
“They’re making decisions about children, that they should be institutionalised for the rest of their childhood. It’s a terrible scandal.
“Yet the minute they moved to another council area, a new social worker did a very thorough professional assessment and concluded that Mrs A was a caring competent parent.
“So in what way did those first social workers improve the children’s lives? Not at all.”
Mrs A now shares parenting of her younger daughter with her ex-husband and had her elder daughter come home in March 2018.
However, in the August the then 13-year-old was sectioned and taken to a psychiatric hospital for six months because of her anorexia – “the damage they had done to her”, she says.
“We are all broken by this.”