Home after a YEAR in care: The twins snatched by the state after mother’s innocuous remark sparked a social services witch hunt
By Vanessa Allen
Last updated at 1:26 PM on 2nd April 2011
Leaning over the hospital incubator, Tara Norman smiled proudly down at her tiny newborn twins and whispered: ‘You should see what you have done to your Mummy’s body.’
It was the kind of rueful joke that any exhausted new mother might make after a traumatic emergency Caesarean section.
Implicit, of course, was the emphatic message that she would do it all again in a heartbeat, for the sake of knowing the joy of motherhood.
Tara and Adrian Norman were reunited with their twins Ashley and Olivia, above, after winning a battle against social services
Throughout her pregnancy she had dreamed of the day she and husband Adrian would leave hospital as a family. She couldn’t wait to take their son and daughter, Ashley and Olivia home, and settle them into their nursery. But she had no idea that this passing remark about her figure — lovingly spoken, in a private moment — was being secretly documented by a nearby nurse or that it would set in motion a Kafkaesque nightmare which would tear her family apart.
Observing that Tara appeared ‘bitter’ towards her twins, the nurse updated the babies’ daily diary — a set of notes that are kept as standard practice on neonatal wards to help staff keep track of each premature baby’s progress.
The incident — if one can call it that — was never mentioned to Tara or Adrian. And if there were any other signs that something was amiss, the Normans, as new parents to two premature babies, were understandably too preoccupied to notice.
In fact, they knew nothing of the problem until days later, when a woman from Havering Social Services arrived at their home in Hornchurch, Essex, and announced: ‘I’m here because we want to take your children into care and we want you to agree to it.’
Tara and Adrian Norman from Hornchurch in Essex nearly lost their twins for good
The Normans, whose twins were yet to leave hospital, were left bewildered and the woman made no mention of the comment Tara had made about her body.
Speaking exclusively to the Mail, Tara says: ‘We couldn’t believe what was happening. I made a silly joke and suddenly they were ripping our family apart. We told her we’d never agree to our children being taken away. So she said: “Then we will see you in court.”’
Any loving parent would have been panic-stricken by such a threat — but for the Normans it was even worse. This threatened their only chance of having a family. Owing to a rare hormone disorder, Tara is unable to conceive naturally.
The couple had endured five gruelling rounds of IVF and suffered a miscarriage before she eventually fell pregnant with twins.
There could be no doubt of their desire to become parents or their commitment to care for their children, yet social workers claimed that Tara had made ‘emotionally abusive’ comments towards the twins.
In their professional opinion, Tara and Adrian could not cope with the demands of first-time parenthood with two premature babies.
Havering Borough Council, acting on information supplied by Whipps Cross Hospital in East London,warned that Ashley and Olivia were at risk of ‘significant harm’ and launched court proceedings to take the six-week-old twins into care. According to the hospital, the Normans were struggling to care for the twins, born six weeks early and weighing only 3lb each.
As evidence of their ‘inadequate parenting skills’ and failure to bond with the twins, nurses cited Tara’s comments and occasions when the couple had not fed the children the recommended amount of milk or changed their nappies properly.
‘No one is born with parenting skills, but we were learning as we went along, just like anyone else,’ says Adrian, a 43-year-old former Post Office worker. ‘If we had been given some help we would have been fine. But they only seemed interested in taking the children away.’
Whatever the fears of the nursing staff, who no doubt felt they were acting in the best interests of the children, what happened next seems to be a gross overreaction. Within days a protection order was granted at a secret Family Court hearing and the six-week-old twins were discharged from hospital and placed in a series temporary foster homes.
Tara and Adrian were never allowed to leave hospital with the babies, as a family. ‘We will never have that experience now,’ says Tara. ‘We can never get that moment back.’
The pain of returning home without their children was almost unbearable. They had spent months preparing their four-bedroom, semi-detached home for the twins and had decorated a Winnie The Pooh-themed nursery.
There was nationwide fury over the death of 17-month old Peter Connelly in Haringey, North London in 2007
Two identical cribs stood empty, toys lay untouched and rows of baby clothes hung unworn in the wardrobe, still with their tags and wrapping. ‘I felt completely empty. I couldn’t even cry,’ says Tara. ‘I had been given these two miracles, two gorgeous healthy babies, only for someone to take them away. It honestly felt like they had ripped my heart out.’
The twins were placed in a foster home, but moved within 24 hours to a placement with a foster family near Southend, Essex, an hour’s drive from the Normans’ home in Hornchurch. Tara and Adrian were allowed just five hours’ supervised contact a week.
Recalling their first visit, Tara says: ‘We walked in and I saw our tiny eight-week-old twins propped up on the sofa between the foster carers’ two children, who were just nine and five.
‘I started screaming. My children had been taken away because I was supposed to be a risk, so why was it OK for a five-year-old to hold them?’
Tara’s infertility was caused by a childhood infection, which resulted in a hormone disorder. She and Adrian, who met in 2003 and married a year later, always knew fertility treatment was their only hope of conceiving.
Former head of children’s services at Haringey Council Sharon Shoesmith was sacked over the ‘Baby P’ case. She became the focus of public anger after initially defending her department over failings that led to the death of Peter Connelly
In May 2005, their GP referred them for IVF and the couple sought private treatment, to avoid NHS waiting lists.Over three years, they spent an estimated £38,000 on IVF treatment, paid for from a £1 million compensation fund, which Tara received after being hit by a car on a zebra crossing at the age of 19.
Fifth time around, the treatment worked; the twins were successfully implanted in May 2008 and the couple made arrangements for the twins to be delivered at a private maternity hospital, The Portland, in Central London.
But two months before her due date, Tara developed the potentially fatal condition pre-eclampsia, and she was rushed to Whipps Cross for an emergency Caesarean section. Early hospital notes praise the Normans for their efforts, as well as indicating their need for ‘help, encouragement and constant supervision’.
But on January 29, 2009, a month after their birth, a senior nurse referred the family to social services, stating: ‘I feel that babies’ health and safety needs will be compromised if babies are discharged home to parents without social services’ input.’
Adrian and Tara acknowledge their inexperience and insist they would have welcomed support from social workers. But instead, Havering began care proceedings.
It was ten agonising months before Tara and Adrian were allowed to see and hold their own children unsupervised. During that time they were warned during court hearings that their desperately longed-for twins could be put up for adoption. Who could blame the Normans for believing they were on the verge of losing their children for good?
Under the social workers’ diktats, Tara was told she should stay at the foster home in Southend for five nights a week, to gain some hands-on experience of caring for her twins.
The foster couple’s home was officially designated as a ‘mother and baby unit’, so Adrian was still limited to seeing the children for only an hour a day, five days a week.
The arrangement was intended to bring them closer to taking the twins back. But to witness another couple acting as parents to their children was excruciating.
Tara says: ‘The smallest things were unbearable. One day they had put dummies in the babies’ mouths to stop them crying. That should be my decision. I’m their mother. Whenever our contact hours were over, I would beg them just to leave us for a minute longer. Letting them go broke my heart every time.’
They were told to get separate solicitors and warned that it was possible custody would be awarded to just one of them, meaning they would have to live apart after five years of marriage.
It was, without doubt, an extraordinarily cruel punishment for a non-existent crime. Without evidence that any violence or abuse had ever taken place, huge decisions were made in haste. As a result, the twins spent their first precious year in the arms of strangers.
But why did it happen? Tara and Adrian have a theory. The twins were born in December 2008, at the peak of nationwide fury over the death of Baby P — Peter Connelly — in Haringey, North London.
The Normans think they were victims of political panic as their twins were born during the nationwide fury over Peter Connelly’s death
As details of the case emerged, social services came under fire for failing to stop the abuse that led to the toddler’s death. Campaigner Alison Stevens, of Parents Against Injustice, says the number of care proceedings launched by councils has increased by up to 75 per cent since then: ‘We’ve been flooded with calls from parents who fear they may never get their children back. Families have been ripped apart.’
The Normans believe they were victims of the ensuing political panic. And even when, in March 2009, the twins’ court-appointed guardian formally recommended they be returned to their parents as soon as a parenting assessment was completed, nothing could halt the wheels of officialdom. When Tara protested, social workers noted that she had ‘anger problems’. She admits she once threw her handbag at a wall in fury, and it hit a social worker on the arm — she accepted a police caution over the incident.
Two social workers also claim she threw her mobile phone at them. Her understandable frustration was regarded as proof of the risk she presented to her children.
‘They had taken my children away from me. How was I supposed to react?’ she says.
In January 2010, more than a year after their birth, the twins were allowed to go home with their parents under a court supervision order. Key to this was Adrian’s decision to take voluntary redundancy to help Tara to care for the twins.
Health visitors and social workers visited the family’s house at least once a fortnight and consistently reported that Ashley and Olivia were ‘happy and content children’.
Tara said: ‘I had imagined taking two tiny babies home from hospital, but by the time they were finally allowed to come home they were one-year-olds. ‘The first minutes on our own in the house were almost unbelievable — it had taken a year to get to a point where we were finally alone with our own children.’
Now toddlers, Ashley and Olivia cling to their parents and demand constant attention, but the Normans hope they will not remember their separation as they grow up. No further concerns were raised and the court supervision order expired in February this year.
The Normans, who are considering taking legal action against the council, have received no formal notification from the court or the council, although Family Court officials have confirmed to the Mail that the case has been closed.
But they cannot shake the fear that officials will find a pretext to take their children again.
A spokeswoman for Havering Borough Council said: ‘We have worked hard with the family and are pleased that after a year of supervision and Mr Norman’s decision to be at home during the day, we have closed our orders.’
It may be over as far as the council is concerned, but Tara, Adrian, Ashley and Olivia continue to live with the impact of their decisions.
‘I find excuses just to be near the children now. I’ll tickle Olivia’s face or pat Ashley’s tummy,’ says Tara. ‘And when I do, they look up at me and say “Mum”.’
Their ordeal may finally be over, but for years to come, precious moments like these will serve as a reminder of all that she and Adrian so nearly lost.