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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 09:59 GMT
Transcript: Missing Children

Missing Children

DATE: 02:07:07

JEREMY VINE: Hello, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama. This baby boy is an only child with a difference, because young Brandon has two brothers and a sister somewhere in Britain, but they'll never come to his party. All three were taken away forever when his parents were accused of harming one of them. But now the evidence that it could all have been a terrible mistake. Taking one child away from its parents, let along three, must be a shockingly hard decision to make, but for the parents, of course, it is far worse, and in this case it was irreversible. Tonight we report on a couple who battled to clear their name and hold on to their one remaining child in the face of medical experts who called them abusers. Now their world has been turned upside down again after a dramatic climb down by their local authority at a time when many are saying that an overhaul of the family court system is long overdue.

JOHN SWEENEY: [v/o pre-natal scan] This is Brandon Webster, not yet born. His parents, found to be abusers, have lost their first three children in forced adoptions, and now....

You're pregnant.

NICKY: Yeah.

SWEENEY: Are you frightened they're going to take the new baby away as well?


SWEENEY: The whole family fears the worst.

MARGARET HARDINGHAM: I am terrified. I'm just afraid that when she goes in to have the baby I'm afraid it's going to be taken before we even see him.

SWEENEY: If they take this child away, what will you do?

NICKY: I don't know. I'm hoping that I wont have to face that.

SWEENEY: The Websters didn't wait to find out.

Video Diary

May 2006

NICKY: Hi, it's Friday the 26 May. This has to be the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Just left everything behind, my family, friends, my home, but I've had no choice.

SWEENEY: Eight-and-a-half months pregnant and on the run. With her mum, Margaret, she fled to Ireland and our camera followed.

NICKY: I don't know for certain what their reaction will be, but I'm hoping that they will see it from our side and.. you know, work from a blank sheet first. See us as parents, monitor us all the time if they wish, you know, check my baby over every day if they want to. But I'm hoping that they will say that we are good parents which we are. That's why I've come here.

It's a quarter to five and I'm in labour at Wexford General Hospital ¿ God help me.

SWEENEY: Brandon was born a fugitive, and no wonder, he's already the subject of legal action. He could be taken at any time by the Irish Social Services.

NICKY: They've taken Brandon and put him in the nursery. I can see him as long as I'm supervised. That's it.

SWEENEY: Norfolk Children's Services flew to Ireland the next day and presented Mark and Nicky with a stark choice. Either Brandon would be taken into care in Ireland immediately, or the whole family could go home to England where they'd be given a chance to persuade their accusers they could be trusted with him.

So why are we reporting this case which would normally be kept out of the public eye? Well, because uniquely a judge agreed that it was in the public interest. He lifted a corner of the veil surrounding the way these decisions are made and what we found showed he was right to do so. The story began in Cromer, Norfolk, in November 2003, long before Brandon was born. Nicky Webster, 26, married to Mark with three young children. One day their second child fell ill.

NICKY: He wouldn't move. For a whole week he just lay and slept. I couldn't even stand him up to get him dressed. I had to dress him while he was lying down. I took him to the doctor's a few times and they said to me: "Oh he's fine, it'll clear up."

MARK WEBSTER: You could see he wasn't right, you know, he wasn't very well, and you could see that he'd gone a bit pale. He wasn't his bubbly little self.

SWEENEY: They took him to hospital because he wasn't getting better.

NICKY: They X-rayed him, checked him all over, you know, trying to see if there was any reason why he just wouldn't walk, and they said they couldn't find anything. The following morning, when he wakes up, he's in a lot of pain, temperature. His left leg from the knee down is swollen and red and really hot to the touch.

SWEENEY: There was no obvious reason for their boy to be so poorly.

NICKY: I had a visit from a paediatrician who said that she'd had the expert radiologist at the hospital look at Carson's X-rays and said that they'd found a fracture in his left ankle which was unusual.

SWEENEY: By ¿unusual' they mean ¿suspicious'.

ANTHONY DOUGLAS, Family Court Advisory & Support Service: No parent, or very few, will admit abusing their children. Many children are abused very seriously and deny it's ever happened, and sometimes professionals are dependent upon forensic examination.

NICKY: She said: "We'd like to X-ray the rest of his body" which I said well yeah, that's fine. When they came back they said that they'd found several other what they call metaphyseal fractures on his body and we don't know how they got there.

SWEENEY: What did they say to you?

NICKY: That our son's injuries were consistent with twisting and pulling and it had happened on several occasions.

SWEENEY: What was your explanation?

NICKY: We didn't have an explanation but.. you know, just because we didn't have an explanation it doesn't mean that we did it.

MARK: The actual way they said that this would have been caused to my son is you would have to pick him up by his legs, and as you pulled him up you twisted your wrist, so you're actually twisting his legs, and then you would have literally had to have gone.... (demonstrates shaking action) repeatedly.

NICKY: For a long time.

SWEENEY: Did you do that?

MARK: Certainly not, no.

SWEENEY: Did you hurt your son?

NICKY: No. I can't understand any parent who would ever hurt their child. We've never hurt any of our children.

SWEENEY: So what was the evidence against them? The original experts said that: "Child B had suffered metaphyseal fractures" they're not clean breaks but chips or cracks of the ends of the bones. According to the experts, pretty much open and shut proof of child abuse. It usually is, and yet they couldn't agree on how many fractures and the police chose not to press charges. Faced with the medical findings, Norfolk took all three kids into care.

NICKY: They said: "We need you to sign the children over to us" and they said they were taking them in ¿ that was that.

SWEENEY: There was more. Child A had very poor teeth and Child B was described as intensely anxious. Both children, said Norfolk, had suffered from emotional neglect.

NICKY: Our children were upset because they'd been taken from us and everybody else that they loved. Our children, at that point, when they saw the psychiatrist, they'd been in care for four months. A lot of damage can be done in four months and I can assure you it was, because they were fine when they were with us.

SWEENEY: Have you ever abused your children?


SWEENEY: Emotional neglect?

NICKY: No. We'll say it till we're blue in the face, until people actually believe us, because to date.. you know, people still have that doubt as to whether we have harmed our children, and we can say with 100% confidence, and our children know the truth. We did not harm them in any way.

SWEENEY: In May 2004 a judge had to decide behind closed doors if Child B's fractures were deliberate. Not a word of the hearing ¿ which last just a single day ¿ could be reported. The judge had no doubts.


JUDGE: I conclude that these injuries are non-accidental injuries. I conclude that the only possible perpetrators of Child B's injuries are the two parents, and I exclude anyone else as being a possible perpetrator of these injuries.

SWEENEY: And that meant, at the next hearing in November, they would lose their children.

MARK: As soon as we started heading for the door our daughter started running towards us. She had to be restrained and held back. She was crying, banging on the windows: "What have I done? What have I done?" you just have to say goodbye to your children and they're saying: "No, no, no, we don't want you to go."

SWEENEY: This was the bedroom of their daughter who even they must by law refer to in public as child A. It's an offence if they don't.

NICKY: She's got all her stuff in there and the strangest thing is, even though she's not been there for.. you know, just over two years, the room still smells like she was, and I want to keep it that way.

SWEENEY: Norfolk sent them a copy of a video advertising their own children to people who might want to adopt them.

What's it like seeing your own... who's that? That's...?

MARK: That's child A, my little daughter. She'd walk into a room and the whole place would just light up.

NICKY: She was always singing. You'd go round the supermarket and she'd be singing.

SWEENEY: So are you allowed to send her any birthday cards, Christmas cards?

NICKY: We can send them...

SWEENEY: From Mark and Nicky.

NICKY: Yeah, but I'd rather not to be honest with?

SWEENEY: What's wrong with sending them from Mark and Nicky?

NICKY: Because they don't know us as Mark and Nicky.

MARK: We're not Mark and Nicky, we're mummy and daddy.

SWEENEY: Within a year of the judge's ruling, Nicky and Mark's kids had been adopted into separate families so now there's no going back. Unless the children choose to trace them when they've grown up, Mark and Nicky will never see them again. And then along came baby Brandon. Back from Ireland the couple were put under intense supervision in a kind of Big Brother house.

NICKY: It's really weird having to pick up the phone and tell a member of staff that we were ready to feed or change or bath or even make bottles. Every childcare task had to be reported and somebody had to come in and observe till the task was completed.

SWEENEY: Brandon, Nicky and Mark spent five months under the cameras so that Norfolk could decide if they were fit parents, or ask the courts for Brandon to be taken like the others. In their search for a benign explanation the Webster's hopes lay with a disease which runs in the family. We reported how four generations on Nicky's side have suffered 100 fractures between them. They've got brittle bone disease. According to the family yellow umbrellas mean they haven't got brittle bones, blue means they have. (umbrella ¿pie chart' suggesting roughly one third positive) It wasn't the answer but it would turn out to be tantalisingly close. Doctors had found no injuries to the other two children, so was there anything other than abuse that might have caused Child B's chipped and cracked bones?

NICKY: I said to them, our son had lactose intolerance which was one problem that he's had to deal with since... well, pretty much since he was born.

SWEENEY: What does that mean?

NICKY: It means that he can't digest dairy. Any time he has dairy it makes him sick.

SWEENEY: In fact the toddler didn't eat solids at all, a vital clue which, as we'll discover, was missed!

These decisions are made behind closed doors. There's no jury, no public, no journalists. The BBC and the Mail on Sunday went to court so that we could report what happened to baby Brandon. Mr Justice Mumby made a landmark judgement.


MUMBY: In a case where the parents allege that they are the victims of a miscarriage of justice it is more than usually important that the truth, the whole truth, should out. If, as the parents allege, they have lost three children and stand the risk of losing a fourth due to deficiencies in the system, then there is a pressing need for the true facts to be exposed.

SWEENEY: That meant we could report that Mark and Nicky won the right to take Brandon home, though he still wasn't theirs for keeps, but at least he was out of the assessment centre. Nicky's search for another explanation went on.

NICKY: Well I'd sit on the computer for hours and hours on end, sometimes till 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. I happened to put in my bone disorders, you know, in my search engine, and I came across ¿scurvy'. Now it's something that I've not really heard of much before, you know, you hear it mentioned in like pirate films and various things, and it never occurred to me that that could have been what it was. But looking at the signs and the symptoms, it just fitted to a tee because I read it out to Mark what I was looking at on the screen and he said: "That's it, that's what the problem is!".

SWEENEY: The experts in 2004 had dismissed scurvy. It's fantastically rare, so how should a child suffer from an 18th century disease in the 21st century? The answer? Soyer milk. Remember how Child B had an allergy to cows milk and ate no solids, he'd been prescribed soyer milk with boosted vitamins. Then a few months on his parents were called in to see a local GP.

NICKY: We went into the room and she said: "Right, he's been on this soyer formula for X amount of months. It's about time he came off because obviously he's not eating any solid food. We feel that the formula is filling him up too much and it would be wise to put him on the supermarket carton milk in order to promote his appetite."

SWEENEY: The GP's advice to take Child B off the vitamin boosted soyer milk may well have sealed the entire family's fate. Child B wouldn't make the switch to solid foods and stayed on the soyer milk diet alone, but his bottle now contained a recipe for scurvy.

The effect of putting a child on unfortified soyer milk would be a serious lack of probably most of the vitamins and minerals. It looks as though in this case it was vitamin C and iron deficiency that hit him first, and as a result of the vitamin C deficiency he had brittle bones that would snap in normal play. But it could have been any of the other vitamin deficiencies developing as well.

SWEENEY: What do you think of the GP's advice?

Very sad, to put it mildly.

SWEENEY: Last week the Websters went back to court, this time with some evidence of their own. An American expert said scurvy and not abuse was the most likely cause of Child B's fractures. One of Britain's leading nutritionists agreed, as did a top radiologist. Some of the original experts stuck to their guns but one admitted to doubts. And just like that the case against the Websters melted away. Norfolk said it would now not try to prove that either of them had harmed Child B. The judge said Brandon was thriving in a caring and loving family.

What does today mean to you to have Brandon with you finally?

NICKY: It means so much.

SWEENEY: So what have we learnt after winning the right to report this case? The bad news for the system is that evidence suggesting that Nicky and Mark were good parents existed all along. We can only report this now because it's finally been mentioned in open court. In December 2003 there was a Child Protection Conference. Child B was put on the ¿At Risk Register' but what about A and C. At first the family's health visitor voted against them joining their brother on the list.

NICKY: She's known me since I was born. She was my mother's health visitor, and she was in favour of us to keep our children without a doubt. She knew us inside and out. She knew that we weren't capable of such things and she knew that our children were well cared for and extremely loved.

SWEENEY: But the health visitor superior, who didn't know the Websters, disagreed. The two women left the room to discuss their differences outside.

NICKY: She came back inside the room and she was in tears. She did not want to do it.

SWEENEY: And yet in the event she voted against you.

NICKY: She had to.

SWEENEY: And we don't just have Nicky's word for it. The health visitor's statement was read out in court.

"The team leader told me that the medical opinion was overwhelming and that I should agree with her, that I should not let my emotions get in the way. I was very upset but I felt I had to do what my superior said. I was very unhappy. I had given my professional opinion that neither parent would deliberately harm their children."

SWEENEY: Why was her view ignored?

LISA CHRISTENSEN, Director of Children's Services, Norfolk Her view wasn't ignored. All views are recorded. I gather there was a disagreement between her and I think somebody else that she works with, her manager.

SWEENEY: Her supervisor. Basically she said that Child A and Child C were not at risk, and the supervisor took her away and then she came back and said no they were at risk. So she was told by her supervisor to change her vote.

CHRISTENSEN: An experienced health visitor would know it's very significant... you know, what she says. So I would hope that nobody would ever say something that they didn't feel was right because that would be not helpful to the process.

SWEENEY: And there were other professionals at that conference who were worried that Nicky and Mark had suffered from a biased risk analysis, they included Child A's head teacher.

NICKY: You don't stand a chance in a room like that, you know, you've got people telling you what bad parents you are and that you're child abusers and there's nothing that you can say about it. You know, you can only speak when the chair tells you that you can.

SWEENEY: None of this would have been known if it hadn't been for the decision to allow Brandon's case to be reported openly.

The head teacher said that - it came out in open court ¿ that A and C were not at risk.

CHRISTENSEN: Yes, that's right, it did, and he expressed his view, as did others.

SWEENEY: So, knowing what we know now, if A, B and C hadn't been irreversibly adopted, would the family be reunited?

NICKY: If they were still in the care system I think we'd have a good chance of having them returned to us. What do you think?

MARK: It would be hard to fight the evidence that's put in front of the solicitors for them not to even think about the children being brought back.

ANTHONY DOUGLAS, Family Court Advisory & Support Service: There was a constellation of risk factors that pointed to a strong possibility of physical abuse to such a degree with such a vulnerable child that I believe professionals took the right decision with the information they had. In retrospect that information is thrown wide open to doubt.

SWEENEY: If we knew then what we know now, do you think A, B and C would have been taken away from the Websters?

DOUGLAS: Probably not.

CHRISTENSEN: Well my answer to it, John, is that as evidence has come forward during this case, we have picked it up and pursued it. And I think that I would hope that people have the confidence that if we were in that situation, then we would have striven to find the truth and done whatever was... and recommended to the court whatever was appropriate as we have done with Brandon.

NORMAN LAMB MP, North Norfolk: This family has had the most awful injustice dealt to them and the system has failed them miserably, and I think they are owed an apology for what has happened.

Would you do anything differently ?

CHRISTENSEN: I don't think I would.

SWEENEY: Are you going to say sorry to Nicky and Mark?

CHRISTENSEN: Well because there isn't anything that I can find that we as a county council have done wrong, it wouldn't be appropriate. But I do say that I have the utmost sympathy for them in terms of still being in a position today where there is continuing difference of opinion amongst the medical experts on this matter.

SWEENEY: Was another pressure brought to bear on Norfolk? Under a controversial incentive scheme it stood to earn extra Whitehall funding if more of the children in its care were adopted.

You were looking to adopt more children. Was this scheme a bit tough on the Websters?

CHRISTENSEN: Certainly not, it has absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

SWEENEY: The Websters want the media's freedom to report their case extended to other families but only if they choose to go public.

NICKY: I would have lost Brandon if the media hadn't been involved. Although Children's Services would say different, we are absolutely 100% sure that Brandon would have been taken at birth, we have no doubt, no doubt at all. We wouldn't have had a voice. You know, nobody would have known about it apart from us and we wouldn't have been able to tell anybody else.

SWEENEY: The new deputy Labour Leader was all for more openness when we discussed the Webster's case last year.

June 2006

HARRIET HARMAN MP, Former Justice Minister: I want people to be confident that the evidence is scrutinised, is challenged, and opening the family courts up so that their proceedings can be reported will be part of people actually answering that question. The stakes in these cases could hardly be higher. What we all want to be sure is not that a situation can be rectified after it's got wrong, but that it's got right in the first place.

SWEENEY: Are you going to change the law?

HARMAN: Yes we are.

SWEENEY: Oh no they're not. The government did ask people involved in the family courts, including children, what they thought about opening up the process and those in favour were in the minority. So family courts will stay private, though that means that potential miscarriages of justice also remain behind closed doors. Because if young Brandon hadn't got our attention when he was still just an image on a screen, and if Mark and Nicky hadn't used the media in their fight to keep him, we may never have heard of 21st century scurvy, and young Brandon might well have just become another letter like his brothers and sisters ¿ Child D.

NICKY: We know that they're providing loving homes for the children and we're eternally grateful for that because we want them to be happy and secure and loved. But it's really hard coming to terms with somebody else raising your children when you know they should be with you.

VINE: John Sweeney reporting. One more battle ahead for the Websters, not to get the original adoption orders overturned, but for the Appeal Court to recognise they should never have been imposed in the first place.

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