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Page last updated at 16:07 GMT, Monday, 2 July 2007 17:07 UK

Missing children

By John Sweeney

The Websters with baby Brandon
Baby Brandon can return to a "caring and loving family"

It seems hard to imagine a crueller fate for a mother: that her first three children should be taken away forever because of damning medical evidence of abuse - and then for her to discover that the whole thing may have been a mistake.

Nicky Webster and her husband Mark, from Cromer, Norfolk, have won the right to keep their fourth baby, Brandon, but have lost their first three children in forced adoptions. They have to call them in public, A, B and C - it is an offence for anyone to do otherwise.

The couple lost A, B and C because they were found to have abused Child B - but it now seems likely that he suffered from undiagnosed scurvy after a GP took the toddler off a vitamin-boosted diet of soya milk. Had Mark and Nicky known the full facts, they may never have lost their children.

The original Family Court case - they never faced a criminal trial - took place in 2004 behind closed doors. At that hearing medical experts claimed that Child B, their toddler son, had suffered metaphyseal fractures - not clean breaks but chips or cracks at the ends of growing bones - because of child abuse. In a trial which lasted just one day the judge agreed with the experts and A, B and C headed for adoption - which is irreversible in Britain.

When Nicky was heavily pregnant with Brandon, in 2006, she feared that Norfolk Children's Services would take their fourth child too - so she fled to Ireland.

Norfolk social workers followed the Websters to Ireland and gave the couple an ultimatum: either stay in Ireland and lose the child to foster care or return to Britain and go to a kind of "Big Brother" assessment centre where the very authority who had taken their children away would monitor their parenting skills with their newborn son.

The BBC went to court with the Mail on Sunday and won a landmark judgment allowing us to give the Websters' names, show their faces and report the evidence in this Family Court case - a system which has attracted controversy because irreversible forced adoptions take place with no jury or journalists allowed, and evidence is weighed on the balance of probability, not reasonable doubt.

Despite a protracted assessment lasting five months - two months longer than normal - the Websters passed with flying colours and Judge Holman announced last week that Brandon could return to a "caring and loving family".

But tonight's Panorama will report that evidence suggesting exactly that - that the Websters were good parents - was suppressed at the original child protection case conference in December 2003.

Their health visitor - the one professional who knew them best - believed that Nicky and Mark were not child abusers. Child B was placed on the at risk register because of the unexplained fractures, but what about Child A and C.

The health visitor voted that they were not at risk, but her superior took her out of the conference and she returned in tears, and changed her vote.

In a statement read out in court last week, the health visitor said: "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 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."

Nicky and Mark never gave up hope that an innocent explanation could be found for Child B's fractures. After hours and hours on the internet Nicky discovered that scurvy can cause fractures.

Her son, Child B, was allergic to cows' milk and wouldn't take solids. He'd been placed on vitamin-boosted soya milk. Then a GP advised them to replace the boosted soya milk with a less-rich shop bought version to encourage the toddler's appetite for other foods. But still, he wouldn't eat solids.

The family followed the GP's advice for nine months - not realising that he was in grave danger of suffering from scurvy because of a lack of vitamin C.

Now four leading experts have said that scurvy - a disease that virtually died out in the eighteenth century, and which can cause brittle bones - is a much more likely cause of the fractures seen in his x-rays than abuse.

Too late for the Websters: unless A, B and C choose to get in touch with them when they grow up they will never see them again.

Despite the couple's continuing grief over their first three children, Nicky has sympathy for the adopting parents whom they have never met: "We know that they're providing good and loving homes for our 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."

People may ask why focus on one case which shows the system in a poor light when social workers and medical experts do so much to spare children from abuse often at the hands of their parents.

Let Harriet Harman answer that question from when she was Justice Minister last year; "I want people to be confident that the evidence is scrutinised, is challenged and opening the Family Court up so their proceedings can be reported will be part of people actually answering that question about whether that evidence is properly and robustly challenged. The stakes in these cases could hardly be higher. What we all want to be sure is not that a situation could be rectified after it's gone wrong, but that it's right in the first place."

Then she was promising to change the law so that cases could be reported (anonymously unless the family chose otherwise). Now the government has abandoned the idea after a consultation exercise.

So the cloak of secrecy falls once again on the Family Courts and Brandon's case becomes even more special.

Panorama: Missing Children - BBC One at 2030 BST on Monday 2 July

Transcript: Missing Children
10 Nov 06 |  Panorama
Parents battle for child custody
08 Nov 06 |  Norfolk
Baby's parents under a microscope
08 Nov 06 |  Real Story

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