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August 15, 2009 permalink
When Angela Wileman's husband had a drinking problem, she made the mistake of asking social services for help. They made the vague charge of "emotional abuse" and put son Lucas on track for adoption. Angela fled the UK with Lucas and spent years on the run. Since she is finally free of legal restrictions, the press can tell the whole story with names. Angela's experiences resemble less fortunate women who return to their husbands after finding shelters even more abusive.
This mother went on the run across Europe after social workers tried to snatch her son. Her crime? Letting him see her husband shout at her...
By Sue Reid, Last updated at 1:04 AM on 15th August 2009
Angela Wileman never thought this day would come. She wraps her arms around her seven-year-old son Lucas, as if she cannot let go. 'I have fought to keep him and I have won. At last we can stop running away,' she says with relief in her voice.
Sitting in the garden of her home, with toys strewn on the lawn, this English mother is still stunned that earlier this week she eventually triumphed against social workers planning to seize her son and hand him to new adoptive parents.
For two years she has played a cat-and-mouse game as the British authorities spent thousands of pounds chasing her around Europe, decrying her as a bad mother and threatening to put her in prison. An MP is now demanding an investigation into the waste of taxpayers' money by Devon social services.
Terrified of losing Lucas, Angela fled first to Spain and then Sweden. She now lives in County Wexford, Southern Ireland. The authorities in each of the countries deemed her a perfectly good mother to her son and let her keep him.
But it had been a very different story back in Britain, where Angela, 33, fell foul of a disturbing new tactic by social workers.
In the past ten years there has been a 50 per cent rise in the number of parents who, just like her, have been accused of 'emotionally harming' their children. A quarter of forced adoptions happen after social workers allege that the child has been the victim of emotional abuse - far more than instances of sexual abuse or cruelty.
Last year, 6,700 'emotionally harmed' children were placed on the protection register. There were 2,600 registrations for sexual abuse and 5,100 for physical abuse.
Parents who social workers say might shout at, or even loudly reprimand, their children in the future have been branded as potential emotional abusers and had their toddlers or newborn babies removed from them.
'Emotional harm' is the latest buzz phrase in the social workers' lexicon - one that can condemn almost any family. Yet it has no strict definition under British law.
Yesterday, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail, Angela spoke for the first time about her historic battle with British social services.
Her ordeal began when she approached them to seek help for her alcoholic husband. Events took an extraordinary turn when she was accused of emotionally harming Lucas by allowing him to witness her husband's violent behaviour towards her.
She has always denied such a thing. Lucas himself said to social workers that he had never seen his mother hurt by his father.
But suddenly Angela, a middle-class estate agent whose father is a successful businessman, found herself fighting to keep Lucas, who was handed to foster parents and prepared for adoption.
A church-going Roman Catholic with a university degree, Angela came within a whisker of losing her son. Only a decision earlier this year by the High Court in Dublin to throw out an abduction case brought by Devon social workers has kept her family together.
As a result, Devon County Council this week finally withdrew its care order on Lucas and therefore Angela is free to tell her heartbreaking tale for the first time.
So, what was Angela Wileman's so-called crime? The answer is that she fell in love with the wrong man. She married Matthew, the owner of a decorating company in her home town in Leicestershire. It was a happy match for the first two years - until he began to drink.
'If he was stressed, he would hit the bottle, shout and then occasionally hit me,' Angela recalls. 'We had everything a family would need or want. We both had good jobs. I drove a new BMW. I bought designer clothes for myself and the children.'
But, in 2003, when Lucas was one, Matthew slapped her. Fatally, she contacted social services to report his domestic violence and ask for help to stop him drinking. They began to monitor the family.
In 2004, Matthew was given a two-year probation order because of his behaviour and sent on a course to help stop his domestic violence. He moved out of the family home. Yet social workers refused to believe that Angela was not still with him or that Lucas had not seen his late-night tirades.
Angela refutes this: 'Lucas has no concept of his father's behaviour. He was two when he last lived under the same roof as Matthew. How could he remember anything?'
Social workers warned that if Matthew returned home Lucas would have to go. So in 2006, Angela decided to move hundreds of miles from the Midlands to a small village in Devon, near where her accountant mother lived.
She got a good job at the local estate agents and rented a house. But in October that year, Matthew decided to follow his now estranged wife and set up home in a town 20 miles away.
Consequently, Devon social workers said Lucas must be removed from Angela 'just in case' his father turned up. 'When I heard that Matthew was in Devon, I contacted the police and the social services myself,' she recalls now. 'I said he was not visiting us and that Lucas was completely safe with me.'
Nevertheless, social workers obtained a court order to take Lucas into care.
'They arrived at his nursery school on a Friday afternoon and took him away to a foster family. The nursery staff argued that I was a good mother. Lucas was crying for me as the social workers dragged him into their car.'
The little boy would ring Angela and beg to be taken home. He was sent to three foster homes and three different schools in a matter of months. Disoriented and deeply unhappy, he could not understand why he was not allowed to live with his mother.
It was then that Angela made a fatal mistake on the advice of the 'guardian ad litem' (an independent social worker appointed in adoption proceedings to look after the interests of the child).
'She said that I should make a home with Matthew for the sake of Lucas. She thought that the courts would return Lucas if he lived with his mother and father, and social workers monitored what was going on.
'I was desperate to get my son back. Matthew went to the doctor to seek help about his drinking and they put him on anti-abuse medication.
'In the end, I agreed to try to rebuild our relationship. We had separate homes at first. But then Matthew lost his job and I said he could move in with me just before Christmas in 2006. I was trying to mend my marriage, so, of course, I slept with him. I wanted to get my son back,' she says simply.
Angela duly became pregnant by Matthew in early 2007. Soon afterwards, she realised the guardian's plan was useless.
'Eleven different judges had heard our case by then. I was seeing Lucas less and less. The social workers were deliberately chipping away at the amount of time I was allowed to be with him. They said, and put in writing, that they were getting him ready for adoption.
'He would cry for me. On his fifth birthday I was not allowed to visit him.'
A video clip (recorded on Angela's mobile phone) of one of her few meetings with her son at a council 'family centre' shows Lucas screaming 'No, no, no' and then throwing himself to the floor as a social worker tries to lift him up, before the front door is slammed in his mother's face as she tries to say goodbye.
'He was wetting the bed. At school he said was going to run away "back to Mum". They put a lead on him to stop him escaping at playtime.'
As she explains: 'I was horrified at the thought of losing Lucas. It got worse when I told the social services I was pregnant and they immediately threatened they would take the new baby when he was born.'
Angela began to plan her secret escape abroad - not even telling her mother. She made her move one day in June 2007, while Lucas was on a day out with relatives.
She bundled him into her car and caught a ferry from Portsmouth to France. From there, she drove to Malaga in southern Spain and set up house secretly on the Costa del Sol.
There, Angela began a new life. She rented a five-bedroom house with a pool. She hired a nanny so she could get a job renting out holiday villas. Lucas went to a local school and she began divorce proceedings in Spain against her husband back in England.
It was at this point that she gave birth to Marco.
'After one day in hospital, I went home, because Lucas had developed a dreadful fear of me being away for more than a few hours after his time with the fosterers.'
When her estranged husband found out where Angela was living - she suspects through the divorce papers or via a friend - he went to see her new son.
Angela alerted the local police and took out an injunction in the Spanish courts to stop him visiting the family.
In time, life got better. As she explains: 'Lucas had friends. He learned to swim, to go skateboarding, to ride a bike. He was settling down at last and was happy.'
But then, one day in August last year she got a call from the Spanish police. They had been sent documents by the international police force, Interpol, from Devon social services and the powerful International Child Abduction and Contact Unit in Chancery Lane, London.
The unit is empowered to send teams of social workers across the world to find children taken out of the UK jurisdiction. Most of these incidents involve children in custody wrangles, where one parent has snatched a child and gone abroad. But others involve cases where a parent has run away with a child to avoid them being forcibly adopted by British social services.
The abduction unit had traced Angela after she registered Lucas at a Spanish school and with a doctor.
The papers accused her of kidnapping Lucas and said that he should be sent back to England and into care. If she didn't comply, Devon social workers theatened to travel to Spain to seize him. Angela was warned that if she ever returned to Britain she would be arrested by police for child abduction.
She was also told to attend court the following Monday so the 'rights of custody and return of the child' could be enforced under European law.
Angela recalls: 'I went straight down to the police station. The officers apologised because, of course, the Spanish authorities had no concerns about me caring for my own son. Lucas could hear my conversation with the officers. He cried because he was frightened of being taken again.
'That night, back at our house, he had a nightmare. He was so scared. Why would anyone want to put a child through that when I am a strong, independent and loving mother and we were a happy single-parent family?'
Angela felt her only choice was to plan a second secret escape.
The next day she gave most of their possessions to friends and set off with five suitcases of the boys' clothes and toys. In the evening she crossed the border to France, before taking a flight to Sweden.
Once there, she sent a handwritten statement to the Spanish and English authorities stating: 'It makes no sense to fly my son with people he fears back into care with strangers. I still do not understand how my thriving son can be taken from me on the assumption that he might suffer emotional harm in the future. Dragging him into care caused him to suffer more emotional harm than anything he ever suffered at home.'
But soon Angela was penniless. She could not speak Swedish, so could not find work. And when she applied for a passport for baby Marco at the British Embassy in Stockholm the Devon social workers were soon on her trail again.
Realising that she would have to move quickly, she decided to try Ireland. So just before Christmas last year she moved on, again secretly.
Although she contacted the Irish authorities to claim child benefit, they never threatened to take Lucas or Marco away. 'In fact, they have done everything to keep us together,' she says.
But the British abduction unit and social services tracked her yet again because of the benefits claim.
Devon social services says it has a 'duty of care' to all children in the county and refuses to comment in detail on Angela's case. But John Hemming, a Lib Dem MP who advises such families, says he knows of 15 mothers now on the run.
Calling for the investigation into Devon's behaviour, which he estimates cost £100,000, the MP said: 'How can anyone in their right mind think that seizing a child for adoption from a decent mother is a good thing for the child? This is happening every week in Britain on the basis of accusations that parents are "emotionally harming" their children.
'So much money and time is squandered on badgering them that social workers don't have the resources left to find the real abusers of children such as Baby Peter.'
The Mail has spoken to Matthew, who has now stopped drinking. He confirmed that he'd had problems because of his alcohol-induced violent behaviour towards Angela, but said this was all in the past.
One of the reports on Angela Wileman by Devon social workers states: 'There is nothing to suggest that this mother is anything other than capable of meeting her son's physical needs. All concerns have been based on the volatile and sometimes violent relationship towards her by her husband.'
It is a testimony to Angela. Today, as she faces the future with hope she still looks back with anger. 'Why would anyone want to rip a small boy away from his mother and give him to strangers?'
As Lucas bounds out of his mother's arms, he says simply: 'I want to stay with my mummy because I love her.'
Now, at last, he has got his wish.
Source: Daily Mail