An exclusive investigation by Channel 4 News gains unprecedented access to underground networks which help families flee from social services in the UK.
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The families say they are forced to flee because they will not get a fair hearing in the UK in the family courts. They turn to shadowy networks, often based online, and run by other parents, many of whom have already lost their children to the care system.
The scale and sophistication of the networks is extraordinary. We were told of safe houses across the UK where parents and their children could lie low before heading overseas, of fake birth certificates and of keys for rented homes in foreign countries that are exchanged in the middle of the night by strangers connected only by the networks.
As to the numbers involved it is impossible to verify, but we were told by one woman central to several groups that help parents get out of the country, that there has been "anything [from] 300 to 600 families in the past year that have left [the UK] from the involvement of social care".
The most popular destination is the Republic of Ireland, but the networks extend across Europe, Mediterranean countries being the other main destinations for families on the run.
From UK foster care to Cavan
We went to Cavan, a small town in the Republic of Ireland and one of the hubs for the network. There we met a mother who described a meticulously-planned snatch operation to steal her four-year-old son from foster care in the UK. At an organised contact session, she arranged an untraceable car, fake ID papers and even had a wig waiting in the car. "I knew I had to get him and get to the boat straight away. I knew that if I got caught, I would be done for kidnap," she says.
Her son had originally been put into voluntary care after she had a breakdown. She insists she got better but they refused to return him - leaving her, she says, with no choice but to run.
Having made it to Ireland she turned herself in to the authorities in the belief – shared by many in these networks – that she would get a fairer hearing from Irish social services. "They are not idiots over here but it's the way they act [and] work completely differently," she says. "They took him, completed the assessment and decided what was in my son's best interests."
For this mother that decision turned out to be that she could keep her son. Having been helped by the network herself, she in turn began to help others. This is how the networks regenerate themselves and grow.
Read more: Do expert witnesses harm family court cases?
'Punished for something that we hadn't done'
The charge levelled against the parents we spoke to was not physical or sexual abuse but emotional abuse or the risk of future emotional neglect or abuse. They say it is a charge that they cannot defend themselves against.
We met one British couple, Julie and Andy (not their real names), hiding out in a southern European country [pictured above]. The network helped them flee from the UK earlier this year when they discovered she was pregnant. They are now a couple in hiding.
Like many parents we met, their argument was that they were not given a fair hearing by a system that was too quick to remove children. Their child was removed at birth because the mother, who suffered pre-natal depression during her pregnancy, and the father, were assessed as posing a risk of future emotional neglect.
According to the couple, the local authority "just pressed the nuclear button". Talking about their daughter being placed in care they told Channel 4 News: "We hadn't hurt her. We were punished for something that we hadn't done."
While they accept the need for action in some cases they insist that parents can be accused of something that it is impossible to defend themselves against: "We recognise that that the child protection system is important but you can be convicted of the potentiality of causing harm or neglect."
They are now in hiding. "Once you've lost one you have no chance at all...after our experiences of our first child we have absolutely no confidence at all in the system."
Read more: Families 'traumatised' by court system
Social services vs parents
Channel 4 News discovered an unlikely figure in an unlikely location, who is a central character in these networks. He has taken it upon himself to assist in the flight of many of these families. Sitting in Monaco, Ian Josephs [pictured left], an 80-year-old British businessman, puts it bluntly. "It's war," he says, "between parents who've had their children taken and the social workers who've taken them."
Having first come across what he sees as family courts' injustice some 30 years ago, he now helps hundreds of families each year as they fight the system to keep their children. "I get two or three new calls every single day practically," he says. "That doesn’t sound too many, but if you multiply it by 365 it comes to quite a lot."
But it is more than advice: "I'm no Bill Gates, but I do pay for pregnant women to escape the country."
He is motivated by an unshakeable belief that the system and the family courts have the wrong approach and that other countries will treat parents fighting charges of emotional neglect in an entirely different manner. "If you saw the women that I have seen whose babies have been snatched from them by truly heartless social workers who've shown no compassion, no sorrow, no pity, no words of consolation, you would think that somebody should do something about it," he says.
"Why is it happening so much in England and not in France, for example, where I live, or Monaco where I live, and not in Spain and not in Italy? It's a very British phenomena."
Who are the networks helping?
Mr Josephs and the other networks say they screen parents and do background checks into their histories before offering help. But how much can they really know about the parents and children they help flee the UK and the safeguards of the child protection system?
It all poses profound questions about who these networks are helping and whether they are not in fact putting some children in further danger. It is a view shared by Professor Corinne May-Chahal, the co-chair of the College of Social Work. "It is clearly saying that there is something very wrong with the system, if the only option people have is to run then there has to be something that needs to be looked at," she told Channel 4 News.
She adds that the potential risk to some of the children involved is of serious concern: "There are probably some very vulnerable children and how can we know they are getting the right help? It is really very worrying. If what's happening within the system is forcing parents or encouraging parents to leave then that could well be putting them in more danger."
And she says that this points to a wider issue in the system designed to protect children. "We all know the system has to change. And it’s not just social workers that need to improve - that is the key. Social work has to work within the system and it is the system that needs to change, not just one person or professional body within it."
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