Chelsea Kirtley was changing her 11-week-old son Theo’s nappy in 2017 when she spotted a mark on his stomach. Three inches long and pinkish-brown, Chelsea panicked. It was too late to go to the GP, so she took him to nearby University Hospital of North Tees.
The following day, when doctors could determine no medical explanation for the mark, Chelsea and her partner were taken aside by their son’s consultant and told they were believed to be to blame. ‘He said he suspected we’d harmed him and that he’d called Social Services,’ recalls Chelsea, 28, a carer from Hardwick, Teesside. ‘I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe he thought we’d do something like that.’
Yet social workers seemed convinced Theo was being abused by his parents — and for over a year, as they investigated, he was removed from their care. The agony of being separated from her son and the pressure of feeling under suspicion ended Chelsea’s six-year relationship. She gave up work through stress. ‘I’d sit on the floor of his nursery and cry,’ she recalls. ‘I was having a breakdown.’
It was only after she sought a second medical opinion that Theo was diagnosed with hypermobility — a genetic condition that can cause skin to break or damage easily, which had caused the mark on Theo’s stomach.
In March 2018, he was finally put back into his mother’s care and the case against his parents was closed.
‘Even now I’m extremely anxious,’ says Chelsea, whose son, now four, shares an unmistakable bond with his mum. ‘I daren’t let him climb on things in case he gets a bruise. I’m scared his teachers will question me. I have panic attacks. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.’
Chelsea Kirtley noticed mark on son’s stomach when changing his nappy in 2017 and a consultant called social services and believed Chelsea and partner were to blame. Theo was removed from their care for over a year while they investigated
The number of families subjected to a child protection investigation in which no further action was taken has more than tripled in the past decade, from 43,400 in 2010 to 134,620 last year, according to Government statistics. Last month Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, said: ‘If such a high number of investigations are ending in no further action, you have to accept that means we are intervening when we don’t need to.’
While social workers must protect vulnerable children, strict policies drawn up by local authorities are subjecting ever more innocent parents to invasive scrutiny and the pain of separation.
Andy Bilson, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire, who investigates Social Services’ treatment of unexplained bruises on babies, says eight local authorities now insist a formal investigation must be triggered by a single unexplained bruise.
‘These policies are based on the idea that bruising in pre-mobile children [too young to walk or crawl] is rare,’ he says. ‘But research shows that 27 per cent of pre-mobile children will have a bruise in a seven to eight-week period. Research tells us that on any one day around five per cent of all pre-mobile babies will have a bruise.’
I’d sit on his nursery floor and cry. I was having a breakdown.
Once a parent whose child has an unexplained mark is under suspicion, many authorities focus on ascertaining why a parent would have harmed their child, rather than whether it was likely they had harmed their child at all. Such investigations can take months.
Hospital staff had asked Chelsea if she had any explanation for the mark on Theo’s stomach. ‘I said perhaps I’d done his car seat belt up too tight and mentioned that hypermobility ran in my family. But the doctor said it couldn’t be that. He dismissed everything I said.’
A spokesperson for North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said: ‘The decision to refer was based upon standard protocol in line with safeguarding children procedures.’
Although Stockton Council social workers, who arrived at hospital that day, appeared to accept the theory of abuse, Chelsea says a police officer who came to the hospital to informally interview her said there was no case to progress.
Chelsea provided Social Services with names of people Theo could live with as they investigated and it was agreed he would live with his paternal grandmother and her sister.
‘We thought Theo’s test results would clear our names,’ says Chelsea. But his X-ray and scan results revealed no medical conditions. ‘We knew we hadn’t done anything wrong, but how could we prove it? It was our word against theirs.’
The differing ways she and her partner, a mechanic, handled the situation compounded her stress. ‘I couldn’t stop crying. He was in denial, telling me that everything was going to be fine. He was frustrated because I was so emotional.’
Chelsea was able to see her son daily, but could not be left with him unsupervised. ‘My sister had to take him to the toilet,’ says Chelsea. ‘My family supported me completely, but it made us all uncomfortable.’ She didn’t tell friends for weeks. ‘They kept asking to see me and I’d make excuses. They were mums, too, and I didn’t want to lose them,’ she says.’
Social Services instigated a Section 47 — a formal child protection inquiry launched when a child is believed to be suffering, that involves a medical assessment of the child and an assessment of their parents. Chelsea was given no indication as to how long the investigation would take.
That December, after Theo had developed other unexplained bruises on his feet and thigh, Chelsea sought a second opinion from Dr Anand Saggar, a geneticist at London’s Portland Hospital. ‘He examined Theo’s legs, noticed he was flat-footed and had a high roof to his mouth — all signs of hypermobility syndrome,’ she says.
It took two months before Chelsea and Social Services received Dr Saggar’s diagnosis, during which time she and her partner split up. ‘We were angry and taking it out on each other,’ she recalls.
In March 2018, Chelsea’s son was returned to her care. On their first evening together for 13 months she sat watching Theo until he fell asleep: ‘I understand Social Services have a job to do but it shouldn’t take this long to do it.’
A spokesperson for Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council said: ‘This was a very complex case and we relied heavily on medical views throughout. Among the expert opinions we gathered were those of a geneticist, a haematologist and a dermatologist. The safety of a child always has to be our number one consideration.’
Since the high profile case of Baby P — Peter Connelly, the 17-month-old from Haringey who died in 2007 after Social Services failed to pick up appalling abuse inflicted by his mother and her partner — social workers have been understandably cautious. But, Prof Bilson argues, by classifying all parents of children with unexplained isolated bruises — often caused by accidents — as potential abusers: ‘We’re doing more harm than good.’
Holly Kobayashi was suspected of harming her eight-day-old baby, Adventure, after he developed a bruise the size of a 5p piece on his left arm in September 2017.
At the time, Holly, 40, a therapist, lived in Newcastle, under the jurisdiction of North Tyneside Council, one of the eight authorities whose policy is to investigate after a single bruise.
‘I’m angry the policy exists,’ says Holly, who has since developed PTSD and cries as she relives her ordeal: ‘That time with my son has been stolen from me.’
She was breastfeeding one evening when she saw the bruise and, as a first-time mother, panicked. ‘I thought it could be a blood clot or leukaemia,’ says Holly, who asked her midwife to look at the bruise the next day. ‘She looked concerned and started talking about “safeguarding procedures” and making calls.’
Social workers accompanied Holly and Adventure to the Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital, where a paediatrician examined Adventure and a terrified Holly was asked what she thought had caused the bruise.
‘I listed everything I could think of. I’d seen him gripping his arm,’ she says. ‘He’d nearly fallen off my lap the night before and I’d grabbed him. I wondered if it had happened when I put him in a sling.’
The paediatrician listened without comment before conferring with social workers. Afterwards, Holly recalls: ‘They said because this was an unexplained bruise there was a process I had to go through. I was hysterical.’
Marion Dickson, Executive Director of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professionals at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said: ‘We cannot comment on individual cases, however we can confirm that we follow national guidelines and have robust policies in place to safeguard both children and adults who are in our care.’
Holly, who had split up with Adventure’s father while pregnant, was told by Social Services her son would be taken out of her care while a Section 47 was carried out. As her brother Graham, 38, a business development manager, was vetted for suitability to care for Adventure the baby remained in hospital and Holly was forced to go home without him. ‘It was like being tortured,’ she says. ‘I was in a state of utter fear and panic.’
Tania Taylor’s son Callum, 16, was put on the Child Protection Register when he was just two (pictured) for a year in 2007 Attended ‘case conference’ meetings while her parenting was monitored
Meanwhile, Adventure underwent invasive tests for signs of physical abuse. ‘The X-rays made him cry,’ says Holly. ‘He screamed as his eyes were pinned open and lights shone into them.’ While police questioned Holly, then her family and friends — they later decided there was insufficient evidence to support prosecution — she was allowed to visit Adventure in hospital to breastfeed. Her body still ravaged by pregnancy and birth, Holly recalls walking to the car park with her baby and the social worker taking Adventure to her brother’s house: ‘I could see people staring at me, thinking I’d done something wrong.’
Several times a week, social workers supervised Holly’s visits to her son as part of their assessment: ‘They always said how loving I was,’ says Holly, who adds that every visit to her son, an hour’s drive away, ended in tears.
She hid her ordeal from all but family involved in the case. ‘I’d make excuses if people asked to meet me. I felt I’d be judged.’
It took four months for Social Services to conclude that the bruise had been caused by accident. ‘All they ever said about me was that I was a loving mother.
‘If they didn’t believe this process was necessary, why did they have to put me through it?’ asks Holly, who has yet to receive an apology. Last September she moved to Stroud, Gloucestershire. But despite her fresh start she is still beset with anxiety. ‘Even now, if he gets a bruise, I’m terrified he’ll be taken away.’
Jacqui Old, Director of Children’s and Adult Services at North Tyneside Council, said: ‘Whilst we can’t comment on individual cases, we would like to offer reassurance that a number of factors are taken into account when determining a course of action, and we always follow an agreed multi-agency approach when there is a suspected injury to a non-mobile child.
‘Social care can be complex and difficult work, but the council is absolutely committed to safeguarding and protecting children’.
Prof Bilson says being suspected of abuse can have a ‘horrendous impact’ on a child’s parents. ‘Many suffer from post-traumatic stress, and suffer for years afterwards.’ Tania Taylor’s son Callum, 16, was just two when he was put on the Child Protection Register, a list of children identified as being at risk of harm, for a year in 2007 after he developed an unexplained rash on his cheek, before being diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome, which left him more prone to bruises and marks.
‘It left me with anxiety that got worse. It changed my life,’ says Tania, 36, a hypnotherapist from Greater Manchester, who also has a daughter, Chloe, 17.
After she noticed a rash on Callum’s cheek her GP referred him to Rochdale Infirmary, where the Head of Paediatrics told Tania he thought the mark could be caused by physical abuse — his assumption based on the fact Callum had other bruises on his body. ‘Those bruises were from playing and falling, which he did often,’ says Tania, then a psychology undergraduate. ‘I felt sick.’
A fortnight later, after tests failed to reveal an illness and the paediatrician’s report raising concerns of parental abuse was submitted, social workers instigated a Section 47. ‘They wanted to know every address I’d ever lived in and every relationship I’d ever had,’ recalls Tania, who had split up with her children’s father a year before the incident and is now engaged to Adam, 41, a train manager. ‘I was terrified.’ After Callum and Chloe were put on the register for children believed to be at risk of harm, Tania had to attend ‘case conference’ meetings every three months at Rochdale Council, with her health visitor, social worker and occasionally Callum’s hospital consultant monitoring her parenting.
‘They told me to carry on doing what I was already doing, which was to take care of my children,’ says Tania, who believes the process dragged on for so long because her social worker was often ill and records were lost.
As months passed, she grew more anxious until one morning Callum tripped and started to fall. As Tania yanked his hand to pull him up, she dislocated his elbow, and realised with dread she had to take him back to Rochdale Infirmary. ‘I was in tears, thinking everyone had been waiting for evidence I was abusing him and now they had it,’ she recalls.
Yet she believes telling a consultant at A&E her concerns helped turn the tide. ‘I’d proved that if Callum had an accident I would have him seen immediately,’ says Tania, whose son was referred for further tests shortly afterwards that revealed his hypermobility syndrome.
In February 2008, Tania’s children were taken off the at-risk register. A spokesperson for Rochdale Infirmary said its NHS Trust was committed to prioritising ‘safeguarding’ and worked closely with Social Services and local partner agencies to investigate ‘in line with national guidance’.
They added: ‘We are both legally obligated, and have an ethical responsibility, to raise and look into any concerns based on clinical evidence where appropriate, ensuring patients and their families understand those concerns and that they are managed appropriately.’
A spokesperson for Rochdale Borough Council said they had a ‘duty to investigate concerns and safeguard children,’ adding: ‘Where there are unexplained injuries to a child there are clear procedures we must follow.’
They said they work closely with health partners and police: ‘If there is cause for concern, a child protection case conference will be arranged. This is a multi-agency meeting to determine whether a child should be made subject to a child protection plan. We support the family throughout and the safeguarding of children remains our key priority.’
For Tania, however, whose son’s hypermobility syndrome worsened as he grew up and required several emergency hospital visits, the nightmare has continued: ‘I was terrified he’d get taken away after any accident,’ she recalls. ‘Each time I had to rush him to hospital I’d cry, believing it would begin again.’
She acknowledges Social Services’ valuable work, but says: ‘Even now I feel disappointed with what they put me through.’