When Susann and Stefan met at a carnival in Germany almost 18 months after the demolition of the infamous Berlin Wall and then married and started their own estate agency business, little could they have foreseen the ridiculously complex and difficult times they would face as two ordinary folk going about their daily lives.
Susann grew up deep in the former East German bloc while Stefan was from the town of Ransbach-Baumbach in the Westerwald region.
They were soon to find out about the cold, cut-throat world of business rivalry when they clinched a lucrative deal for their fledgling estate agency business only to be gazumped and robbed of the deal by the very client who had engaged them.
When they tried to take action to prevent the loss of the deal, they found themselves facing a well-established and powerful rival who was quite prepared to take steps to crush the upstarts and so himself benefit from the deal they had engineered.
This led to the declared bankruptcy of their fledgling business and to their banks foreclosing their accounts—all moves that formed the beginnings of what became a growing sense of isolation between themselves and the society in which they were trying to live.
Though Stefan has written his own narrative of their story, it is of necessity tinged with his subjective experience and he puts the start of their continuing difficulties down to this rocky start to their business lives.
In reality, their real difficulties can be traced to the actions of a local authority housed neighbour who, jealous at their lives, then behind their backs contacted the local German social services and made the allegation that they were failing to properly provide for and look after their son, then aged under two years.
Stefan, who had been active in youth politics in his home region and came from a stable family background, and Susann, who had grown up in the much more difficult eastern bloc, suddenly found themselves victims of a harsh world of bureaucracy when the door to their home was forced in by police, their son put into the temporary care of their neighbour and they were whisked off in separate cars to a lcal health centre medical tribunal, which declared they were both suffering from acute schizophrenia.
For two people who had previously had no mental health problem nor any other criminal association with police, this must surely have been like being suddenly dumped into a hostile alien world.
Although they did not lose custody of their child, being unfairly stigmatised in this way by their social peers began to cut into their lives to such a degree that they eventually felt it necessary to flee from their homeland in 1993, leaving behind their other family members.
They travelled to the United States, hoping to start new lives together and spent time in homeless shelters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco before finding temporary refuge with a host family in San Francisco. But they were unable to secure the right to remain in the US and failed in their attempt to secure political asylum, despite the support of lawyers and a senator in Oregon and in California.
Their journey then took them to Northern Ireland and Belfast, where they stayed for several months before moving to Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland and later to Limerick City, where they eventually settled and obtained a privately rented home. By this time they had another son, seven years younger than their first. Both children began to settle into a more stable family home life and, the elder son, his schooling.
Although Ireland was supportive of the family—despite their initial difficulties with at least one immigration control official who declared them ‘dangerous’ on his assessment report—Ireland in the main did not seem to be the place for them to progress.
I had resumed working as a freelance journalist and was based in Limerick in 1997 when I was approached by and met Stefan for the first time. I had written for the mainstream news industry for many years and was a known journalist and was known to many of the national newspapers in Ireland, though perhaps not liked by many of the more cliquish-minded journalists in the Republic of Ireland.
Stefan was looking for assistance with a manuscript he had written documenting his family’s experience. At the time he was struggling to again establish himself as an independent businessman and was selling items he had produced in a bid to fund the publication of what he hoped would be a book telling of his family’s difficulties.
By the year 2000, little had really improved in their lives and both were still dependent on state welfare. Also by this time Stefan had launched and was developing an Internet translation business. They were quite isolated in Ireland and although I knew they might find the same isolation in England, I did consider that they had better chances of improving their lives in the UK simply due to the greater number of opportunities available.
The family took up my advice and moved to privately rented accommodation in central Eastbourne in the UK, and Stefan found work with the American Express headquarters at Brighton. The parents arranged for both boys to attend school, the younger boy at a pre-school for the first time and the older boy attending a school in the town.
During this period the family experienced the normal supportive and interactive roles played by school nurses and family welfare agencies. The parents arranged for the transfer of the older boy to another school after he complained of constant bullying.
In 2001, social services made first contact with the family to say that they had received an ‘anonymous complaint’ from someone who voiced ‘concerns’ about the welfare of the elder son. A social services worker called on the family to discuss this matter and it eventually transpired that the mother of another pupil at the elder son’s school had called with the complaint. Susann and Stefan had been late home from shopping and were not at home when their eldest son came home from school and he had gone to the home of the boy whose mother then made the anonymous call. The matter was cleared up after Stefan pursued the complaint with social services.
In January 2002 another complaint was made—this time to the elder boy’s school—by another boy’s parent, after the elder son followed the boy to his home after school. Instead of seeking out the parent’s of the child and speaking directly with them about the matter, the complaint was made to the school, which in turn passed it on to social services. Social services then addressed the matter as being one of ‘concern regarding the behaviour and safety’ of the elder boy, then aged 10, when he walked home from school.
In 2003, the family moved to a more modern privately rented home in another part of Eastbourne and the boys were transferred to different schools, the younger attending a nearby primary school and the older travelling to a Catholic school a short train journey away.
But their wish for peace and to be let alone to try to develop their lives was not to be so easily acquired. The nurse at the younger son’s school raised concerns regarding him, and without knowing the background details of the family also took it upon herself to cast her own doubts in a written report on the mental state of Susann.
In pursuing her comments and making their further inquiries, social services were then told by a former head teacher of the Bourne School in Eastbourne that Stefan was a ‘paedophile’ on the run—a maliciously misleading and wholly false accusation.
In fact the allegation had its roots in another unfounded, malicious and slanderous comment made by the head teacher of a school attended by the elder son in Limerick, Ireland, when they family were there between 1996 and 2000. Again, without any evidence, the head teacher of St Nessan’s National School in Limerick took it upon himself to declare his opinion that Stefan was a ‘paedophile’ on the run. He imparted this view to the Eastbourne teacher when that teacher contacted his pupil’s previous school.
It appears that social services did not attempt to verify any of these allegations nor did they attempt to clear the issue by verifying their falsity.
Instead, in 2003, Susann and Stefan were informed that East Sussex social services had convened an initial child protection conference, and they were asked to attend.
When the child protection conference took place, the parents attended without having felt the necessity to arrange legal representation. The conference made the decision to place the names of the two children on the East Sussex child protection register, under the terms of ‘emotional abuse’ and ‘neglect’.
As a result, the parents then sought and obtained legal assistance under the legal aid scheme.
It is altogether unclear as to what justifiably valid reason East Sussex social services chose to place the children on a child protection register, a serious issue that has a major impact on any family so caught up. If the family themselves do not comprehend the logic of those making such decisions, the impact can be all the more devastating.
By January 2005, East Sussex social services decided to remove the older boy’s name from the child register, with a report that declared they considered he was not at any risk. However the younger boy was left on the register, still under the category of neglect, although it is difficult to comprehend where neglect is pertinent in this situation.
In 2005 fate again played its part in the lives of the family when I was made unavoidably homeless and they offered me shelter at their home until I could sort out my situation.
It was a decision they made despite the fact that their landlord had at somewhat short notice announced her decision to reclaim the property they were living at. After viewing many properties locally and elsewhere they decided on a house rental in Braintree, Essex and moved in mid July.
However, on quitting the property, the landlord’s agents decided to retain £500 of the deposit of £750, claiming damages to the property to that value. As the property agent had visited some days previously and stated that the house was in good and fair condition and all deposit money would be refunded, this created additional problems, as they were now forced to move without the full rental deposit required at the new property.
I know, as I was driving the truck we had hired for the move and when we pulled away from Eastbourne; we were not really sure that we would have anywhere to move into later that night.
In fact the new landlady was extremely helpful and allowed the family to move in despite well over half of the money she was expecting being unavailable. It took six months and the lodging of a county court case before the unlawfully retained deposit cash was finally returned in full.
Within a few days of moving in and starting the long job of rearranging the new home, Stefan had secured places at local schools for his sons, the younger at a local Catholic school in the town and the elder at a Catholic school near to Chelmsford, although neither would actually start until the commencement of the new term following the summer break.
Stefan had messaged East Sussex social services to say that the family was moving to Braintree but nothing further was proposed. It was by now quite obvious to me that the family was becoming increasingly concerned and distressed by the continuing intrusion into their lives by social services. This was also reflected by the older son.
When the boys returned to school following the summer break, records were traced back to their former schools by school staff and it was thus learned that the younger boy was on the East Sussex child protection register. There had in fact been no effort to conceal this, but by the same token, considering that that had done nothing to validly warrant the intrusive attentions of social services, nothing was done to promote the information either.
Essex social services contacted the family with the information that another child protection conference had been set up in Braintree. Visits were made to the family home prior to this conference and I had been present at those meetings at Stefan’s request.
I also attended the conference, in which it was stated that the children were considered to be at risk of ‘significant harm’ and as a result both were put onto the Essex child protection register.
Derogatory reference was made to my presence at the family home at the conference and on later occasions in reports by social services. In particular I was criticised for writing a letter of complaint to the Chief Executive of Essex County Council regarding the actions of Essex county council’s social services department, a letter which was not even acknowledged by the chief executive or by his office but which was instead passed directly to social services, of whom I had written the complaint.
Fed up with the whole issue, Stefan wrote to social services to inform them that he was withdrawing all voluntary cooperation with them as his cooperation had achieved nothing positive. In response, social services threatened legal action against the family and legal action to ‘remove me from the home’.
After contacting the charity group Fassit UK in a bid to secure some assistance for the family and the increasingly difficult position they were being placed in, I was put in touch with a Chelmsford-based solicitor specialising in child protection legal cases.
The matter appeared before the family court when social services applied for an interim care order but the judge declined to make any order in favour of social services, other than instead ordering the involvement of a ‘guardian’; someone whose job ostensibly is to inquire into the family concerned and investigate social service’s actions in the matter and to report back to the court with their findings and any recommendations.
One of the issues the family had insisted on being cleared was the unfounded reference to Stefan being a paedophile. Investigations carried out by social services and detailed in a report by them declare these allegations to be without substance.
However, in the same report, social services then pointed attention at the ‘mental state’ of the parents, despite having a full and detailed report from a physiatrist in Eastbourne, with who the family had cooperated at the request of East Sussex social services, and whose report declared no signs of schizophrenic behaviour as alleged by the impromptu medical tribunal in Germany.
Despite this, social services continued to request a full mental health inquiry of the parents and as a result at a second hearing at the family court in January 2006, the judge ordered that the parents attend meetings with a national leading family psychiatrist, a man of German origin who could comfortably converse with the parents, in London.
The first meeting duly took place on 8th March. However, papers from the court that were produced at that first meeting and which refer to the purpose of the meetings as detailed by the court had not been seen by Susann or Stefan, nor were copies received by them. Stefan said he thought that the psychiatrist himself seemed to find this unusual.
These issues continue.
And for the past six months, against all odds, the family have been trying to survive on less money than the UK law says that they ‘need to live on’.
And the reason? The Family Working Tax credits system made a mistake in paying too much allowance to the family and has been clawing back the overpayments at a monthly rate that puts the family in great difficulty. Susann is unemployed and must look after her younger son in taking him to and from school. Stefan occasionally finds paid part time work in a packaging plant.
So, just who is the threat to this family and to the welfare of the children?
The parents? My presence at their home?
Or is it not coming directly from social services themselves, and above all, an uncaring Big Brother nanny state?
Just who is right, and who is wrong?
The author has been published widely throughout the international media.