The heartbreaking story that raises disturbing questions about forced adoption
By Julia Lawrence
Last updated at 11:24 PM on 1st September 2010
On a sunny station platform in a pretty Cornish town this summer, holidaymakers may have witnessed a touching, but at first glance unremarkable, scene.
A mother and teenage son were nervously watching a train pull onto the platform, scanning the emerging crowd for the face of a loved one. Had she missed her train? Had they got the right time?
And finally, there she was: a pretty, petite 16-year-old, peering furtively through her fringe. Suddenly the boy broke away with a whoop. ‘It’s her!’
Forced apart: Winona has been reunited with the mother who gave her away
The three immediately became tangled in a hug, babbling, crying, their words tripping over each other. ‘You’ve grown so much!’ ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you are here!’
A very unusual emotional reunion had just taken place. For Tracey Lucas, a 38-year-old mother from Truro, had just kissed her 16-year-old daughter Winona for the first time in nine years.
What took place on that station platform was a scene that the State had worked very hard for years to ensure didn’t happen. In fact, there is still a question mark over whether Tracey could face prosecution, even prison, for what happened that day.
For nine years previously, Winona and her little sister, now 12, were taken from their mother and adopted by another family, given new names and told to forget their natural mother. All contact between them was prevented.
Yet in a story that raises profound questions both about British social services and the power of the internet to challenge their secretive workings, Winona traced her birth mother through the Facebook social networking site and the pair are now determined never again to be parted.
‘For years the girls believed I was a bad mother, a horrible person who didn’t love them, while I was told the girls didn’t want to see me and were settled into a new life with new parents they loved. All lies.‘
Tracey, Winona and her sister were subjects of a forced adoption, which critics — including family solicitors, MPs and wronged families — say are happening on a scandalously regular basis, on the flimsiest of evidence, in order to meet government targets to raise the number of adoptions by 50 per cent.
There have been cases cited of babies taken from women considered too young or not clever enough to look after them. One boy was removed on the grounds that his mother might shout at him in the future.
In Tracey’s case, her children were sent for adoption because they were deemed ‘at risk of emotional abuse’.
No one can really know the truth, and doubtless social services would argue they acted in good faith and in the children’s best interests, but Tracey is adamant she never abused, neglected nor abandoned them.
Yet because she was a young single mother, who by her own admission sometimes struggled to cope, she was forced to surrender the most precious things she had. Worse, she says the children believed that she had simply stopped loving them.
‘For years the girls believed I was a bad mother, a horrible person who didn’t love them, while I was told the girls didn’t want to see me and were settled into a new life with new parents they loved. All lies,’ says Tracey.
‘The birthday and Christmas cards I wrote were never passed on. The letters Winona wrote to me never reached me. That’s real emotional abuse.’
‘Yet my son, who’d refused to be adopted, was returned to me after a year, and I went on to have another two children with a new partner, neither of whom has come to any harm. How could I have been a danger to my girls?’
Winona is just as angry as her mother about the stolen years: ‘Everyone told me what a terrible person she was, but all my memories of her were good: making Christmas decorations, reading Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach in bed. I never felt anything but love from her.’
Today, that love is palpable. The pair cannot stop sneaking looks at each other as they hold hands on the sofa of their modest but cosy home.
The question is: are they victims of a heavy-handed State as they claim, or does their reunion set a troubling precedent that other adopted children may be tempted to follow?
Ripped from her home: Winona aged six, a year before a court ordered that she be taken away from her mother permanently
The nightmare began the day Ben was born, shortly before Tracey’s 19th birthday, in June 1992. The children’s father, another 18-year-old, who Tracey admits was a ‘tricky character’ who’d spent a lot of his childhood in care, had a deep suspicion of social workers.
‘Once they knew who Ben’s father was, I was visited in hospital by a social worker and we were told to sign a document saying we would work with them,’ she recalls. ‘I trusted the system and thought once we’d proved ourselves, they’d leave us alone.’
Tracey is the first to admit that to many people, her family may have seemed less than perfect: young, unmarried and living on benefits in rented, frequently changing, council accommodation as they struggled to find a decent home.
When Winona was born 18 months later, Cornwall Social Services were a frequent presence in their lives.
‘We didn’t do drugs and my partner was never violent towards me or the children. Money was tight, but we were doing our best. We loved our little family.’
But they felt persecuted. ‘They were constantly putting us down, accusing us of being bad parents,’ says Tracey.
‘I remember one social worker telling me to take the children to a bird sanctuary nearby, as that was what “good” parents did. I wanted to shout that I already had plans that day and what business was it of theirs? But I couldn’t win any argument.’
The crunch came in 1997 during Tracey’s pregnancy with Winona’s younger sister, when her partner assaulted a social worker, a crime for which he was rightly prosecuted.
Realising she could lose her children, Tracey left her partner, for nothing was more important to her than being a mother. Yet even with him off the scene, the children remained on the ‘at risk’ list. ‘It felt like they’d made up their minds about me and nothing I did could convince them otherwise.
‘I did everything they asked of me: assessments, IQ tests, drug tests, a spell in a mother-and-baby unit (a specialist home for mothers and young children where both can be monitored). Nothing worked.’
In May 1998, Tracey suffered a nervous breakdown due to stress. She spent two months in a psychiatric unit, during which time the children were, quite properly, placed in temporary foster care. ‘I refused to see them. I couldn’t let them see me in that state, in that place,’ she says.
But when Tracey returned home, social services was already looking into a permanent new home for the three youngsters.
Ben, by now a feisty seven-year-old, refused flatly to be considered for adoption and was returned to Tracey after a year. The girls remained in care, however, and Tracey was told an adoptive family had been found for them: a housing manager and his wife, a police clerical worker.
In doing so, Cornwall Social Services had taken a step towards fulfilling former PM Tony Blair’s target, announced by New Labour in 2000, to raise the number of UK adoptions annually by 50 per cent. Blair, whose own father was adopted, promised millions of pounds to councils that succeeded in getting more vulnerable children out of foster care and into permanent, loving homes.
Although introduced for the right reasons, critics say the reforms didn’t work and meant younger, ‘cuter’ children were fast-tracked — with councils spurred on by the promise of extra money — while more difficult, older children were left behind.
Tracey fought the adoption every step of the way, arguing that even if she was deemed an unfit parent, then her mother or other relatives would gladly look after the girls.
‘I didn’t really understand that I wouldn’t see Mum again. I’d been seduced with tales of this new home, with ponies and cats, but I thought it was just temporary and that I’d go home eventually.‘
But in October 2001, a judge at Truro County Court ordered the adoption should go ahead. Tracey was given an hour to say goodbye.
‘Winona, then seven, reeled off this rehearsed speech, obviously prepared for her, saying: “I know you will always be my birth mother and I will always love you,” ’ recalls Tracey. ‘Her sister, aged just three, grabbed hold of my legs and wouldn’t let go. They had to prise her off. And all the time a social worker was in the corner with a camcorder, filming it all. It was the worst moment of my life.’
Winona remembers that day, too.
‘I didn’t really understand that I wouldn’t see Mum again. I’d been seduced with tales of this new home, with ponies and cats, but I thought it was just temporary and that I’d go home eventually.
‘They [the girls’ adoptive parents] told us they loved us, but it was not an affectionate, cuddly relationship. We looked the part, with a three-bedroom semi-detached house and family holidays in Spain, but there were a lot of rows and tension. I felt more like a pet than their daughter. I wanted my mum and my real family.
‘Every Christmas and birthday I’d sift through the mail to see whether Mum had sent a card. I devised childish plots to get a message to her, and tried writing my telephone number in invisible ink on letters.
‘I’d ask my adopted parents to drive around Truro, saying I wanted to see the parks from my early memories, but really I was looking for Mum.’
Her younger sister, however, refused to discuss their mother, believing she was a bad person who’d given her away. ‘When I tried to talk about her, she’d clam up,’ says Winona. ‘She was too young to remember Mum as she really was.’
Meanwhile, Tracey had formed a relationship with a new partner, construction worker Ian Yendle, 29, and they had two daughters: Teegan, now seven, and Talia, five.
Banned from making any contact with her older girls, she had given up hope she would ever see them again, though she continued to send birthday and Christmas cards through social services in the hope they would be passed on. They never were.
Then, when Winona turned 16, she discovered a tool powerful enough to prise open any legal gagging order: Facebook.
‘It took only a couple of hours,’ she says. ‘I knew Ben had my old surname, and it was easy to find Mum through his profile. I sent them a message: “Hi, I think I might be your sister/daughter.” ’
Tracey wept with happiness when she read the message, but her elation immediately gave way to terror that she could be hauled before a court and the children whisked away when she replied.
So Tracey, Ben and Winona arranged to meet in secret at Truro Station days later. Numerous clandestine meetings were subsequently set up with Tracey’s sisters and extended family.
Eventually, after seeking advice from a forced adoption support group, they decided to let Winona’s younger sister into the secret, and she spoke to Tracey on the phone.
‘After my sister hung up, she said she couldn’t believe how nice Mum was,’ Winona recalls.
Winona eventually came clean to their adopted parents.
‘My adoptive father called while I was with Mum and asked where I was. I told him I was with my mother, and he was confused, saying: “But your mum’s here.” When I explained I was with my real mother, he told me I was in terrible danger and that he’d come and pick me up immediately.’
Tension in the house became unbearable after that. It is hard to imagine the pain the adoptive couple must have suffered, having been rejected by two children they’d raised as their own for nine years. Yet Winona’s emotions are still too raw for her to feel sympathy.
‘I couldn’t feel sorry for them. No one forced them into this situation. If everyone had been honest, it wouldn’t have happened. I didn’t love them; I couldn’t. I loved my mum,’ she says bitterly.
That was a month ago. Both girls have now left their adopted home — they packed a bag and went without saying goodbye. Winona’s sister is with Tracey, while Winona herself is staying minutes away at her aunt’s, due to lack of bed space.
‘For the first time in years I feel I’m where I belong,’ says Winona.
She has since opened a page on Facebook entitled Anti Social Services Forced Adoption — We Can Help! to assist other children in the same plight.
She is being supported by Oxford University law graduate and businessman Ian Josephs, who has championed the cause of parents whose children were forcibly removed by social workers, ever since he was a Tory county councillor in the 1960s.
Tracey has been visited by a social worker about Winona’s younger sister and still doesn’t know what will happen long-term. Yet she is still acutely aware of their power — a fact that hasn’t escaped her daughters from her new relationship.
‘Talia asked me recently whether I would still be able to love her when she gets older, or would she have to go away like her sisters,’ says Tracey. ‘I told her no, she would always live with Mummy and Daddy.’
Pondering her own future, Winona says: ‘I used to want to work in childcare, but I’m not so sure now. One thing’s for certain, though, I won’t be a social worker. I have seen what they can do.’
A spokesman for Cornwall Council said she was unable to comment specifically on Winona’s case, but said: ‘Social services do not unnecessarily take children into care to be adopted. It is dangerous to suggest that this is happening and that the care system is not the right place for children who are at risk.
‘Children are only adopted when it can be shown that it is in their best interest, and this decision is scrutinised by an independent guardian, as well as an adoption panel with a majority of members independent of the local authority, and by the court.’