By Jane Simpson
Four obese children are on the brink of being permanently removed from their family by social workers after their parents failed to bring their weight under control.
In the first case of its kind, their mother and father now face what they call the ‘unbearable’ likelihood of never seeing them again.
Their three daughters, aged 11, seven and one, and five-year-old son, will either be ‘fostered without contact’ or adopted.
Torn apart: The parents, left and right, with six of their children who they fear will be taken away from them
Either way, the family’s only hope of being reunited will be if the children attempt to track down their parents when they become adults.
The couple, who have been married for nearly 20 years and are not being named to protect their children’s identities, were given a ‘draconian’ ultimatum three years ago – as reported at the time by The Mail on Sunday.
Warned that the children must slim or be placed in care, the family spent two years living in a council-funded ‘Big Brother’ house in which they were constantly supervised and the food they ate monitored.
But despite subjecting them to intense scrutiny, social workers did not impose rules on what food the children should eat, and there was apparently little or no improvement.
News of the decision to remove them was broken to the couple, from Dundee, on Tuesday. Critics called it a disgraceful breach of human rights and a chilling example of the power of the State to meddle in family life.
In an emotional interview, the 42-year-old mother said: ‘We might not be the perfect parents, but we love our children with all our hearts. To face a future where we will never see them again is unbearable.
‘They picked on us because of our size to start with and they just haven’t let go, despite the fact we’ve done everything to lose weight and meet their demands. We’re going to fight this to the bitter end. It feels like even prisoners have more human rights than we do.’
The couple have not committed any crime and are not accused of deliberate cruelty or abuse. Their solicitor, Joe Myles, said there was ‘nothing sinister lurking in the background’ and accused social workers of failing to act in the family’s best interests.
‘Dundee social services department appear to have locked horns with this couple and won’t let go,’ he said, adding that the monitoring project caused more problems than it solved. ‘The parents were constantly being accused of bad parenting and made to live under a microscope.
The couple have three older children who are all distraught and angry at the ruling.
Speaking through tears, their 15-year-old daughter said: ‘The social workers should hang their heads in shame. A person’s weight is their own business and only we can do anything about it, not them. My parents are good people and they love us all. The four little ones don’t know what is about to happen to them.’
Social workers became aware of the family in early 2008 after one of the sons accused his father of hitting him on the forehead. In truth, he had fallen and hit his head on a radiator – a fact he later admitted. However, the allegation opened the door to the obesity investigation.
While the couple admit experiencing what their lawyer calls ‘low grade’ parenting problems, which would have merited support, they were aghast when the issue of weight was seized on as a major concern.
A council report at the time said: ‘With the exception of [one of the names], the children are all overweight. Advice has been given regarding diet but there has been no improvement. Appointments with the dietician have been missed.’
At that point their then 12-year-old son weighed 16 stone; his 11-year-old sister weighed 12 stone; and his three-year-old sister weighed four stone. It is not known how much the four younger children weigh now.
The couple were ordered to send their children to dance and football lessons and were given a three-month deadline to bring down their weight. When that failed, the children were placed in foster homes but were allowed to visit their parents.
After the couple objected to this arrangement, the council agreed to move them into a two-bedroom flat in a supported unit run by the Dundee Families Project. They insisted on the couple living with only three of their children at a time.
At meal times, a social worker stood in the room taking notes. Doctors raised concerns that the children put on weight whenever they spent time with their parents, a claim they vehemently denied.
The couple and their children also had to adhere to a strict 11pm curfew. This involved ‘clocking’ in and out by filling in a sheet held by an employee who lived on site.
Although the children’s weight was the major concern, other allegations were included in a report. It showed that social workers were worried when the youngest child was found crawling unsupervised. The parents point out they were never far away and the flat had no stairs.
They also found her ‘attempting to put dangerous objects’ in her mouth. The family say this is natural in toddlers and she was never successful.
Social workers were further worried when she crawled through the contents of an upturned ashtray – an ‘unfortunate one-off incident’, claim the parents. All the concerns were dismissed by the family’s legal team as ‘low grade’ problems.
It is understood the father crumbled under the strain of being so closely monitored in January this year and moved into a council flat elsewhere in the city.
In the next few months, the mother breached the lunch and dinner meal observations, by her own admission, on ‘several’ occasions while taking the children to see their father.
She personally never broke the 11pm curfew but once allowed her seven-year-old daughter to remain at her father’s flat after she fell asleep. She did not want to disturb her and argued the child had ‘two parents, not one’ and was in ‘good hands’.
These breaches led staff to declare the trial a failure and the mother was asked to leave the unit in April this year. She moved in to her husband’s flat but the children were then handed over to foster parents.
Her solicitor said he planned to use independent experts to prove that the children want to live with their parents and have been damaged by the social workers’ intervention. He added: ‘We may ultimately look towards human rights laws.’
The father, aged 56, said: ‘We have tried very hard to do everything that was asked of us. My wife has cooked healthy foods like home-made spaghetti bolognese and mince and potatoes; we’ve cut out snacks and only ever allowed the kids sweets on a Saturday. But nothing we’ve done has ever been enough.
‘The pressure of living in the family unit would have broken anyone. We were being treated like children and cut off from the outside world. To have a social worker stand and watch you eat is intolerable. I want other families to know what can happen once social workers become involved. We will fight them to the end to get our beloved children back.’
It is estimated 26 million British adults will be obese by 2030, with obesity levels running at an all-time high among children. Official statistics show those who are overweight spend 50 per cent more time in hospital, placing extra strain on the NHS.
Tam Fry, honorary chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, said: ‘This is a disgrace. These parents have clearly attempted to comply. They have, if you like, played Dundee City Council’s game and yet they are still losing their children.’
Dundee City Council said: ‘The council always acts in the best interests of children, with their welfare and safety in mind.’