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This is how Kerry and Mark McDougall’s story about how they got their baby back looked in the Mail on Sunday Newspaper.
By ALISON SMITH SQUIRE 17th October 2010
Laughing in the autumn sunshine, a baby boy takes his first wobbly steps along a sandy beach. His delighted and attentive mother offers a safe pair of arms as his proud father captures the moment with his camera.
It is a touching scene that any parent would recognise. But it is particularly precious for Kerry Robertson and her new husband Mark McDougall.
Kerry, you may remember, is the slender brunette whose wedding was dramatically halted a year ago by Fife social services because they judged her too ‘stupid’ to understand the vows.
Four months later, the social services struck again. As Kerry breast-fed her three-day-old son Ben, council officials who feared she lacked the intelligence to be a good mother came into the maternity ward and took the child into care.
Already banned from marrying, Kerry, 18, and Mark, 26, were forced to leave the hospital without their newborn son.
Today, however, The Mail on Sunday can reveal that they have been reunited with their little boy and are now both living with him for the first time since he was born.
The authorities in Ireland, where they fled before the birth in the hope that they could keep their baby, have agreed that Ben can indeed stay with his parents. This is not their only piece of happy news. Earlier this month, Mark and Kerry finally married in a tender ceremony at a hotel in County Waterford, defying those who said their relationship could never last.
‘All I ever wanted was to be married to Mark and to live a normal life with our son,’ said Kerry yesterday.
‘Now I just feel so contented and happy to be a proper family at last. I love being with Ben and being his mum. I have cried a lot over the past year but it’s only brought Mark and me closer.’ The couple’s resilience and the resourcefulness they have shown in fighting for the right to bring up their son together seems to make a mockery of the view that Kerry was too weak-minded to be a wife and mother.
Some would say it is difficult to see why Fife social services came to that conclusion in the first place. Kerry’s friends accept that she was in the remedial class of her local state school, but point out that her educational difficulties were caused, in part, because she missed a lot of school time through treatment for a cleft palate.
They say she is chatty – indeed her new husband describes her as ‘bossy’ – and claim the root of the problem was that she found Scottish social workers so patronising that she refused to co-operate with them, often meeting their questions with silence. Only in Ireland, where the professionals seemed more understanding, did she open up and talk about her situation, say her friends.
When the couple’s plight first came to public attention last year, there was a huge outcry at what seemed to be a monstrous abuse of power. Social workers had descended upon Kerry and Mark just 48 hours before they were due to get married, telling them their wedding would be unlawful. In a highly unusual step, Dunfermline Register Office refused to sanction the marriage after Fife council wrote a letter of objection. The removal of their child a few months was even more heart-wrenching and sparked a major campaign of protest on the internet.
Mark says he is still struggling to come to terms with the ‘nightmare’ they were put through. A gentle, mild-mannered young man, he says quietly: ‘I will never forget the day we were forced to hand Ben over. Kerry had just finished breast-feeding and both of us were in pieces. We were totally helpless to do anything about it.
‘To say we have been on a rollercoaster over the past year would be an understatement. It has been traumatic. And although now we are married and have Ben with us at last, I can’t help but feel bitter that we have had to go through all this.’
Many would have crumbled under the strain. For the past few months, Mark and Kerry have been forced to go through rigorous tests to prove they can be good parents.
It would appear their only ‘crime’ is that Kerry suffers from mild learning difficulties, although the true extent of these has always been a matter of contention. Indeed, Mark and Kerry claim she has never undergone any official psychological assessment and, before having Ben, she successfully worked as a childcare assistant in a school.
Although no one is pretending she is academically gifted, to meet her is to encounter a lively young woman in the mould of any other young mum. Certainly, it is hard to fathom why Fife social services reached such a damning verdict. The authorities first took a formal interest in Kerry when, at the age of just nine months, her parents handed her to the care of her grandmother, who brought her up overseen by Fife social services.
Even so, there was little to distinguish Mark and Kerry from any other young couple. When she became unexpectedly pregnant they were pleased rather than concerned. They had organised a white wedding in church, bought a dress and rings, arranged the reception and were eagerly anticipating their big day.
Mark recalls: ‘We were about to go out and make a few final arrangements for our wedding when we heard a frantic rapping at the front door. ‘When we opened it, two social workers burst in and told us that the marriage was illegal because Kerry has learning difficulties. They said she did not possess the capacity to make such a decision.’
Then came the second bombshell – their baby would be removed at birth. Once again, social workers believed her learning difficulties could lead to the baby suffering ‘emotional harm’. ‘It was as if I didn’t matter as a father,’ recalls Mark.
‘By stopping our wedding, social workers had taken away my rights as the baby’s dad. The fact that I would always be there to look after Ben as well didn’t seem to make any difference.’
He now believes that Fife social services had made up their minds that Kerry would not be able to keep the baby even before they had assessed her as a parent. Because of this, days later the couple made the heart-wrenching decision to flee the UK and go to Ireland because they believed Irish social workers would prove more sympathetic.
Kerry expertly cradles Ben on her lap and as she talks it is clear that he enjoys the sound of his mother’s voice. ‘I’m shy when I first speak to people,’ she says by way of explanation of her reticence to speak to Fife social workers. ‘It’s only when I’ve known people for a long time that I am happy speaking to them. ‘I didn’t want to leave Fife – I’ve lived there all my life. All my friends and family are still there. I didn’t want to leave them.
But at the same time I’d been told my baby would be taken into care at birth and, naturally, I was going to do anything to stop that from happening.’ After tearful goodbyes to family and friends, the couple fled the UK with just £200, a suitcase of clothes and a bag of sandwiches made by Kerry. Thankfully, a benefactor provided a rented house for them in Waterford. This generosity came just in time – ten days later, on January 15, Kerry went into labour and at 8.41pm gave birth to Ben, a healthy 7lb 3oz.
For three days, like any other new parents, the couple were on cloud nine. Kerry took to breast-feeding and close friends and family who knew where they were sent congratulations cards. There was more trouble in store, however. The Irish authorities had discovered from Kerry’s medical records that social workers in Fife had an interest in her. Mark later found out that Irish officials who contacted Fife were told that Kerry’s ‘disability’ could put Ben at risk of physical or emotional
neglect. As a result, Irish social workers were duty-bound to act. Mark and Kerry were utterly unprepared when, at 9.15am on January 19, they were forced to hand over their baby. They just had time to tell Ben they loved him and give him a kiss before he was taken away. ‘Coming home without Ben was awful,’ says Kerry. ‘Neither of us could stop crying. We just didn’t know what to do with ourselves. My body ached for my baby. I produced so much milk for him, which I would give to social workers so they could feed him.’
Over the next two weeks the couple barely saw Ben. Indeed on the few occasions they were allowed to visit him there were tearful exchanges with social workers. Kerry was upset to see Ben with a dummy and angry that he was being bottle-fed with formula milk. Even when mother and baby were reunited at a special residential home, Mark had to drive for 90 minutes to get there.
Mark says: ‘Kerry and I were apart and I couldn’t see Ben that often. We just longed to be a normal family – to play on the beach, take him for walks in the park and tuck him up in his own bed.’ More recently they have been allowed to see him without the presence of a social worker. Then, last Wednesday, the Irish courts lifted many of the restrictions, meaning they were finally allowed to take Ben home and care for him themselves.
Mark is reluctant to criticise Irish social services. ‘Having been told by Fife that they feared Kerry could cause Ben “emotional harm”, I can see that they found themselves in a difficult position where they were forced to act,’ he says.
‘We had to prove that Fife social services’ concerns were groundless. Yes, Kerry does have some learning difficulties – the way she sees everything in such a black-and-white way is one of the reasons why I adore her – and she does need help with Ben. But it doesn’t mean she should have the right to be a mum taken away from her.’
He says that neither he nor Kerry regret leaving the UK and that, after the way they have been treated, they have no plans to return. ‘I believe that, had we stayed in the UK, our lives would have been ruined,’ he says. ‘We would have been forbidden to marry, and Kerry would have continued to be treated as a single mum with learning difficulties rather than an individual with a right to a normal life.
‘Although our baby was taken in Ireland, at least they looked at us as individuals rather than making a blanket assumption that Kerry wouldn’t be a good parent.’ It is proof of how much this couple have touched people’s hearts that, when they married two weeks ago, some of the 30 guests were officials involved in their case. ‘Right up to the last minute I expected someone to turn up and say we couldn’t go through with it,’ says Mark. ‘The registrar knew our wedding had been refused in the UK and it was up to her to decide if in fact Kerry was intelligent enough to understand the vows.
‘The registrar did have the right, under Irish law, to stop it again.Thankfully she had no hesitation in taking us through our vows and the wedding went without a hitch.’ The guest of honour was Ben, now nine months old and a lively bundle of mischief. Although clearly angry at their treatment, neither Mark nor Kerry show any bitterness. Instead they are absorbed in the happiness of making a home on the beautiful shoreline of Waterford.
‘He’s a big baby for his age,’ says Kerry proudly. ‘He’s also very contented and he’s always laughing. He can crawl fast and already he’s pulling himself to stand and trying to walk. ‘I do most of the caring for Ben. I’m the one who gets up in the night, who changes his nappies and sorts his food. I usually give him his bath in the evening and try to keep to a definite bedtime, so he is usually tucked up by 8pm.’
Mark’s view is equally straightforward: ‘We simply want to move on. We want to put this behind us and enjoy being a family at last.’