White Sheets, White Lies
We’ve got another one, screeched the email’s subject box, as it appeared to slam into Ira’s Google in-tray. It was thirteen minutes after one, in the afternoon. God, that’s the eighth case in forty-eight hours. What’s going on? She scanned the email: 11 year old girl Laura taken into care, non-accidental injury, parents deny charges of abuse, whereabouts of child unknown, parents unable to get any information from the local authority, assigned social worker very hostile, statements inaccurate, parents don’t qualify for legal aid, can’t afford lawyers. So, what’s new, Ira thought, as she let her brown eyes travel off the computer screen towards a clump of yellow post-it notes, hazardously perched at the end of her desk. The clump was joined by several others, and together they looked as if they were melting over the table.
Would you be able to advise? We’re swamped with cases over here. Mariam’s emails were always warm and friendly, even in the face of emergency applications and distraught parents, all vying for her attention. Hers was the only agency of McKenzie friends for miles around people trusted. Yes, I’ll try to assist. Come to think of it, there’s something about this case which rings a bell. I think I have another family in the same borough who’ve also just had their son taken into care under similar circumstances. I’ll look into it. Ira clicked the ‘send’ button and opened her itunes. Seiji, for thinking.
Once she’d read the notes on Laura’s case, which had been prepared by the agency in the usual way (with elegant summary and neatly organised forms), Ira rang Laura’s parents. Hello? An anxious voice trembled at the other end of the line. Who is this? Ira’s stained red lips moved closer to the mouthpiece on the phone. Hi, my name’s Ira, I work for the McKenzie agency. Mariam gave me your details; I help the agency with their cases. Is now a good time to talk? Jan paused, and Ira could sense her relaxing. Yes, fine. Thank you for calling. We just don’t know what to do. We can’t afford a solicitor but the crazy thing is we can’t get legal aid because Steve has this property, but we can’t re-mortgage it and if we sell it we won’t have anywhere to live. We really need some advice.
Can you tell me a little bit about what’s happened to Laura? Well, we don’t know where she is. And they’re accusing Steve, her dad, of hurting her arm and although he has a temper, he’s not the most patient man, but how many are, really, Jan giggled nervously, Laura’s his little princess, he would never hurt her. Jan’s cracked voice finally bled into a sob, as she confronted the realisation, as she had done countless times already during the last 24 hours, that she had no idea where her daughter was and how scared she must be without her and Steve. Ira braced herself; the first call was always the hardest, for everyone. I’m so sorry. I know you don’t know where she is right now, but do you know if she’s still going to her local school? Jan answered cautiously, she doesn’t go. She’s home schooled. Well, she was until now. The social worker seemed really put out by the fact that Laura wasn’t going to a regular school. She even accused us of being bad parents because of it, but she’s very smart and quite frankly she learns more at home than her friends do at school, what with the shoddy curriculum on offer. The social worker even took issue with the fact that we were a vegan family. We can’t say or do anything right and when we try to answer her questions she muddles everything we say in her reports and even adds things we didn’t say. And noone believes us when we tell them that. On paper we look like the most awful parents. Steve and I feel like we’re going mad. And noone will tell us where Laura is.
Jan struggled to stilfle a sob as she tried desperately to keep a matter-of-fact tone. Ira caught herself thinking how elegant so many of the people she tried to help were, during what would, upon reflection, be one of the most traumatic times of their lives. I think we need to talk to your local MP. Have you tried to contact them? No. Can they help us? It depends who you get. I’ll find out who they are and get in touch with them tomorrow. I promise I’ll be back in touch as soon as I know more. Jan thanked Ira; phones clicked and receivers disconnected.
Ira noticed a new email in her inbox. This one was from Gary, and it read “I think you’ll find these stats interesting”. As Ira opened up the attachment, she realised she was looking at a confidential document outlining the number and names of children taken into care in Laura’s borough over the last five weeks. It looked like a crackdown operation; dozens of names cascaded down the list, all tagged with the diagnosis ‘neglect’, and heaving with information on medical examinations, IQ tests and curriculum-based proficiency scores with no mention of emotional abuse as a possible cause for removal. Every single child had scored above average on the tests and with the exception of Laura’s arm and the other little boy’s injury from the same borough which Ira was looking into, they were all fit and healthy.
Then Ira spotted another running theme in the attachment: every single child on the list was home schooled.