By SUE REID
Last updated at 22:41 31 January 2007
Looking back, Marianne Key says it was the worst day of her life.
At North Tyneside Hospital on a summer afternoon, the state took away her four children and threatened never to give them back.
The happily married former nurse watched helplessly as Nickolas, three, Alexander, almost two, and her twin five-month-old babies, Alfred and George, were carried off by Northumberland social workers.
Marianne was told that protest was useless. At every exit point of the hospital there was a police officer waiting to make sure that she did not try to stop them being taken.
As her weeping children were driven to foster homes, Marianne was left alone at the hospital, frantically ringing her husband, Simon, to tell him what had happened.
It would be six months before the family would be together again.
Today, the Keys are embroiled in a legal battle Marianne, 43, and Simon, 38, a self-employed cabinet maker, now live 230 miles further south in the village of Lower Swell, Gloucestershire.
In the sitting room of their home, the four boys play as their new baby sister, Harriet, is rocked by their mother.
The two older brothers attend the village primary school; the twins go to a local nursery. It appears an idyllic life.
At Marianne and Simon’s instigation ? and armed with the family’s files ? Northumberland detectives are now investigating the health visitors and social workers who accused Marianne Key of being an unfit mother before taking the four children into care.
The Keys’ treatment has been criticised by Peter Atkinson, the MP for Hexham in Northumberland.
“The police must inquire fully so that those responsible for this are brought to book, and I will be telling the county’s chief constable exactly that,” he said this week.
The story the Keys tell is a deeply disturbing one.
They say they nearly lost their family on the say-so of a group of child-care professionals ? some of whom, Marianne says, lied about her being a neglectful mother.
The litany of accusations against Marianne was lengthy: that she had hurt Alfred; that she sedated the children with an over-the-counter infant painkiller, Medised, so she could cope more easily; that they were given too much milk; that they did not have enough toys, and there was a lack of emotional warmth between Nickolas and his parents.
Marianne was said by one health worker to be suffering from Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP), a condition ? unproved in science ? where a mother is said to make up an illness in her child or even deliberately harm her own child to attract attention to herself.
The ailment is based on the discredited research of Professor Sir Roy Meadow, 73, the controversial paediatrician who was struck off the medical register two years ago for giving “misleading and incorrect” testimony as an expert witness in the case of Sally Clark, the mother wrongly jailed for killing her two infant sons.
He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct, but in February last year he successfully appealed against this ruling in the High Court and is now free to work again.
It was Professor Meadow who coined the term MSBP.
As a result of his theory, scores of women have been accused of harming their own offspring and jailed.
Hundreds more have had their children put into care or even handed over for adoption.
But there is another matter of concern.
Some of Marianne’s records, and those of the children, were falsified to make the case against her, according to a report prepared on the family by their London medical negligence lawyers, Leigh Day & Co.
These allegations are also being investigated by the police.
On dozens of pages, the dates were changed, with extra information written between lines or added which completely altered the sense of what was being said.
Some of Nickolas’s development checks even had the letters P for Pass altered to F for Fail.
Significantly, the entire sense of a report saying that Marianne had comforted her eldest son after a fall was changed.
The word “not” was added in different writing at a later date so that it appeared she had ignored her son when he hurt himself.
A few weeks after Alexander’s birth, a health visitor filled in a routine questionnaire to diagnose any signs of post-natal depression ? which Marianne has never suffered from.
It is based on a points system and Marianne’s score was low, showing that she was a happy mother.
Mysteriously, however, a second identical questionnaire ? dated April 30, 2002, when Alexander was eight months old ? was also filled in and discovered in Marianne’s file.
It had a points tally so high that it made her appear mentally ill and likely to harm Alexander and his brother.
She should, according to the score, have been immediately referred to a doctor for help.
Did someone fake it and, if so, why?
It was just one of many falsifications to records made “with the aim of painting a negative picture of the family and particularly of Mrs Key”, says the Leigh Day report.
Marianne was also informed that the traditional Silver Cross pram she had for the children was dangerous, and that the white cloths the babies used to suck as comforters were unhygienic.
She was even told that the traditional stone flag floors in their cottage in the Northumberland hamlet of Coldtown made it an unsuitable place to raise a young family.
So why was this mother vilified?
Why were her children taken into care at all?
Is it possible that it was to help meet the huge hike in Government targets for adoption ? designed to stop children languishing in care or foster homes but described by MPs last week as a “national scandal”?
The numbers of those adopted nationally has gone up from 2,700 in the year 2000 to 3,700 in 2004 ?an increase of almost 40 per cent.
The biggest rise is among the under fours, exactly the same age group as the Key children when they were taken away.
As Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming said in a special debate in the House of Commons last Friday: “I have evidence that 1,000 children a year are being taken from their birth parents ? not because they were being harmed, but to satisfy Government targets.”
His views were endorsed this week by the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services.
The highly respected organisation said: “John Hemming is right. Children, particularly newborns, are being snatched away for adoption, and local councils criticised if they don’t meet the adoption targets.
“We are appalled by the bias and lack of accuracy in many social workers’ reports, and the selective evidence they give to the courts, which then use the information to decide whether a child is removed from a family.”
Simon and Marianne believe this may be what happened to them.
“We now think that they wanted four young bonny boys for adoption and to help meet their adoption targets,” says Marianne.
“But Northumberland County Council refused to investigate what was happening, even when our solicitors said that my records, and those of the children, had been deliberately falsified.
“The records were used in court against me. After the council finally withdrew the care proceedings, no apology was forthcoming. We hope now that the people who did this to us will be made to answer for it.”
What happened to the Keys was terrifying. They had moved to Northumberland from Oxfordshire in July 2001 because they wanted to live near Marianne’s sister, Sally Moss, and her husband, Roger, a professor at Newcastle University.
The couples were close friends.
“We loved the place immediately,” says Marianne.
“I was eight months pregnant with Alexander when we moved, but I organised neighbourod parties and it was a wonderful time.
The health visitor would come to our home and we would give her tea. I thought she was lonely because she arrived so often.”
Niickolas, their eldest boy, was a boisterous child and had just started to walk.
Over the next two years, he banged his head twice ? once in front of both his parents when he fell down the stairs, and another time when he was playing outside with his father.
He also hurt his eye by running into the corner of a table at his aunt Sally’s home.
The accidents were, insist Marianne and Simon, the rough and tumble of a normal childhood. Their GP agreed.
But the health visitor and a social worker were not convinced.
They officially alerted Northumberland County Council, and later the police, alleging that Marianne “frequently” overdosed her children on the painkiller, Medised.
Marianne denied that she had done any such thing.
But the family had to start an assessment, involving social workers visiting their home and watching how Marianne, a skilled paediatric nurse who used to work at Great Ormond Street children?s hospital in London, was raising her sons.
Bewildered, the Key family co-operated fully.
But on July 25, 2003, two health visitors noticed a small bruise on baby twin Alfred’s head.
Marianne and Simon said it might have been due to him rubbing his head on the back of the family’s pushchair the previous morning.
The bruising was so light that when he was weighed at the local doctor’s surgery on the day it happened, the GP did not even notice it.
Marianne and Simon were ordered by social workers to take the children to North Tyneside Hospital.
They were warned that if they did not go immediately the police would be called.
But as they waited at the hospital, Simon received a phone call from the family’s solicitor warning him that social services were planning to remove Alfred and put him into care.
Marianne says: “Simon left to meet the solicitor and attend a hearing at Hexham Magistrates? Court, where social workers were asking, successfully, for an emergency protection order to remove the children.
“I stayed at the hospital. I had no idea that a social worker and a woman police officer were already waiting in the wings.
“They arrived in the ward and said that they were taking all four of the children away, there and then. And they did.”
Marianne was arrested, taken to the local police station and released on bail.
She and Simon were told to go to a council family contact centre the next morning, a Saturday, where they would be allowed to see their eldest two children.
“The first thing Nickolas said was: ‘Mummy, you left me.’ When it was time to go, they cried and cried and fought to stay with us. The foster parents, who were also there, were crying too. It was awful.”
The twins had been sent to another foster home, where they were looked after by an elderly woman who put them together in a single cot until the Keys complained about the danger of cot-death.
Intriguingly, while in care, George ? Alfred’s twin ? also got a graze on the back of his head from the family’s pushchair. It was in an identical place to the one that Alfred had suffered.
The council accepted the foster carer’s explanation that the pushchair had caused the injury.
A week later, the Keys were told that the children could return home on one important condition: they had to be looked after by Simon ?and Marianne must leave the house altogether.
She was allowed to have two hours of contact with the four children three times a week.
This was later increased to five times a week, under supervision, for the twins.
Reluctantly, Marianne moved to a flat in Hexham.
They were never permitted to visit her at the flat and she never saw them alone.
Simon, meanwhile, had to cope on his own with four children under four years old.
“The elder two boys would sleep in my bed because they were so upset,” he says.
“They would wake during the night and cry for Marianne. But I had to hide this from the social workers and health visitors because they would have leapt on it as evidence that I was not coping.”
Psychiatric reports on Marianne were ordered by the council.
They showed that she did not suffer from MSBP or any personality disorder.
Crucially, a report on the twins’ pushchair, conducted by an independent engineer, concluded that the light bruising could well have been caused, as his parents said, by shopping bags pushing through the fabric.
The case against Marianne was unravelling. The police refused to take any action against her, saying they were content with the parents’ explanation about Alfred’s bruise.
In January 2004 ? almost six months to the day since her children were taken from her ? Marianne was finally allowed back home.
In June, at Sunderland High Court, Northumberland Council withdrew its application to keep the children in care.
A few months later, the Key children were removed from the child protection register.
“We had been so scared of losing the children that we were prepared to run away with them, even secretly leave the country,” Marianne admits.
“Simon hid all our passports in a biscuit tin in the cupboard.”
Soon after, the Keys sold their house and left for the Cotswolds.
Yesterday, Northumbria Police confirmed: “We have received a number of allegations and our inquiries are ongoing.”
Northumberland Council refused to comment because of the active police investigation into its own staff.
The council has made no secret, however, of willingly helping to meet the Government’s controversial targets for adoption.
A report last September by the county’s children’s services department said it was sending “regular and detailed” returns on adoptions to Whitehall.
Over the five years up to last April, a total of 95 children had been adopted after being removed from their birth families.
Although the Keys’ children escaped this fate, the damage was done.
Nickolas and Alexander still wake and cry at night.
“We have been told that all the boys may yet suffer psychological trauma from being separated from Marianne at a young age,” says Simon.
He adds: “We found the strength to fight back because we desperately wanted to remain together as a family.
“We never want anything like this to happen to others.”