(Britain) "You can't see your son - but can he have one of your organs?"
How social workers left one man with a terrible moral dilemma.
2 November 2008
'You can't see your son - but can he have one of your organs?': how social workers left one man with a terrible moral dilemma
By Alison Smith Squire
The letter from Hampshire Social Services was as brief as it was bewildering. Please ring me on the above number, it said. I have some information that might be of interest to you. This was quite an understatement, as Michael Shergold soon found.
A quietly spoken father of three, he finds that his life rarely gets more exciting than his weekly game of golf. But when he called the social workers as requested, he was confronted with a series of astonishing facts.
They said he was the father of another child - a five-year-old son from a previous, short-lived relationship. A former girlfriend, unable to cope with the demands of motherhood, had handed the boy over to foster parents.
A meeting with this new-found son was out of the question, he was told, let alone any sort of relationship. He was also informed that the boy was to be formally adopted and that the council was ringing merely to let him know.
His shock slowly turned to anger and then determination. Hurt to have been kept in the dark for so many years, Michael still believed he was responsible for the child - whom we shall call Andrew - and launched a legal fight to secure custody.
But there were extraordinary surprises in store for Michael and his wife, Alex. Hampshire Social Services wanted more than just his acquiescence.
Andrew, it emerged, had been diagnosed with a severe problem in one of his organs. For legal reasons, it is not possible to be more specific.
But the boy stands little chance of living beyond his teenage years without a transplant - from a blood relative if at all possible. The most suitable blood relative, it was explained by social workers, was Michael himself.
In a disturbing saga, this was perhaps the most unpleasant twist of all. It brought him to a damning conclusion - that Hampshire Social Services had made him aware of Andrews existence only to provide the child with a body part.
Michael tried to adopt his son but last year he lost the battle and was refused even occasional visiting rights, which were deemed too upsetting for the boy.
Like almost all cases that go through the family court system, the details were not made public.
Michael now has to decide whether to risk his own life with a dangerous operation for a son who, as things stand, he will never see.
Words cannot express the anger and bewilderment I feel, says Michael. I simply cannot believe how Social Services can be so cruel.
To track me down, tell me I have a son I knew nothing about, throw my life into chaos and then tell me I will never be able to see him is nothing short of disgraceful.
The Mail on Sunday asked Hampshire County Council two months ago about its handling of the case.
It responded by obtaining a legal injunction to prevent us printing Michaels story, claiming that to do so might damage his sons chances of settling down.
Determined that Michael should get the chance to speak, The Mail on Sunday has pursued a lengthy legal fight to lift the injunction, and last week we succeeded. Today, in this exclusive interview, Michael is able to talk about his ordeal for the first time.
To know my son has been adopted against my consent by strangers rather than his blood family, where he would have had a loving home, has been bad enough, he says.
But to know that, if I don't donate an organ, my son might not live long enough to know me has put me in the worst situation of all. Im in a dilemma about what to do. I feel I am being asked to make a decision in a vacuum. If I could just see my son and maintain some sort of contact, I would have absolutely no hesitation about doing it.
Michael, 55, was speaking at his spacious three-bedroom house in Southampton, the city where he was born and where he has spent his whole life. Sitting by his side is Alex. Originally from Los Angeles, she moved to Britain in 2002, the same year the couple married, and she became a pastor with a Pentecostal church in Portsmouth.
This is not the first time that Michael, who works as a school caretaker, has suffered domestic drama. His 16-year marriage ended in 1996 when he discovered that his first wife had been unfaithful. He was given custody of the children - Peter, now 17, David, 20, and Susanna, 30 - and brought them up single-handedly.
As Alex serves home-made carrot cake and their cuckoo clock announces the time, the Shergolds seem every inch a loving family. Their attitude to their predicament is one of quiet anger and grief rather than unfettered fury.
We have a wonderful, close-knit family, says Michael. Peter and David, who still live at home, flit in and out as the couple talk. Susanna lives close by.
It is a particular irony that Michael has been employed by Hampshire County Council for the past 35 years, overseeing the repairs, cleaning and maintenance of a local primary school. As it happens, the job requires him to undergo criminal record checks every year and neither he nor Alex, who was also checked, has any convictions.
The letter that shattered Michaels life came in January 2007, but the origins of the trauma lay five years earlier, when he had embarked on a difficult relationship with a much younger woman.
Despite their age difference, things went well at first after they were introduced through friends. She was the first woman Id dated since splitting up with my wife, he recalls.
At first I didnt think of having a relationship with her because, at 29, she was much younger than me. But she was bubbly and got on well with the boys. It was only after a few months that I realised she was unstable and had a drink problem. She would swear in front of the boys and I ended the relationship.
He had no inkling that she might be pregnant and that, he thought, was the end of the matter. Indeed, it was not long before he met Alex through a friendship website.
Like Michael, she has three grown-up children and, again like Michael, she had spent years bringing them up single-handedly. She worked for US military intelligence, where she studied for degrees in psychology and theology.
Michael and Alex married a few months after meeting and settled down to a domestic routine, enjoying rounds of golf, games of bowls, trips to the cinema and regular visits to church.
That all changed with Hampshire County Councils bombshell. It was a terrible shock, recalls Alex. Michael was told by a social worker that his child had been put into foster care.
At 53, Alex thought she had said goodbye to bringing up a child, but she was as determined as her husband to welcome Andrew into the family. That was where he belonged, she says. Not with strangers to whom he is not related.
The couple, whose children had also come round to the idea of embracing a new sibling into their lives, visited Hampshire Social Services headquarters in Winchester, where they were shown Andrews picture.
With hindsight, they were naively optimistic. Immediately infatuated, they dug out Scalextric and Lego sets, embarked on plans to turn their loft into a fourth bedroom and even researched school places.
He looked just like his daddy, says Alex. We were determined that although hed had such a dreadful start in life, wed soon make it all up to him.
When, two weeks later, DNA tests confirmed that Michael was the father, the couple instructed a solicitor to stop the adoption order and begin their own custody proceedings. I thought that once Social Services saw our happy family home and how much we wanted Andrew to be a part of it, it would only be a matter of weeks before he would come to live with us, says Michael.
But then came the breathtaking twist. At our second meeting with Social Services a social worker told us, Andrew needs an organ transplant and, as you know, an organ is best donated from a blood relative.
The couple were left in no doubt that Michaels co-operation was essential if his son was to stand a good chance of surviving. His mother, they learned, had initially agreed to be the donor but changed her mind on the grounds that it would hinder her chances of having another child.
Social workers told Michael that he, and his children, were the next choice. He admits: I was taken aback but, of course, desperately worried and keen to help my son.
Meanwhile, two independent social workers were assigned to assess Michael and Alex as potential parents for Andrew. It was, by all accounts, a rigorous process. I was surprised to be interrogated by a total stranger, he says, but I hid nothing. Yet, over a
dozen visits, the questions became increasingly invasive.
The worst questions were about our sex life, he says. They kept asking how healthy it was - we took it to mean how many times a week we made love - and if we indulged in 'normal' sex.
Alex, who admits she didnt take kindly to the intrusion, adds: I felt that side of our marriage was private and we didnt see how it could be relevant. In the end I replied, None of your business and I am not happy to elaborate further. Perhaps it is because Im an American and a Christian, but I found the Social Services attitude difficult to understand.
Meanwhile, the truth about Andrews situation gradually emerged. Finding a permanent home was not easy, however. The boys illness demanded a special diet and regular hospital visits.
After his rejection by one set of foster parents, his photograph had to be posted on an adoption website before finally, in 2006, the couple who were eventually to adopt him came forward. I couldnt believe this could have happened to my son, says Michael. I found it incredible.
Social Services told me in our first phone conversation that Andrew's mother had named me as the father. Yet, as far as I can see, they made no effort to find me. I have lived in the same house for 11 years. I am on the electoral roll and in the phone book.
Hampshire County Council says it did its best to locate Michael. A care order would not have been made had the court not been satisfied that every effort had been made to locate Mr Shergold, says council leader Ken Thornber. We have apologised to Mr Shergold for our failure to find him during care proceedings.
All circumstances leading to a child coming into care involve a degree of human tragedy and require very finely balanced judgments to be made. The needs of the child must always be the paramount concern and the judge did conclude that the local authority did its best, when it discovered the difficult situation that had arisen, to communicate with Mr Shergold and establish what contribution he could make to his sons life.
Michael believes he was eventually traced only because doctors said Andrew would need a transplant. Indeed, he now believes that even his attempt to adopt Andrew was something of a charade. We began to feel that Social Services had let us go through the custody proceedings for nothing - that the adoption was arranged and they had no intention of placing Andrew with us, he says.
The Shergolds were refused custody at Portsmouth County Court last November. The judge admitted the background had been difficult and somewhat unsatisfactory but ruled that moving Andrew in with the Shergolds would cause him unnecessary difficulty and disruption.
Just two days later - suspiciously quickly in the view of the Shergolds - he had been formally adopted, leaving the Shergolds in the cold.
Even their request that Michael should be able to see him for visits was turned down on the grounds that it would be unsettling for Andrew, who was bonding with his new family. Yet Andrew's mother, who was judged unfit, is still allowed to visit Andrew twice a year.
Meanwhile, Hampshire Social Services are still pressing Michael to donate an organ. Even if Michael decides to do so, it will make no difference. I was stunned, he says. I asked them what would happen if I gave him a part of my body. They said that even then, I wouldnt be allowed contact. Andrew would not even be told who donated the organ as this would be 'too unsettling'.
The dilemma has had damaging repercussions for the Shergold family. Michael says his children are wounded and that even his marriage has suffered.
The criticism they endured during the adoption process hardly helped. Social Services accused me of being unco-operative, explains Alex. They made it plain they didnt like me. It seems being American was a problem and so too, I think, was the colour of my skin. Alex is mixed-race.
One official report on the couple expressed concern that Andrew would be brought up in a dual-ethnicity family. They made out I was a foreigner who had no idea how to look after a child, she says. Ive raised three children. Despite the fact that they live in the States, we are incredibly close. I also think of Michaels sons as my own.
I began to think that if I wasnt around, Michael would have got custody. One night I suggested to Michael and his sons that I leave. Thankfully, they wouldnt hear of it. But the stress has been unbearable. Undoubtedly, Michael and I would have split up if our relationship wasnt so strong.
And Michael adds: Social Services have never given me a concrete reason why my wife and I are not suitable. That is because there is no reason.
The couple did not qualify for legal aid and have spent 4,000 on solicitors. Now they have been told there is no further action they can take.
Overshadowing everything, however, is the decision to donate an organ. If I dont donate an organ, Andrew might not live long enough to meet me and the guilt would probably be too much to live with, he says. If I do, it will be as if I am donating to someone who I dont really know exists.
How can social workers sleep at night, knowing they have separated a boy from his real father, a good father who has already successfully raised three children? They wont even pass on birthday cards.
They have stormed in and left us to pick up the pieces. I cannot believe that in this country someone can stop you seeing your own child when you have done nothing wrong.
Our family seems incomplete. If I see a boy in the street, I wonder if its him. I dream of him meeting his brothers and sister and joining us when we have big birthday celebrations. My only hope is that he can choose to trace me when he is 18.
But what if he doesnt live that long or is told lies about me that his father is dead or didnt want him? It breaks my heart to think we may never meet.
Additional reporting: Antonia Hoyle