French court removes 6 children from British parents of 10 after dispute over Catholic schooling
Translations by LifeSite’s Jeanne Smits
Read this story in French HERE.
ORNE, France, May 27, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — A British couple who hoped a judge could help settle a dispute over their children’s schooling in France was stunned when the court decided to put the children in foster homes instead.
The six children are all Catholics, and the two little girls — age 9 and 10 — have been placed with a couple who, the mother reports, refuses to take them to Mass but has taught them how “to do Muslim prayers.”
One of children’s adult sisters told LifeSiteNews by email that the four older siblings are “very upset” at the seizure of the six minors and that the younger siblings just want to come home.
“Me and my elder brothers and sister are very upset about them being put in care, and it is very hard when the children ask, ‘When can we come home?’ and we don't know the answer,” said Georgina Graham, 21.
David and Clare Graham first moved to France in 2005 for “a better life” as Clare told LifeSiteNews. As Britain was then part of the European Union, Britons were free to live and work in France. The cost of living in the French countryside was cheaper than living in the U.K., and the Grahams could afford a larger house there.
At the time, the couple had four British-born children. Today, they have 10 children in all, six born in France. The eldest four are grown up and two of them, boys, are in Britain. Two of the girls, age 22 and 21, still live in France and help their parents with their four youngest brothers and two little sisters. David has maintained his family by continuing his profession as a builder in France, carrying out renovations and fixing roof, usually for fellow expatriate Britons.
Whereas David, 55, does not have a religion, Clare, 51, is a devout Catholic. Because she objected to the “rubbish” taught in secular state schools in the family’s neighbourhood — and because the schools give contraception to their students, among other reasons — four years ago the Grahams took four of their children out of the state school system.
Clare’s original idea was to home-school her kids. A parent at the children's school then reported her to French social services when the children no longer attended it. After sending the surprised Grahams a letter, the social workers appeared at their home. This was to be the beginning of a long and very rocky relationship between the Grahams and the various arms of the French social welfare apparatus.
‘I did find their questions intrusive, like they desperately wanted to find something wrong with my parents. I believe they didn't like how my mum is religious and has a lot of children, or the fact that my parents are British.’
Georgina Graham told LifeSiteNews that she had experienced racism and bullying in French state schools.
“I went to the local public schools and had very bad experiences with racism and physical and verbal bullying,” she said.
“(This) is one of the reasons my mother wanted to send my younger siblings to Catholic schools, so that they wouldn't have to go through what my older sister and I did.”
Georgina said, “At school I was tormented for being English and experienced racial slurs daily by students and teachers. I was also assaulted on numerous occasions: head-butted, punched, kicked (...) dog feces put in my schoolbag, chewing gum put in my hair. I had things thrown at me during all of my classes, so it was very difficult to concentrate on the lesson.”
Georgina confirmed that the social workers first “came into (their) lives around four years ago” when a parent reported her parents for taking her brothers out of school. Being questioned by them was a disagreeable experience.
“I did find their questions intrusive, like they desperately wanted to find something wrong with my parents,” she said
“I believe they didn't like how my mum is religious and has a lot of children, or the fact that my parents are British,” she continued.
“They have always been very rude to my parents.”
Traditional Catholic schools
Worried about social services removing her children but also that her children would be morally damaged by the state schools, Clare found sympathetic hearts at private Catholic schools. The two boys (now 15 and 12) continued their studies at a Catholic boarding school in the South of France, and the two girls (now 9 and 10) were enrolled in a Catholic boarding school nearer home. The one-income family is not wealthy, and the children were accepted by both schools on very generous terms. When their two youngest sons (now 7 and 5) were old enough to go to school, the Grahams enrolled them in the local primary school. Clare’s hope was that the little boys would also go to their brothers’ school when they were fluent in French.
The parents did not — and still do not — see eye to eye on the children’s education. David Graham told LifeSiteNews that he doesn’t mind his children being Catholic or going to Catholic schools, but he misses them very much when they are at boarding schools, and he knows that they miss being at home. He would prefer them to go to the local state schools nearby until the family returns to England.
Clare and David had separated on a previous occasion, when Clare had taken their children and gone to live in England for nine months. Eventually, tensions at home, exacerbated by the social workers, once again became too much for Clare, and in November 2020, she went to live in a rented house in another district of Normandy, Calvados, closer to the girls’ school, taking the two youngest boys with her. Clare told LifeSiteNews that she just “needed a break.” David told LifeSiteNews that one of the social workers had suggested that Clare move to Calvados so as to “take the heat off” from social services. Only an hour away, the children saw their father often during the brief separation.
Unfortunately, the move exacerbated the Grahams’ money troubles, already strained by an injury the self-employed David had sustained to his back. Because she had changed addresses, Clare’s family allowance and social security payments were blocked. Thanks to red tape, this situation continued from December 5 until May 11. Clare and the children squeaked by in Calvados on loans from her mother in England.
‘They’ve asked me umpteen times why I have so many children’
Clare and David both maintain that their children were healthy, well-cared for, and happy despite their parents’ troubles. Neither Clare nor David is fluent in French, which made dealing with employees of social services, who frequently arrived to interview any children at home, difficult.
Like her daughter Georgina, Clare believes that the social workers despise her Catholic faith and told LifeSiteNews that they had made inappropriate remarks about the size of her family. When social workers first came to the Graham home, they attempted to discuss contraception with the married Catholic mother.
“They’ve asked me umpteen times why I have so many children,” Clare said.
In April 2019, French social services passed the Grahams’ file to the “open environment educational action service” (that is, Service d’action éducative en milieu ouvert, or AEMO). AEMO was supposed to check on the family’s welfare overall — for example, to make sure they had enough money for their needs.
The family’s AEMO case worker seemed to befriend Clare, and it was she, Clare says, who advised her to leave her husband and go to Calvados. The AEMO case worker also suggested that Clare and David work out their disagreements about the children’s schooling in front of a children’s judge. When this led to the children being seized, Clare said, the AEMO worker apologized for setting up the hearing. However, David thinks the caseworker is actually responsible for the court’s decision to take his children.
“I am pretty sure the social worker is the one who swayed the judge even before we went to court,” he told LifeSiteNews.
“I got the feeling the judge just wanted an excuse to place our children.”
The hearing, in late November, was a disaster from the start. On the way to court, one of the little girls threw up on her brother, soiling his shoes. As a result, the boy appeared in court without them, which made a bad impression on the judge. The court documents state also that none of the four children wore a coat to the hearing. Two of the boys were not present, as they been sent back to school in the South of France, and when she found out, “the judge went mad,” Clare told LifeSiteNews, “banging the table, really threatening behavior.”
The children who were present huddled together. They were not forthcoming when they were questioned because they were frightened and intimidated by the court, Clare said. This also made a bad impression on the judge.
“They didn’t speak much to the judge because she was very intimidating,” the mother said.
“I found her intimidating, so heaven knows what they thought of her.”
David appeared with a lawyer; Clare did not. Nettled by the lawyer, Clare accused David of throwing a cot at her—which he had, over twenty years earlier, he admits—and of being mentally ill, which David denies. David, stung, accused Clare of throwing a cup and of pointing a knife at him. He also made unwarranted criticism of the elder boys’ school, which he now regrets. Clare regrets badmouthing her husband to the judge, telling LifeSiteNews her motive was to be able to keep her daughters in the Catholic school they love.
“So we really messed up,” David told LifeSiteNews.
“Neither one of us is violent, but I think we could not have made a bigger mess of the hearing that day.”
The court documents—which were never translated into English for the Grahams, and with which the Grahams take issue—make for sad reading. They allege that the family’s financial situation was “extremely precarious,” with many bills unpaid. Social workers alleged in October that the two youngest boys weren’t in school and that the two older boys didn’t want to go back to their boarding school. They also alleged that David thought this school was too strict and even that Clare had announced she wanted to divorce her husband and leave with the children during the October school break. (Clare denies she wants or wanted a divorce.)
The documents discuss the November separation and the state school’s surprise when the boys didn’t turn up for class. They say David had declared he was afraid to object to their removal to Calvados, for he thought Clare might report him as demented to emergency services. They say he was also afraid Clare might leave France with the children. They also say Clare claimed David was psychotic, had a criminal record back in the U.K., and had abused her.
Clare strenuously disagrees with many of the statements in the court papers.
The documents also indicate that the social workers thought Clare’s Catholic objections to the local state schools were to her discredit: “Mrs. Graham says it would be terrible for [child] who can’t read and write to go to a public school... She considers that the teachings of the secular school are inadequate and immoral.”
Clare told LifeSiteNews that the AEMO caseworker she thought was her friend stood up at the hearing and said that Clare did not want her children in the state schools because they gave out contraceptives. Clare felt humiliated by the stares that followed this announcement.
The documents also claim that the children can’t speak French, which Clare says is “a lie,” adding that her youngest daughters had been at the French convent school for three years, and that the teachers have reported the girls are fluent. The two youngest boys, she admits, are not yet fluent as they have not been at school for long. The documents also suggest that the children have had inadequate schooling, which Clare vehemently denies.
The judge’s decision shocked both parents. Instead of siding with one or the other on the schooling issue, the judge ruled that the children should be removed from their care:
Although separated materially because of the departure of Mrs. Graham in the department of Calvados shortly before the hearing, the usual residence of the minors was not granted to either of the two parents, this situation having vocation to last insofar as Mrs. Graham indicated not to consider a judicial separation for the moment from her husband. She speaks of difficulty in entrusting the children to the father, which the social services were unable to verify. Finally, it must be noted that although Mr. Graham deplores the choices made by his wife, considering them to be contrary to the interests of their common children, he has never taken a position for the protection of the children until now. In these conditions it is impossible to entrust the minors to one or the other of the parents. No person is capable to be designated as a trustworthy third party and no member of the family seems to reside on the national territory, and it should be recalled that the family was very isolated in the Orne region.
The minor children, who are living with their mother in Calvados, will therefore be placed for 6 months. The parents obtain mediate visits (in presence of third parties) every 15 days in alternation, with the possibility of lightening of these measures. [Emphasis added.]
Clare Graham told LifeSiteNews that her eldest daughter, who is 22, asked to take charge of her brothers and sisters so that they could be together, but her plea was refused. At least one of her adult daughters does, in fact, “reside on the national territory.”
Georgina Graham told LifeSiteNews on behalf of all her siblings that their parents have never neglected them.
“We have never been neglected by our parents in any way,” she said via email.
“They have always put their children first.”
‘It was like a nightmare’
The judge’s decision was not immediate, for she had said she needed to think about it. Then Clare was stunned when she received a letter about two weeks later saying that the children would be “placed,” that is, put into foster care. At first there had been a long delay, and Clare thought it was because there was no foster family that would take all six children. Her court-appointed solicitor had also made an appeal, and apparently a court of appeal was willing to suspend the placement if Clare could prove the children were in school. By then, all four of the boys were enrolled in state schools in Calvados, and the youngest were even receiving extra tuition.
“I thought it was done,” Clare said, meaning the threat of the children being taken away.
When the “placement people”—two women—came to Clare’s house on Friday, March 13 to tell her the children would be taken away on Monday, the mother had just received a letter from the court of appeal, asking her to provide certain papers.
The police eventually burst open the bedroom door, and one of the boys was so frightened, he wet himself. Georgina said that as they drove her to the station, the police laughed over the youngest child’s terror. ‘Whilst I was in the police car, I heard the police laughing hysterically at how their colleague had screamed and kicked down the door where my siblings were hiding and scared my five-year-old brother to death,’ she told LifeSiteNews.
“They contacted the judge who told the placement people to split the children up as no family would take six children together,” Clare alleged.
“I told the placement people that everything was well with the children; they were all at school [and] we had no problems. They dismissed me, saying the judge wants them in care so they will be going into care.”
Clare was devastated.
“We ran,” she said. “I couldn’t sit back and let them get taken like that.”
The social workers had told Clare to pack suitcases and prepare the children to leave for their foster homes. Clare and one of her adult daughters did pack up, but they fled the small house in Calvados on Monday with the children. These included the girls, who had come home from their boarding school on Friday.
Clare’s British passport had run out, and although she had applied for them, she hadn’t yet received British passports for the children. As a result, they moved from place to place in France before finally returning to David and the family home in Orne. There they must have let their guard down, Clare believes, for as she looked out the window early on Tuesday, April 6, she saw the police arrive.
“I’ve never been so frightened in my life,” she said.
The house in Orne is made of two dwellings joined together. The police “tore apart” one of them before entering the wing where Clare was hiding with the children in a bedroom.
“We heard them all next door, me and the children, and [the children] were terrified,” she recalled.
Georgina Graham described what it was like to be on the other side of the wall:
I woke up around 7 a.m. to my dad telling me to hurry downstairs — “The police are here to see you.” When I got down, I was confronted with about ten or twelve police in the kitchen. The chief approached me and was very aggressive and frustrated because they had still not found my mum and the six children after three weeks of searching for them. He raised his voice and said that he has been made a fool of because of me and my family. He then said, ‘I am going to ask you one last time where they are, and if you don't tell me, you will be arrested right now and put in custody until you do.’ I answered, 'I still don't know where they are’ and was then arrested, searched and put in a cell.
The police eventually burst open the bedroom door, and one of the boys was so frightened, he wet himself.
“My  children were pulled from my arms by social services and quickly rushed into cars and driven away extremely distressed,” Clare said.
“Nothing prepared me for that; it was like a nightmare.”
The Grahams’ 15-year-old son was taken away by police, alone and frightened, for questioning. Clare and David were arrested and charged with kidnapping their own children, and their adult daughters were also arrested and charged. The latter were kept in police cells for three hours, their mother said.
Georgina said that as they drove her to the station, the police laughed over the youngest child’s terror.
“Whilst I was in the police car, I heard the police laughing hysterically at how their colleague had screamed and kicked down the door where my siblings were hiding and scared my five-year-old brother to death,” she told LifeSiteNews.
The situation did not improve at the separate police stations to which the Grahams were taken.
“My treatment by the police was terrible,” Clare recalled.
“I was kept for 11 hours and not even offered a drink of water. The policeman interviewing me persistently shouted in my face, and two others present with him thought it was amusing.”
Clare accuses the social workers, too, of finding their situation laughable. When the social workers came to her house in March to say they were taking her children, Clare heard them laughing and asking each other who spoke the best English, she said. When the “placement people” came to the police station to take her 15-year-old son, they laughed with the police about putting the family in cells. Later, when social services returned a call by one of the adult daughters, they left a message on her phone, forgot to hang up, and “could be clearly heard to be laughing about it in the background,” Clare said.
The children were divided and put in different families, ones that do not share their faith and do not take them to Sunday Mass. The two girls, aged 9 and 10, were placed with an Algerian Muslim man and his French wife, against Clare’s wishes. Clare’s daughters have told her that their carer has said he wants to take them to visit Algeria. Meanwhile, when Clare expressed surprise that her dress-loving daughter was dressed, on a visit, in black jeans bought by their foster parents, a social worker told her that it was a good thing the children were in placement, for that way they could “express themselves.”
No Catholic schools, no Catholic Mass — but Muslim proselytism from foster parents okay?
Clare says she has seen her children only twice since April 5 even though most people get to visit their children in foster care once a week. The children are permitted to call her and speak to her for only up to 15 minutes, and only on weeks they haven’t seen her. Meanwhile, her request that her children continue to attend Catholic schools has been denied. Last week she was told it would help her case if she would sign a form saying that she will now place all her children in state schools.
“So I’ll get the children back so long as I follow what they say I’ve got to do,” she said.
‘I think it was done deliberately. [The placement workers] knew they were girls from a Catholic convent school, and yet they were placed with a Muslim man and his wife.’
And although the children have not been permitted to go to Mass, two of them are receiving religious instruction from quite a different quarter.
“I spoke with my daughters tonight, and they are not happy at all,” Clare told LifeSiteNews on May 13.
“[They] keep asking when they can come home. Shockingly, they asked if they could attend [Ascension Day] Mass today, but instead they were told how to do Muslim prayers,” she continued.
“I think it was done deliberately. [The placement workers] knew they were girls from a Catholic convent school, and yet they were placed with a Muslim man and his wife.”
Meanwhile, the siblings in the different fostering households are not permitted to see each other, and their sister Georgina’s request to visit them in person has been denied.
The court of appeal in Caen will give a judgement on the case in June.
Friends and family in Britain support the Grahams: ‘They were just a normal family’
An appeal has been made to raise funds for the Grahams to pay a private lawyer to get their children back home. Both parents have told LifeSiteNews that they wish to return to England with the children. Clare intends to homeschool them with the support of her extended family.
Gemma Lloyd, the English woman who set up the fundraiser, told LifeSiteNews that she is a family friend of the Grahams, having known Clare from their church community in Yorkshire since she was a little girl.
“I was told at Mass one week by Clare’s mother that this is happening to Clare, so I thought I should try to help in lots of different ways, contact some people who could help her in France, and then [realized] that she needs financial help,” Lloyd said.
The fundraiser was delayed while Clare worked with the court-appointed lawyer, but when this proved fruitless, Lloyd launched the giving page.
“We wanted to get her the best, really,” she said.
Lloyd last saw Clare and her children when they were last in Yorkshire, when the youngest was a baby, and she said the children were “as normal as they come.”
“They were just a normal family,” she asserted.
Asked why she thought the French state took away the Grahams’ children, Lloyd indicated that she believes secular ideology is behind it.
“They want to control the children’s minds and take away anything to do with God, anything to do with religion,” she continued.
“And to me the Catholic country that France was, is no longer Catholic. It’s more or less communist, like our Lady of Fatima warned us of.”
Clare’s mother Sheila Campbell told LifeSiteNews that she and her husband are very distressed with the whole situation.
“We have 18 grandchildren and have tried to be involved with them all, as I believe that grandparents have a lot to offer the young ones in giving them a broader experience in life,” Mrs. Campbell said via email.
“George (my husband) and I both had grandparents who passed on a love of our Catholic faith, as well as sound advice on life itself,” the grandmother continued.
“I am therefore so upset that my younger grandchildren have been taken away in these circumstances, for no reason that I can understand. We have been refused permission to speak to them for the reason that we would speak to them in English and they would not understand what was being said. We would hardly be planning to take over the world!”
Campbell was distressed again to hear that her youngest granddaughters were being instructed in Islamic prayers.
“I know it was Eid, but more importantly, it was Ascension Day, and they should have been at Mass, not at a Muslim celebration,” she said.
Like her daughter, she thinks the girls were placed in that particular home because they were just completely their third year in a convent school when they were taken away.
“[The girls] were asking Clare last night why they can’t go back to the nuns, where they were settled and happy,” the grandmother wrote.
“I cannot begin to properly express how distressed and emotional I feel about this situation. We all just want the children back with the family and as soon as possible to be back in Yorkshire with their extended family who are all incredulous about the whole affair.”
Clare Graham has not received help from British authorities, even though her mother has contacted her MP and written to many others, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The British Embassy in Paris has been of limited use. Clare told LifeSiteNews that the British Embassy had been helping repatriate the family back to the U.K., but “all that came to a stop” after the hearing. Clare believes that when she contacted the British Embassy, when she was on the run, the official she spoke to called social services to report the conversation. One of the difficulties of the case is that Clare doesn’t believe that her six youngest children are French citizens, but the French bureaucrats they have dealt with say that they are.
Meanwhile, Clare’s medical doctor in France has been supportive and recently wrote two letters to the court to say, Clare says, that the mother “has always looked after the children well and didn’t have any mental health problems.”
According to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child has, “as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” The Convention states also that the child has the right “to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.” The child also has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Article 30 of the Convention is very clear about the rights of ethnic minority children, as the English-speaking Graham children are in France: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.”
LifeSiteNews has reached out to the Mother Superior of the convent school in which the girls were pupils, but she would not comment on the case. LifeSiteNews also reached out to the British Embassy in Paris, but its spokeswoman would not speak on record.
To assist the legal fund for the Graham family, click here.