‘We have a hostage situation…’

Case notes   

Practitioner: Frances Stewart,* social worker.

Field: Children and families.

Location: Lincolnshire.

Client: Two and a half year old Adam* had been on holiday with his father, Michael Ellis,* in October 2001 and was due to return to his mother.

Case history: Adam had not been returned on time to his mother who contacted the police. They found Ellis and Adam at a holiday park in the South West. When police approached the father they were threatened with what appeared to be a weapon, possibly a gun. Ellis took Adam and drove away in his camper van only to be tracked by police over his 200-mile journey across four counties. Ellis ran out of petrol on the motorway near Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, where that county’s police force took over. A 17-mile stretch of the motorway was closed both ways for more than 30 hours. During the siege, Ellis told police negotiators that if he were to give up his son he would only do so to a social worker from his home town in Lincolnshire.

Dilemma: A small child in the care of a single parent in a stressful, tense and potentially fatal situation

Risk factor: What harm might the child suffer if the situation is allowed to continue given his father’s unpredictability? Also what longer-term emotional damage might be caused by the incident?

Outcome: The child was safely and peacefully removed from his father.

* Not real names

If you followed reports in October 2001 covering the ordeal of a toddler taken hostage by his father in a camper van on the M4 surrounded by armed police, you might have wondered what it had to do with social services.

Well, among the roll-call of police marksmen, helicopters, armed-response Land Rovers, bomb squads, trained police negotiators, fire engines and ambulances that encircled the crime scene one detail was omitted: the child’s release was secured with the help of a social worker.

At 2am on Sunday 21 October, the phone rang at the home of social worker Frances Stewart (not her real name – she prefers anonymity because any personal publicity is “not my sort of thing”). Wiltshire police asked her if she would be prepared to help negotiate the release of Adam Ellis from his father, Michael.*

They had called Stewart because Ellis would only hand over the child to someone from his home town in Lincolnshire. Although aware of the potential personal dangers involved, all she saw was a child at risk, and agreed without hesitation. “The little boy’s welfare was of paramount importance at the end of the day,” says Stewart.

A police car picked up Stewart and a colleague at 3am. The decision not to travel alone was, she says, crucial: “This allowed me to focus primarily on what I had to go and do. It was all very surreal, really. First of all travelling at high speed and then reaching the motorway where there was no traffic.”

At the scene, four hours later, the tension was as visible as the 40 or so police cars. Not quite a regular day at the office.

The negotiating team hoped fatigue would lead Ellis into simply giving up. “A very real risk was that he would take the ultimate way out,” says Stewart, “but we kept trying to encourage him to give the child up as quickly as possible.”

Stewart sat in the negotiating vehicle and spoke to Ellis through a communication device set up in the van by police. This also allowed them to hear what was going on in the van, enabling continuous assessment of Adam’s welfare.

“When I spoke to [Ellis] over the link-line,” says Stewart, “I confirmed to him who I was and re-assured him where I came from. I wanted to know more about Adam. I knew that he would come with me, and the police would arrest the father, so I needed to know what food Adam liked. Did he have a special toy with him? Did he use nappies? That’s what I was there to do. I wasn’t there to enter into a debate with him, so when he asked ‘what happens when I give you Adam?’ the police took over. My job was to build a rapport with the person I’m talking to – this was no different to other circumstances on that level.”

In conversation Ellis seemed rational and Stewart found that, in the rush to leave Cornwall, Adam had neither shoes nor toys. So, for 36 hours Ellis had to entertain his bright and lively son. Even without the pressure of the situation and confinement that would prove stressful. But Ellis did not seem edgy or irritable, she says.

“That was his idea,” confirms Stewart about Ellis’s surrender and offer to come out in only his underpants. “Actually, he suggested coming out naked at first. This seemed to un-nerve the police who were unsure of his motive, but I guess I could see from his point of view that he was trying to prove that he wasn’t armed.”

Stewart, in a protective jacket, made her way towards Ellis past a police vehicle concealing the arrest team, and two Land Rovers concealing armed police. Ellis handed her Adam, who “seemed a little bemused”. Stewart left the scene immediately and went with Adam to hospital where he proved to be healthy. “We then took him home,” she says. He was back with his mother by 5.30pm.

This story in some ways typifies the nature of social work – a stressful and potentially dangerous job, but one that Stewart, who has since changed jobs, simply and unassumingly carried out, with all thoughts on the safety of the child and seeking no personal credit.

“My colleague was more aware of the personal risk to me,” she says. “I just got on and did the job, if I’m honest. But that’s what we’re all about.” And while such everyday attitudes and successes do not grab the headlines, they certainly lift the heart. CC

* Names have been changed

Arguments for risk 

  • Police considered Ellis was caring for Adam as best as conditions allowed, although the child was becoming increasingly tetchy. They had been in the van since 7.30pm on Friday and, naturally, by early Sunday morning, they were suffering from stress. 
  • The police could hear what was going on in the camper van and could monitor Ellis’s behaviour towards Adam as well as the boy’s emotional state. 
  • Ellis had begun making conciliatory noises, specifically that he would be prepared to hand over Adam but only to a social worker from his home town. In order to bring the siege to a conclusion police considered that, with support, a social worker would be able to assist them in this. 
  • Stewart, despite the inherent danger, displayed no hesitation in accepting the challenge. She proved confident and competent and subsequently played an important part in securing Adam’s release.   

Arguments against risk 

  • Ellis had threatened police seriously enough for them to consider him dangerous, to the extent that enormous resources were deployed to secure the safety of the child – and the protection of those seeking an end to the stand-off. 
  • The time spent in a confined space having to entertain a young child could be causing both father and son considerable stress and, when linked with fatigue, might prove a dangerous combination. 
  • Ellis wanted to maintain a level of control by making specific demands on police, all of which were likely to affect Adam. 
  • The stress of the chase, running out of petrol and realising that there would be consequences fed concerns about unpredictability and potential loss of control. 
  • By bringing an inexperienced negotiator into this tense situation, there was a risk that it could have proven counter-productive.

Independent comment 

Generally speaking, third-party negotiators are not called in during a crisis, writes Cecil Pearson. However, in this case, the social worker deployed several proven negotiating tactics that brought the situation to a peaceful conclusion.  

The social worker’s initial contact with the father is what we in the business refer to as an “ideal” situation. In other words, the hostage-taker is rational. The father had already notified the police that he would only give up his son to a social worker from his home town.  

It appears that Stewart depended largely on her creativity, talent for persuasion, alertness, and knowledge of applied psychology. She built trust and came across as a helpful mediator. She used time effectively, which reduced what anxiety the father had. She followed one of the basic guidelines in the negotiation process – to change the attitude of the hostage taker from one of hostility or fear to one of trust. She let him feel that, by talking to her, the cause of his fears and frustration would be eliminated. 

There is a slight risk involved when negotiators pay more attention to the hostages than the hostage takers. Some hostage takers feel “they” are not concerned about them. They just want to find out how the hostages are coping. Negotiators should proceed with caution in this area. Face-to-face situations present the highest risk to all involved, and should be avoided if possible. 

Cecil Pearson, is a retired police captain based in Las Vegas and co-author of the book Hostage Situations.

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