5:30pm Monday 11th March 2013
By Ashley Barnard
RUTH APPLEBY believes her daughter was stolen at birth and sold for a few thousand pounds - and her fears may be well founded. ASHLEY BARNARD reports...
LOSING a child is the worst thing that can happen to any parent. Losing one at birth is doubly devastating for a mother.
But what should have been a chance for Ruth Appleby to say goodbye to her first-born daughter Rebecca has returned to torment her more than two decades later.
Baby Rebecca weighed two kilograms and 83 grams and was 50cm long when she was born in the Spanish city of La Coruna in 1992. She seemed fit and healthy when her proud dad saw her for the first and only time.
But within 24 hours her parents given the devastating news that she had died.
Ruth and husband Howard lived in Spain for ten years, working as an English teacher and publisher respectively. When they split up Ruth moved with their other children, Rosie, 17, and Benjy, 11, to Colburn, near Richmond, in 2006.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of Rebecca being in a grave far away from her family,” she says.
“It was incredibly hard to think that she was in a cemetery all on her own with no one to go and visit her, although I would order flowers for the grave every month and we would mark her birthday as a family.”
In 2010, Ruth made the decision to have the body of Rebecca exhumed and cremated, and to bring her back to North Yorkshire.
In June 2010 she made the painful journey to the grave, but what she witnessed there set about a chain of events that would change her life completely.
“I was warned that there would probably be nothing left of her after being buried for 17 years – babies have a very light skeleton that is mainly cartilage, and the skull is not fully formed so it would have fallen into pieces.”
The crematorium had sent a box in which to put the coffin once it was exhumed – but it was too small for the coffin brought from the grave marked as Rebecca’s.
“The whole process was completely irreverent. There were two cemetery workers who were trying to cram her coffin into the box but it would not fit.
“Then without warning, one cracked the coffin open with a crowbar and tipped the remains into the box. It was not something I wanted to see but I couldn’t help but look and it is something I will never forget.
“There was a full skeleton, the size of a toddler, with yellowed bones and its skull was completely intact. I was in such shock by the whole ordeal I let it the cremation go ahead – something I now deeply regret because I’m sure it was not Rebecca.”
At this stage, Ruth had no idea that a scandal was breaking in Spain surrounding illegal baby trafficking, with claims that the criminal process of stealing babies to sell to adoptive parents had continued after General Franco’s regime into the late 1990s.
It was only when a friend in Spain contacted her almost two years after she had brought home the ashes that she began to question everything she had been told.
“She told me about the reports of stolen babies coming forward from the same hospital I gave birth in, and I later called my ex-husband about it, who still lives in Spain, and he said he was already planning to talk to me.”
Ruth contacted North Yorkshire Police, and a frustrating couple of months followed, waiting for Scotland Yard and Interpol in London and Madrid to process the case.
The file made it to the authorities in Madrid last September – but by early October Ms Appleby received a devastating blow when she was told the case had been closed because the "baby" - or at least a child's skeleton - had been returned.
However, with the assistance of foreign secretary William Hague the case is being reviewed and Ruth is waiting to hear what the next step will be.
More than 1,000 Spanish families have gone to court over similar cases. Last year the first formal charges were filed against a nun, Sister Maria Gomez Valbuena – but she recently died aged 87.
Evidence from the Hospital Materno Infantil Teresa Herrera contains a whole host of inaccuracies,and could not even say when the baby was buried.
“When a baby dies in Spain it is treated as a miscarriage so there no death certificate as such," explains Ruth. "There's just a form that must be completed with the date and time of birth, date and time of death, and the name of doctor who attended the birth.
“The only detail was the date of death, December 3, and the name of the doctor was wrong. There is also a form for details for the burial of the baby, which was left completely blank.”
Ruth was told a funeral had taken place while she was still in hospital recovering from an infection after her Caesarean section, but neither parent saw Rebecca after she died.
“We were given the certificates of death and burial after that in an envelope but we never opened it, and I didn’t question what the doctors were telling me,” admits Ruth.
“But luckily I kept all those documents and I have a file of evidence to support my case –investigations are still ongoing and I am waiting to hear what the next step will be.
The knowledge that her daughter may still be alive threatens to be all-consuming: "I have to keep my life balance so I am not so consumed with finding out the truth about Rebecca that I neglect my children, but I also can’t just let it go.
“I have to prepare myself for the possibility that if she is alive she may not want to meet me, and I would like to think that if that were the case I would respect her decision.
“The hardest part is living with the unknown."
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