For many people, the EU is synonymous with bureaucracy and rules, but my experience as a MEP on the European Parliament's Petitions Committee has been of people - people often searching for justice and hoping the EU will help. Ruth Anne Appleby is a prime example. A UK citizen and former resident of Spain, when I first met Ruth she sat across from me in my office and calmly explained why the Petitions Committee is her last resort in her long struggle to find her baby. Her story is as shocking, as it is moving. As a new Mum myself, the thought of having one's newborn baby taken from you without your consent or knowledge is terrible, to realise that this could be a systematic, widespread practice undermines everything that we assume about how the state, church and hospitals treat mothers and their young babies.
Ruth was an expectant young mother living in La Coruña, Spain when she gave birth by Caesarean section in December 1992 to her first baby. Rather than celebrating the happy occasion, her world was turned upside down when only hours after the birth the nurses informed her that her baby, Rebecca, had died. Owing to their grief and Ruth's condition, neither she nor or husband attended the hastily arranged "funeral" by the authorities. But doubts about the official story always lingered.
In 2010, Ruth decided to move back to the UK and arranged for Rebecca's remains to be cremated to bring them back to England to be closer to her. However, when the remains were exhumed and the coffin opened it was clear that the remains were not those of a newborn child. They appeared to be of a much older infant.
The following year Ruth watched a documentary about the Spain's stolen children ('Niños robados'). It contained interviews with countless mothers who had had their babies taken from them without consent and sold on for adoption often for large sums of money. In echoes of the Irish case of Philomena Lee made famous by Hollywood, the Spanish documentary makers recorded how a practice that started under General Franco's regime had continued for many decades, even after the fall of his regime. Until recently, Spanish law did not require the biological mother's name on the birth certificate - allegedly to protect unmarried mothers' reputations but effectively creating a loophole for the trafficking of children. Alarm bells started ringing for Ruth as the documentary reported experiences eerily similar to her own.
Now living back in the UK with limited resources, she has faced an uphill struggle to find the truth. It was going to be extremely difficult to force the state to investigate historical abuses, something it has been reluctant to do in general, especially regarding matters related to the Franco era, or to force the church to reveal its own records that may show information about unauthorised adoptions and a child's true origins. Hence she petitioned the European Parliament and ended up in my office.
It was the last place that Ruth and five other petitioners (representing dozens of families) felt they could go to get a fair hearing, and importantly some action to shine a light onto a subject that has been hidden for decades by powerful vested interests. Opening up the Church's archives is their key demand.
This heartbreaking story was one that affected all MEPs deeply. As a result of their testimonies, we decided that we should take up their call for help. As a result, our committee will go to Spain between 22-23 May to conduct a 'Fact Finding Visit', where we will take testimony from representatives of the state, lawyers, journalists, victims (both mothers and stolen children) and crucially the Catholic Church. I am proud that I will lead the visit and hope that I can contribute to help reveal the truth about these precious stolen babies, an issue that that reaches beyond Spain's borders.
In the Petitions Committee we see that time and time again, people come with nowhere else to turn. As a member of the committee we cannot always 'solve' problems or right wrongs immediately but we can sometimes offer hope to people where previously there might have been none and help them take a step towards the justice they seek. In Madrid, I'll be standing with Ruth and the other petitioners in their struggle.
Read more about Ruth's story: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-34326858