FOR four exhausting months, Ashley James barely slept through the night, fearing her children could be snatched away from her.
Thanks to a pack of malicious lies from complete strangers, the loving mother-of-two was put under investigation by social services – and there was little she could do to hit back.
The TV host and model told The Sun: “When I first received the letter from social services explaining that they were investigating me I was pregnant. It put a huge amount of stress and pressure on me.
“It was also embarrassing because I had to explain to all of my childcare providers what was going on, so they could speak to social services too.
"It was quite mortifying, incredibly stressful and upsetting."
Ashley, 36, who regularly posts about her life as the mother of young children on social media, had found her life turned upside down by trolls who took against her approach to parenting.
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And astonishingly, she is far from alone.
Over recent months, an alarming number of high-profile mums, from reality stars to MPs, have faced the legitimate risk of having their children removed thanks to ghouls anonymously – and legally – contacting social services.
But concerningly, they have found it near impossible to bring their tormentors to justice, even when the incident has been reported to the police.
“It is absolutely a form of harassment," says Ashley. "These people will try and damage my reputation, doing extremely nasty and unwarranted acts such as trying to get me dropped from jobs or TV stations, by contacting people directly.
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"They get a kick out of it and it’s sick really."
'Mumfluencer' celebrities like Ashley are beloved by thousands of fans for their frank, honest accounts of motherhood.
Recent reports suggest 92 per cent of consumers see them as more trustworthy than celebrity spokespeople or ads, and highlight 'sharenting' influencers as one of the most persuasive groups on social media.
However, a small but powerful minority of trolls wait on their every post before rushing to gossip sites like Tattle Life, where anonymous users can pull apart and ridicule their lives.
Reality star Charlotte Dawson, cleaning guru Mrs Hinch, YouTuber family The Smithys and MP Stella Creasy – who all regularly speak about parenthood online – are among the high-profile stars to have been targeted in this year alone.
Psychotherapist and author Dr Aaron Balick, a specialist in how we relate to each other on social media, believes it is easy for negative opinions to form rapidly online.
Dr Balick says that because social media means we don't see them as "fully human", we are "more likely to demonise them quickly".
Ashley – who has two children, Alfie and Ada, with her partner Tom Andrews – says her life changed overnight last October when she first heard about the investigation into her ability as a mother.
Trolls reported her for being drunk (while pregnant) at a party she threw for Tom's birthday and for allowing her baby to “cry out” – both claims being completely baseless.
“Yes there absolutely were sleepless nights," she tells us. “My partner and I discussed at length how best to handle it, and he could see the stress and anguish it was putting me under.
“I said to the social services team, you could come round day or night and you’d only ever see love in this household.
“I never feared my children would get taken away from me because I know I’m such a good mum and they are lucky to grow up in a loving environment.
“His viewpoint was very much, 'Just don’t worry about it and don’t give them they attention they crave.' My professional colleagues had the same stance, too.
“But the moment the trolls did the social services thing, they then wrote to brands I work for asking, ‘How do you feel one of your ambassadors is being investigating for neglect?’
"It was all pre-planned by the trolls, with the aim of causing me as much distress as possible.
“In the past I’ve had the attitude that yes, trolls exist – just don’t go looking for them.
“This didn’t feel harmless, it was harassment, stalking and an extremely sinister thing to do to someone.
"It felt like I needed to hire a private investigator to find out who was behind this, and who would want to do such horrible things.
"But I wasn't just angry for me and my family. I was angry that someone would make false allegations and waste social services time – taking them away from protecting actual vulnerable and neglected children.
"You have to be quite evil to do that just because you don't like someone on the internet."
Thanks to information Ashley collated, she was able to present a dossier to police and social services officials, which meant the case against her was dropped.
“I know who a lot of the culprits are,” she says. “And it was important for me to have this information; more of a safeguarding issue. I was hoping the police could do something about it.”
Official NSPCC guidance says that if you think someone has intentionally made a false report against you or your family, you should contact the police, who can investigate if it is deemed to be harassment.
However, the reality is that perpetrators can often go unpunished.
Reality star Charlotte Dawson has been subjected to TWO claims made to social services by social media trolls.
Charlotte, 30, told her 1.3million followers on Instagram: "I just can't believe this person can get away with making these false accusations and wasting social services' time."
She also suggested she knows who may have made the claims against her, stating: "I hope it's proven right because then I would have known all along."
NSPCC guidance on false reports
If you think someone has intentionally made a false report against you or your family, contact the police.
If the police agree the person who made the report is harassing you they may decide to investigate.
They may contact our Data Protection Team to request more information about the person who made the report.
We work closely with the police and deal with these requests as helpfully as we can.
We balance the need to protect people from further harassment with the need to protect the confidentiality of those who report real concerns.
If someone continues to make false reports about a family, we work with children's services to help minimise the impact on that family.
For more information, visit nspcc.org.uk
Charlotte announced the birth of her son Jude, her second child with fiancé Matthew Sarsfield, on July 30 this year.
The Ex On The Beach star said social services were contacted just two weeks after she had given birth. She was accused of giving her two-year-old son Noah alcohol and showing his genitals on social media.
She said at the time: “Hearing this again, it’s just making me want to come off Instagram completely. I don’t know what to do, maybe I’m best not showing Jude and Noah anymore, I’m just trying to do my best as a mum and I’m just constantly getting teared down.”
She added: “But I’m going to have to move faster, clearly, because this person is literally trying to ruin my life.
“It’s just horrific, I feel sick. I don’t know how they can get away with giving us all this stress. I literally have no words. No words.”
She continued: “The social services lady was lovely on the phone. Obviously she closed the case down immediately. She was just ringing me to warn me, really, that they rang again, through the NSPCC which is child abuse, wow.
“It really does get to me, it makes me upset, it makes me depressed and heartbroken, really, because I’m literally trying my best."
MP Stella Creasy, 46, was also subjected to a social services investigation. An online troll believed he was 'entitled' to the opinion that her children should be taken into care.
The mum-of-two wrote in The Times in April: “Last November I received a heart-stopping call from the head of social services to say that they had received a safeguarding allegation about my children.
"He had never met me or seen my children in person, but as a direct result of his actions both now have a social services record."
Creasy was cleared, but told by police that they would not pursue a criminal investigation into the actions of her tormentor.
She says she was told by Leicestershire Police that her accuser was “legally entitled to show concerns to social care", commenting: "He did this because he has concerns that if your views are communicated to your children then they will become extreme.”
Brand and Culture expert Nick Ede says: "There is something very sinister about the trend to shame celebrity parents on social media and then report them.
"The social services and the police all have duty of care to make sure that children are cared for, so trolls targeting famous faces for no reason but to cause distress need to be investigated and stopped.
"Sites like Tattle Life that speak ill of social media stars and bloggers can really affect their mental health and they need to be moderated and carefully policed.
"With the police force and social services stretched as they are, this kind of abuse needs to be stopped and the perpetrators prosecuted accordingly. Celebrities are living in fear of being targeted by strangers."
A Leicestershire police spokesman told The Times: “Leicestershire police takes any report of harassment extremely seriously and will carry out a full investigation into the report and take the appropriate action."
Harassment and doxing – which means revealing identifying information about someone online – are both issues Ashley believes the Government needs to take more seriously.
That is why she, alongside Creasy, have called for more protection for women and girls as part of the Online Safety Bill, which was finally passed by Parliament this week.
“When you have a social services case opened against you, they have to notify your doctor and your school," says Ashley.
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“When my son starts going to school, whenever he’s in my care or someone else’s care and he has an injury, it would get flagged to doctors and nurses that he’s potentially being abused.
“This behaviour has real-life consequences. Why do my children deserve having their mum taken away?”
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