In the early 1990s, parents began to panic.
Stories began to spread about "phantom social workers" making their way from door to door in rural England. Soon, parents in the United States reported encounters.
The incidents seemed remarkably similar. A parent would hear a knock at the door, then go to answer it; they'd find a man or woman on their step who claimed to be a social worker. In several cases, these social workers had an overseer, typically a tall, imposing man.
The "social worker" would demand access to the house, claiming to have received evidence that the children in the home had been abused. After briefly inspecting the children, the social worker would leave.
Parents who encountered these strange individuals would then contact their local authorities to ask about the visit. They'd get a shocking response: There were no social workers in the area.
Gradually, the phantom social worker stories spread.
Anne Wylie was one of the victims. She was sitting at home with her 20-month-old son in Hamilton,
While she felt like "hiding her son in the washing machine," per The Independent, she spoke with the unusual woman.
"I thought it was strange to start off with, as no one usually comes to my back door," she told the paper. "This woman said she was my new health visitor and she had come to check his medical records. My son had been in
"I said to her 'Do you have identification?' and she said '
"She was talking to my son but it was pouring with rain and I said we'd all better go into the living room. I took my son inside and she was away."
Several months after the incident, Wylie said that she was "very wary now" and that she refused to open the door for anyone.
"You should always ask for identification," she told the paper at the time. "If I hadn't then the police could have been coming round to my home saying we haven't found [baby] Robert or we have found him but...it doesn't bear thinking of. You can't take any chances."
The panic prompted rumors that the phantom social workers were child abductors.
After all, in all of the bizarre incidents, the "workers" demanded access to children. Were they attempting to abuse or abduct the kids?
Public health officials said that this was a distinct possibility and warned parents to exercise caution.
"We stress people must check identification and health visitors come with an appointment," said a spokeswoman for the UK's Health Visitors' Association.
Soon, conspiracy theorists offered an alternative explanation: The phantom social workers were demonic beings or aliens. As evidence, they cited extraordinary similarities in the appearance of the visitors.
"The visitors were mostly one or two women, but sometimes a woman and a man," wrote Patrick Harpur in his book, Daimonic Reality. "The women were typically in their late twenties or early thirties, heavily made up, smartly dressed and of medium height. They carried clipboards and, often, identification cards."
One woman, Lynne Stewart, said that she fought off a fake social worker who tried to grab her 4-month-old baby.
The case, however, was quickly closed, as investigators determined that Stewart had made up the incident as a "cry for help."
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm sticking by my story. It's no hoax, it all happened as I said," the mother of two told reporters for The Herald in Scotland. ''I'm not going to be charged with wasting police time. I've heard
Her neighbor told the same paper that she didn't appreciate the apparent hoax.
''There are lots of young babies in the
''This is a quiet estate and we all look out for each other," she added. "There is no way something like this could happen without anyone seeing it.''
Police launched several investigations, but they failed to turn up any compelling evidence of a real conspiracy.
"There have been no arrests," said Chief Inspector Douglas Watson of the Lothian and Borders Police. "We disbanded the squad in July last year . The bottom line is there is more than one team [of people] involved. There were ones we felt were worth investigating but a lot of the reports were malicious by attention-seeking people."
The official explanation was that the "phantom social workers" consisted of three groups: people seeking attention, people trying (strangely) to help children, and people trying to hurt children.
In every reported case, the phantom social workers were unsuccessful. They never abducted children, and while some reports contained serious allegations, police believed that most of the accounts could be easily explained without bringing supernatural beings into the equation.
Then, in 2014, the phantom social workers returned—at least in one part of England.
An unnamed woman reported a visit from a false Gloucestershire social service worker. The social worker, a 5'6" woman with dark, bobbed hair, tricked her way into the parent's home by showing fake identification. She then checked a child's heartbeat with a stethoscope, but otherwise had no physical contact with the baby, according to detectives.
"We don't know what the motivation for this was, but clearly it is very concerning," said Andy Dangerfield of Gloucestershire Police. "Our inquiries are ongoing. We have visited houses in the area to warn local people and would urge everyone to be vigilant. Remember, do not accept people into your house unless you are 100 percent sure you know who they are."
"You can always tell them to stay outside until you have made your own inquiries and if you are suspicious in any way, then call
Unlike most "strange visitor" hoaxes, the phantom social workers seem grounded in reality. Authorities have confirmed numerous visits, and while some might be copycats looking to take advantage of the creepy legend, it's impossible to know the motivation of all of the visitors.
Unfortunately, the phantom social worker myth might prevent some parents from reacting appropriately to legitimate visits from real public health professionals. The reports are deeply troubling, to say the least, and fearful parents are justified in playing it safe.
As for the supernatural explanations, there's nothing to them. Sometimes, however,