UK Family Law Reform

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Innocent parents accused of abuse

by Daniel Foggo

Times - 23rd April 2006

MPs say hunt for abusers may be out of control

INNOCENT parents are being falsely accused of abusing their children and threatened with having them taken into care, according to a report backed by MPs. An all-party group of MPs and peers is next month to meet Beverley Hughes, the minister for children, to discuss concerns that the hunt for potentially abusive parents might be out of control.

The group says large numbers of parents are being wrongly suspected of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy (MSBP), a condition where people supposedly fabricate illnesses in their children to gain attention. It wants a review of government guidelines issued to social workers, police and teachers.

MSBP was first identified by Professor Sir Roy Meadow, a paediatrician who was struck off the medical register last year, and later reinstated on appeal, after widespread criticism of his work. He was a key prosecution witness in the cases of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings who were both jailed for killing their children. Their convictions were quashed, however, after Meadow’s theory that some cot deaths were actually murder was discredited.

Despite the government’s official view that MSBP, also known as fabricated or induced illness, occurs in only about one person in a million, up to 12,000 children a year are being taken into care for MSBP- related reasons, according to the report.

The 104-page report, drawn up by Consensus, a group of parents and professionals, says Department of Health guidelines on MSBP issued in 2002 are phrased in such a way as to trigger referrals of parents to social workers even without any evidence.

The guidelines state: “When a possible explanation for signs and symptoms is that they may be fabricated or induced by a carer, and as a consequence the child’s health or development is likely to be impaired, a referral should be made to social services.” Among the cases highlighted are:

Social workers who claimed a mother was inventing her 14-year-old son’s hearing impediment to get attention, despite medical evidence to the contrary. The boy was removed from an “at risk” register only after doctors protested.

A vicar’s wife accused by social workers of exaggerating her child’s cerebral palsy to get attention. After the child was put on an “at-risk” register, a judge threw out the case and told the mother she had done nothing wrong.

A professional couple who were placed under investigation by social workers after a school cast doubt on the seriousness of their six-year-old daughter’s learning difficulties. The child was taken off an “at risk” register only after her parents proved she was autistic.

Damian Green, a Tory frontbench spokesman who is part of the cross-party group, believes the guidelines are encouraging social workers and schools to be overzealous in their attempts to find MSBP. He said: “You have the possibility of huge injustices arising through the inflexibility of these guidelines which are based on questionable theories.”

Other members of the group include Earl Howe, a shadow health minister; Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham; Dr Richard Taylor, a retired consultant and independent MP for Wyre Forest; Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton; and Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem member for Hornsey and Wood Green.

The MPs are concerned by huge geographical variations in the number of families being placed under investigation by social workers. In 2003, 264,000 parents or children faced “initial assessments” by social workers who suspected possible abuse.

While in Buckinghamshire there were only 540 initial assessments, in Kent the number was 12,510. Even allowing for differences in their populations, parents in Kent were 10 times more likely to be investigated over child protection issues. The report argues this discrepancy may be explained by some areas disregarding the MSBP hypothesis, “whereas in others it is taken as gospel and applied with zeal”.

The report has brought to light a number of harrowing cases. They include that of Tina England, one of Gibb’s constituents, who had both her adopted children placed on an “at risk” register because West Sussex social services thought she had MSBP. Her elder son Donald (not his real name), now 20, who has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties, was experiencing stomach pains and England was advised by medics to put him on a special diet.

But social workers became concerned that she was exaggerating his disabilities and showing signs of MSBP. They considered both Donald and his 14-year-old brother Nigel (not his real name), who has more severe learning difficulties, as well as autism and epilepsy, to be at risk.

At a case conference convened by the authority, a doctor who had met neither England nor her children said he had “no problem in using the label Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy in relation to Ms England”. He had never examined Donald, yet he declared that he did not have cerebral palsy — even though other doctors could provide written diagnoses to confirm that he did. The fact England was so caring for her children counted against her as evidence of MSBP.

A senior social worker for West Sussex wrote that one risk factor (to her children) was that “Ms England gains much of her feelings of self-worth through her perceived dedication to her children’s wellbeing”. England, 47, said: “I chose to adopt two children who were disabled because I wanted to make a difference to their lives but that was turned against me. They also queried Nigel’s hearing aids and suggested they were unnecessary and I had got them to make him appear more disabled.”

England requested support from Peter West, a consultant who had prescribed hearing aids for Nigel. He wrote to West Sussex social services, saying: “I was surprised and frankly appalled that comments can be passed in a specialist area of this kind without any reference to any of the audiological professionals involved.”

England’s children were taken off the “at-risk” register in April 2001. “I would love to adopt another child but I have no chance as any application I make causes the fact that my children were once on an at-risk register to show up,” she said. “Nor can I work in teaching support, which I am trained to do.”

Another case in the Consensus document is that of Christina and John Crane. Their six-year-old daughter Morgan, who has learning difficulties, was temporarily placed on an “at-risk” register by Kent social services. A Kent county council report published earlier this year showed that the number of children placed on the at-risk register in Ashford, where the Cranes live, nearly doubled over the previous 12 months, rising from 34 to 62.

Morgan had been “statemented” as having special needs but a teacher at her school referred the parents to social services in May 2004, claiming there were inconsistencies between their description of Morgan’s abilities and what the school observed. They were then subjected to regular visits by social workers who assessed the family’s relationships to decide whether to remove the children.

John Crane, 42, who runs a kitchen fitting business, said: “During one visit by the social worker Morgan came and sat on my lap and because I hadn’t put my arms around her it was written down that ‘no attempt to show affection was made’.”

The authorities accepted the reality of Morgan’s condition only after it had been confirmed by a child psychologist.

In a third case, Martin and Ann Hewitt, whose 12-year-old son Thomas is autistic, were investigated by social services in Haringey, London, after a teacher raised concerns he was being given too much medication. Although the Hewitts were never accused of having MSBP, Haringey’s “child in need” inquiry ended only when the couple proved they were giving Thomas the exact amount of painkillers prescribed.

A spokesman for Kent county council said: “We are not aware of any problem with excessive numbers of investigations into allegations of fabricated illness in Kent. We are very careful to abide by the Department of Health guidelines. It is a medical diagnosis, not a social services one.”

West Sussex county council, Haringey borough council, and the Department for Education and Skills all declined to comment.

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