23 November, 2006

Child Abuse 2: the individual and family cost.

Previously I identified three areas of concern arising from Professor David Southall's research related to Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy (MSBP). I have since refined those areas into three sub-categories within the over-arching theme of structural reform of child protection policies in the UK: medical research; individual and family; and statutory, (legal system,police and social services). Of course, the distinctions are often blurred and, as in all such ideal type models, there is considerable over-lap, nonetheless it will serve to separate out the various strands sufficiently to allow a clearer picture to be drawn of a complex set of inter-locking issues.

Yesterday I dealt with the medical research strand, outlining David Southall's work and briefly placing it in the context of MSBP. This post moves on to draw attention to the effect of false allegations of child abuse on individuals and their families. On 16 November 2006, John Hemming made a speech in the House of Commons in which he drew attention to devastating effects that erroneous allegations of child abuse can have on individuals and their families.

Professionals have avoided scrutiny through secrecy and continually made errors that would have been picked up had matters been considered in public. It is very clear that too many children are taken into care and there are a number of reasons for it. There is the simple failure of the system where the system gets the facts wrong.
In this respect, Hemming drew attention to the cases of Gina and Tim Williams, and Mark and Nicola Webster.

Even accepting as Hemming says, that these "two cases came about from the actions of almost certainly well motivated physicians", it raises deep concerns about the operation of a system which imposes such unnecessary suffering on individuals. Clearly the system needs to be reviewed but structural reform of the Social Services is a subject for another post.

Hemming then moves on to less than well motivated doctors, including the case of Ben Hollisey McLean (scroll down to 2nd post, by Penny Mellor). In perhaps the most disturbing passage of the speech, Hemming continues,
There are also cases such as that of Ben Hollisey McLean, in which the threat of child protection proceedings was used to force him into dangerous medical research. I have evidence of the threat of child protection proceedings being used to silence parents. Indeed, parents have been forced to admit that they harmed their children—when they did not—simply to keep them. When parents are caught in the Catch-22 world of social services it is one of the most pernicious and invidious aspects of the system, and it provides a reason why it is difficult to get clear understanding from the research.

Roy Meadow, who followed in the tradition of Matthew Hopkins, and David Southall, who shared that ancestry and that of Joseph Mengele combined, should have to account for the misery that they caused. Even if their motivations were good, the consequences will hang over many people’s lives for decades. The witch hunts, where mothers are alleged to have killed their children and are then required to prove their innocence against unfounded medical opinion, need to stop now. That does not require a change to the law, but it does require a change to procedure.
Something has obviously gone badly wrong is a system which treats individuals in such an appalling way and destroys their lives and their families. Lemming concludes that,
We clearly need to separate out the child protection function from the supportive function of social services—under “Every Child Matters” it is being reorganised slightly anyway—and link child protection to the police rather than the local authority. The police are generally much better at handling such issues.
Which leads on to the legal aspect of the problem which I shall address at a later date. The above is by no means a full outline of John Hemming's speech. Given the constraints of length, here I have drawn attention only to certain passages selected because they help illustrate the effects false, or mis-, diagnosis of child abuse can have on individuals and their families. Many other examples of the individual consequences of the system's failures could be given, even from Hemming's speech, such as Yvonne and Tammy Cooper, Victoria ClimbiƩ and some not named. Indeed, the cases referred to here are only illustrative the tip of the iceberg.

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