Children's Rights

Mothers falsely accused of Munchhausen's Syndrome

This was published in the Herald in 2004. I wonder how much has changed in the family court system?

It is easy to mock the press. But often it is journalists who help the victims of miscarriages of justice. In court, it is easy to forget that the press bench is one of the most important fixtures. The jury and the press representing ordinary people are vital for justice to be seen to be done. G K Chesterton wrote that among officials of the court it is only the jury who can really picture what it might be like to be the man in the dock, who may be innocent. To the others it is simply ''the usual man in the usual place''.

In the 1970s, both press and public were excluded from the family courts in England and children's hearings in Scotland. Reporting restrictions so draconian were placed on cases heard there, that the stories could not be told even outside the court whether or not families felt they were being unjustly treated.

For all this time the professionals have had the place to themselves. This was in the name of protecting innocent children from the glare of publicity. But now we are discovering that an appalling abuse of innocent children may have taken place behind closed doors.

Children have almost certainly been taken away from loving mothers and condemned to a life lived in children's homes or adopted by strangers on the basis, in many cases, of a dubious complaint created by the medical profession which they call ''Munchhausen syndrome by proxy''.

In the criminal courts, where the press cannot be excluded, the names, faces and stories of Angela Cannings, Sally Clark and Trupti Patel all of whom were accused of murdering their babies on the basis of a diagnosis of this condition are familiar. These women have had their names cleared. But behind the closed doors there has been no such outcome for the women who lost their children on the same set of ill-founded assumptions.

Starting in the 1990s, women suspected of harming their children or of exaggerating their illnesses or enjoying having a sick child were labelled ''MSBP''.

In Scotland there were at least 43 families whose children were removed because of this diagnosis. There are some mothers who do harm their children, but where that can be proved it is a criminal matter. The idea that children whose sickness cannot be explained are being harmed by mothers is now highly controversial.

In the light of the public outcry over the criminal cases, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration reviewed its own decisions.

It found 43 cases and decided only eight were in any way doubtful.

Shockingly, it has said that even of these only three can be re-examined by the courts because in five of the cases the children's names had been
forgotten or the files destroyed.

This is outrageous. To take away a woman's children is a grave, very grave step. To do it on the basis of bad science and a lack of evidence is unpardonable. To treat this offence against justice and against conscience as if it were on the level of a faulty parking ticket is sick.

Munchhausen syndrome by proxy is a way of pathologising mothers. It can be based on very little evidence - one piece of such is a cruel experiment carried out in London in which mothers were set up to fail. Like laboratory monkeys made to perform increasingly difficult feats to get food, women were told to keep lively young children confined to beds for days on end while being secretly filmed. The restraint they were obliged to practice to comply with what the doctors ordered became rougher as the mothers became more exhausted. The findings were presented as mothers deliberately harming their children.

The psychological ''profile'' of a Munchhausen mother now disseminated by psychiatrists is of a mother who is reluctant to leave her child's side when ill, who uses medical terms, who asks questions. One final trait - she will be a denier who firmly rejects accusations of abuse.

It is a Kafkaesque plight and in some cases mothers have been told their children will not be returned if they do not confess. In the United States, the diagnosis is being stretched to cover mothers who are ''over-involved'' with their children's school. Mothers who staff describe as ''pushy'', who seek extra or different help for their children, are the new focus of the psychiatry industry. Children are being taken from mothers in the States for such reasons.

Journalist Margaret Talbot recently produced a thoughtful analysis of the condition published in the New Yorker. She found that while the wealthy could buy as many second opinions as they wanted, in the public health system, mothers must beware. The animosity medical staff feel for mothers whom they consider to be pushy feeds into the MSBP diagnosis.

Debra Reid, a single mother of four and a community activist in LA, had an asthmatic son, Jonathan, removed after social workers diagnosed her as MSBP. A judge decided Reid ''does what she thinks is right and to a significant extent disregards what others think'' and the boy was fostered. Six weeks later he was dead of an asthma attack. His foster mother said she had not been told how serious his condition was.

The difference is, in the States these stories are not being told in secret.

The Scottish Herald
October 13th 2004