Monday, June 21, 2004

Experts in child abuse cases face inquiry

Struck off: Professor David Southall was found guilty of serious professional misconduct.

UK: The government launched an official inquiry into the quality of expert medical evidence in child abuse cases last Thursday, as the implications of the miscarriage of justice in the Angela Cannings case continued to perplex ministers.

Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, asked Sir, [? ruling class], Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, to investigate the reliability of expert witnesses in the family courts in England. He will also consider how best to remedy the shortage of paediatricians willing to undertake this type of work.

There is concern that paediatricians are being deterred by public hostility, following the appeal court's judgment in the Cannings case in December.

The problem may have been exacerbated when the General Medical Council found the consultant paediatrician David Southall guilty of abusing his professional position by accusing a father of murdering his two sons after watching a TV documentary.

Mrs Cannings was freed when her conviction for murdering her two babies was quashed because the judges came to doubt the medical evidence on which it was based.

Roy Meadow

Specifically, they were concerned about the approach adopted by the prosecution expert, Sir, [? ruling class], Roy Meadow, a retired paediatrician whose rule of thumb was: unless proven otherwise, one cot death is tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder.

The government responded in February by asking local authorities to review all child protection cases to identify children who may have been taken into care on the basis of disputed medical evidence.

Mrs Hodge said the review found 5,175 cases going through the family courts, involving 9,195 children. In 385 cases, the question of whether the children had suffered significant harm hinged on expert evidence, but dispute among experts was likely in only 47 cases - less than 1% of the total. So far there is only one case in which the local authority changed its care plan as a result of the Cannings judgment.

In a second stage of the review, the authorities will be asked to review about 30,000 past care orders to check whether mistakes were made due to disputed medical evidence.

Mrs Hodge said: "The results of this initial survey should not give rise to complacency that the interests of children and families are being optimally served. Widespread concern has been expressed about the quality and validity of evidence given by medical expert witnesses following the recent appeals against convictions of mothers alleged to have been responsible for killing their children."

These concerns were "substantial" and "worsening an already acute problem which the family courts are experiencing in finding experts of high standing to give medical evidence in proceedings, particularly where child abuse is suspected".

Mrs Hodge said concern extended to the whole scientific basis for medical evidence in criminal and civil courts.

Sir, [ruling class], Liam would conduct "a programme of work to determine how best to ensure the availability and quality of medical expert resources to the family courts". He would involve judicial, legal, clinical, scientific and statistical interests in this work, as well as health regulatory bodies.

The shadow children's minister, Tim Loughton, said: "I remain concerned that all the reviews have been conducted entirely under the auspices of the local authorities who were key players in the original decisions ... This will not inspire confidence that justice has been done for every potential case of a child removed from parents unreasonably on questionable evidence."

Andrew Cozens, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said it was important that it did not damage child protection.

By John Carvel posted 21 June 04


Folbigg, convicted until proven innocent
Convicted August 2003 for the manslaughter of her eldest child Caleb, and the murder of her next three children, Patrick, Sarah and Laura. Caleb Dod. 19 February 1989 age; 20 days Cause of death: SIDS Patrick Dod. 13 February1991 age 8 months; Cause of death: acute asphyxia caused by epileptic fit Sarah Dod. September 1993 age 11 months; Cause of death: SIDS Laura Dod. March 1999 Age 19 months;

Cot deaths and justice
Did you kill your babies?' A whisper came from the crumpled figure in the dock: 'No.' The whisper grew louder: 'No, no.' It was as if we were witnessing torture in Reading Crown Court. It is hard to imagine a crueller inquisition than that which faced Trupti Patel: a mother loses three babies in cot death and then goes through the hell of being accused of murdering them.

Accused of abuse, but never tried
Parents have lost access to their children without a criminal trial. Mothers Sally Clark and Trupti Patel found themselves in the dock accused of murdering their babies partly on the strength of expert testimony by Sir Roy Meadows. But other families have been forcibly separated thanks to Sir Roy's testimony without police charges ever being brought.

Cot Death Mothers: The Witch Hunt
John Sweeney investigates when mothers, grieving the loss of a child after cot death, are wrongly accused of murder.