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Suspension of doctor who used video evidence
to identify abused children was 'procedural' says hospital
Sarah Boseley, Health Correspondent
Friday December 10, 1999
Parents who have been campaigning against David Southall for several years were jubilant
yesterday at news of his suspension, which they claim vindicates their stand even though
the hospital says the suspension is procedural.
Although all sorts of accusations have been levelled against Professor
Southall, at the heart of it all has been the issue of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy -
mothers who harm their babies to seek attention for themselves.
Even medical opinion is divided over the existence of this syndrome, but Prof. Southall
has no doubts. He pioneered covert video surveillance of mothers suspected of abuse. The
women and their babies were invited to stay for a few nights in the hospital on a pretext,
and their interactions were recorded on film. Since 1986, on the basis of evidence
this way and presented to the courts, Prof. Southall has been instrumental in the removal
of abused children from their families. Some of the children had siblings whose reported
cot death on re-examination was established as suffocation.
One published paper described 39 cases of children who arrived in hospital with
unexplained, life-threatening conditions. Evidence from the filming helped establish 30
cases of intentional suffocation, two of poisoning, one deliberate fracture and one of
starvation. He has worked with 109 families, he said recently, in which there have been 43
deaths and 184 children have been taken into care.
In 1992, the campaign against him began. At its core are parents whose children were
removed from them, but they have been joined by other parents and some semi-professional
campaigners who refuse to believe in Munchausen's, are convinced that families have been
wrongly broken up and parents imprisoned.
The North Staffordshire hospitals NHS trust has been inundated with
complaints from the campaigners. One project under scrutiny has been the CNEP machine
(continuous negative extrathoracic pressure) - an innovative ventilator for premature
babies that Prof Southall and
his team were trialling in the hospital on tiny, sick infants. The changing pressure in
the machine expanded the babies lungs to help them breathe as an alternative to pushing
tubes down very delicate throats in the conventional ventilator.
Some babies died on the machine, but not significantly more than died on the conventional
ventilator. But recently parents have come forward to claim that their babies were put in
the CNEP without their consent. Some have alleged the signatures on the consent forms were
In response to the allegations against Prof. Southall's work, a raft of inquiries has been
set up - some by the trust, one by government and others by the General Medical Council
and the UK Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visitors who have also had
The Griffiths inquiry, requested by the department of health in response to the
allegations over lack of consent for the CNEP trial, but which has looked at many other
issues too, has finished and the report is with ministers. The GMC and the UKCC are
waiting for the results of
Griffiths before they proceed much further. A hospital inquiry into Prof Southall's
personal conduct has cleared him of any wrongdoing.
The trust says the suspensions are necessary because it is now going
through an internal disciplinary inquiry. It will not say what it is about, save that it
will look at "a huge range of complex issues".
But the parents say it is the Munchausen work, the covert video surveillance and research
work into experimental monitors for establishing the truth of cot deaths that are under
scrutiny. It is what they have wanted all along.
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