24 January 2004

Parents make the best parents

Two developments this week demonstrate the absurdity, not to mention the inhumanity, of the government’s policy towards child-rearing. Firstly, sperm donors were informed that children conceived with the aid of their donations will be given the right to trace them. Secondly, the minister for children Margaret Hodge announced that it would be impossible to reunite thousands of children with parents from whom they were removed as a result of child-abuse prosecutions, even in cases where those prosecutions are ruled to be unsafe.

In the first case, the government is intent on thrusting some of the responsibilities of parenthood upon men who simply wished to help others and who believed the law protected their anonymity. In the second, Ms Hodge asserts the right of the state to decide how children should be brought up, even if the parents from whom they were removed on suspicion of child abuse are proven innocent. The child’s interest, said Ms Hodge by way of explanation, must come first. Yet if it is important for a child conceived with the aid of a sperm donor to trace his biological father, surely it is even more vital for a child wrongfully removed from innocent parents to be allowed to resume his right and proper family life. In the former case, to use the buzzword beloved of social scientists, the government decrees there must be ‘closure’; in the latter it insists that there must not.

Nobody contends that child protection is a grave and difficult business in which police and other agencies of the state have a proper interest. To put it bluntly, some mothers do kill ’em; and fathers too. The case of Victoria Climbié, murdered by her guardians when she might have been saved by more attentive social workers, acts as a reminder to anybody tempted to make the flippant suggestion that the law should never interfere in family life. Yet the over-zealousness and wrong-headedness of the government’s child protection racket is a human tragedy whose scale we are only beginning to appreciate. It extends much further than the convictions, all now subject to review by the appeals court, which were influenced by the expert witness Professor Sir Roy Meadow and his now infamous dictum that one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder. Between 1997 and 2003 the number of reports of suspected child abuse reported by social services departments rose from 160,000 to 500,000. That is a shocking figure: nearly one for every baby born in Britain every year. Are we really to believe that British parents are a bunch of child-batterers, or is there something sinister going on in the closed system of thought that is the science of child protection?

Too often in child-abuse cases, expert opinion has been treated as incontrovertible truth. This week’s ruling by the Court of Appeal that parents must not be convicted of killing or maltreating their children on the basis of evidence by expert witnesses alone is much to be welcomed. Yet common sense alone should have suggested that Sir Roy Meadow’s theory is bunkum. For one thing, it suggests that every mother be allowed to batter one child to death with impunity. For another, it treats cot deaths as random events when it has long been clear that many disorders run in families.

The elevation of scientists’ opinion to gospel has occurred in spite of clear evidence of its fallibility. One of the main reasons that cot deaths became such a controversial issue is that their incidence began to rise in the late 1980s. The rise coincided with expert advice that parents should lay their babies to sleep on their fronts in order to reduce the risk of choking on vomit. Even the experts now accept that this is bad practice which can obstruct airways and increases the risk of sudden death. Since the official advice was changed, literally, 180 degrees — so that now most parents lay their babies to sleep on their backs — cot deaths have fallen sharply.

Parents are hardly infallible either, but what is lacking from government policy on parenthood is trust of the people. Roughly, the government’s position on child-rearing is as follows: parents, assuming they can prove themselves competent, have a right to bring up their own children. But they can never be as proficient in the skills of child-rearing as the professionals employed in this field. If there is any doubt about a parent’s ability to bring up children, the state should always act on the safe side and remove children into the care of these professionals.

There is a fundamental problem with this position. A disproportionate number of child-abuse scandals of the last few years have occurred while children were supposedly in the care of the state. Nobody should appreciate this more than Margaret Hodge, who presided over Islington council during a notorious phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s when children were being routinely abused in the care homes where the council had placed them. To protect children from harm done to them by their parents is a proper function of the law. But it is a grave error for Ms Hodge, or any other servant of the state, to assume that professional care is inherently superior to parenting.

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