Sunday 15 December 2003

In the rush to protect children, 'experts' use junk science to accuse innocent parents

Evidence is growing of disturbing flaws in the way allegations of child abuse are made and then pursued. James Le Fanu and David Derbyshire investigate

First there was Sally Clark, then Trupti Patel, and now Angela Cannings.

Three women wrongly accused of serial infanticide - one of the most horrendous crimes imaginable.

Each prosecution relied on evidence from Sir Roy Meadow, Britain's leading cot-death expert who decided that, on the balance of probability, these mothers had murdered their children.

Yet, according to a growing body of concerned lawyers, doctors and parents, these are not isolated cases but symptomatic of a legal and medical system so determined to protect children that it fails to protect the innocent.

In this culture junk science can be seen as fact, medical opinion is confused with truth and guilt is determined not by hard evidence, but by a checklist of medical or psychological symptoms.

Three further diagnoses - shaken baby syndrome, Munchausen Syndrome by proxy and recovered memories - account for hundreds of other wrongful convictions of innocent parents over the last two decades.

What they all have in common is that they are based on flawed opinions rather than forensic evidence. Too many doctors still embrace pseudo explanations for things they do not really understand.

There is no obvious medical reason why Sally Clark and Angela Cannings should have lost more than one child: therefore they must have smothered them.

This boy's injuries seemed too serious to have resulted, as the parents insist, from a minor fall: therefore he must have been shaken violently.

There is no clear reason why this teenage girl is suffering from anorexia: she must have been sexually abused by her father.

In the past it has been almost impossible to counter such accusations. Over the last 18 months, however, the scientific basis of each of these diagnoses has been seriously undermined.

The most common false allegation is Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The "characteristic" sign for this is the presence of bleeding at the back of the eyes, known as retinal haemorrhages.

This may sound plausible, but recent studies have shown it is actually very difficult to generate the necessary forces to cause such an injury.

Rather, it is now clear that there are several alternative explanations.

The impact of a baby's head on a hard floor, following a trivial fall, can burst a vessel on the surface of the brain.

A rapid increase of pressure within the skull impairs the return of blood from the eye and can cause a retinal haemorrhage.

It may also occur immediately after birth - caused by pressure on the baby's head in the birth canal - or as a result of meningitis and other devastating illnesses.

Retinal haemorrhages, are, in short, not "characteristic" of SBS.

Next we have Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, a diagnosis first described by Sir Roy Meadow who claimed that some mothers seek the attention of doctors and others by covertly harming their children.

MSBP has now been invoked to explain over 100 unexplained patterns of illness, including epilepsy, abdominal pain, bleeding, diarrhoea, fevers, lethargy and so on.

The third source of false allegation is "recovered memories" of sexual abuse.

Here, the guiding principle is the assumption that there must be a "cause" for an adolescent's psychological disturbance - and if it is not forthcoming, this is because she is repressing her memory of some traumatic event - ie that she has been a victim of sexual abuse. It is easy enough to imagine oneself in any of these situations, when your child tumbles off a bed, bangs his head, has some mystery illness or goes temporarily off the rails.

If you are then swept into a legal nightmare, the only protection against intimidatory tactics, threats, court orders and technical jargon is a good lawyer.

Campaigners for parents wrongly accused of abuse say that the system has to change.

They believe that a handful of medical experts have had too much influence in the family court system.


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