Meadow: the unseen victims

Angela Cannings may be free but there are many other miscarriages of justice

John Sweeney
Sunday December 14, 2003
The Observer

Chatting on the steps of the Appeal Court to a BBC assistant producer following Angela Cannings's successful appeal, I was approached by a young British Bengali mum who begged me for help.

This woman, let's call her Mumtaz, had a look of terror on her face. Her baby girl has been taken away by the state and in the new year she may be adopted for good. Mumtaz had been damned as a possible sufferer of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy - a highly contentious label suggesting that mothers harm their children to gain attention.

Inside the court a few minutes earlier, the creator of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, had been deemed to be 'simply wrong'; his evidence a 'travesty'. Yet courts in the Family Division, operating behind closed doors, can take away children and have done so in dozens of cases on the basis of Meadow's evidence and his Munchausen's theory.

Even to report what Mumtaz told me is to risk contempt of court. Carma - let's call Mumtaz's baby that - suffered four serious breathing attacks in the first four weeks of life and doctors couldn't figure out what was happening. Munchausen's was the probable diagnosis of paediatrician Dr Paul Davis from Cardiff, co-incidentally a co-author with Meadow of a Munchausen paper.

Mumtaz, it was claimed, had been deliberately harming Carma to gain attention. On the basis of this diagnosis - and Davis made it without seeing Mumtaz or her baby, declaring he did 'not consider it necessary to do so' - Mumtaz can no longer look after her child.

There is another, somewhat different, diagnosis: that Munchausen's does not exist or, if it does, it presumes guilt, admits no defence and, because it is not verifiable, has the scientific validity of a flat earth.

But Birmingham Social Services believes in Munchausen's. As withCannings, because Mumtaz cannot prove why her baby was ill, the courts - in this case, Mrs Justice Bracewell - concluded there was a risk she was harming it. Rather late in the day, the Appeal Court realised that was barbaric in Angela's case, but Mumtaz has to endure her agony in state-enforced anonymity.

Genetics and Munchausen's don't get on. Irritatingly for supporters of Munchausen's, genes exist: they create a predisposition for some diseases that we are only beginning to understand. Little or no hard evidence supports Munchausen's: it's a behaviouralist label you cannot see down a microscope.

On the one hand, Dr David Drucker at Manchester University has isolated a gene which, if you've got it, makes you more liable to suffer cot deaths - research you can read on the internet. On the other hand, Meadow has issued a paper asserting that many cot deaths were in fact murders: it is hard to check this because Meadow has shredded the raw data on which this claim was based.

Voluminous evidence that points to Carma suffering from a genetic problem does exist: over four generations, her family has suffered 24 deaths of infants under a year old; her husband's family have suffered five infant deaths under a month; her husband's brother had a series of breath ing attacks when he was an infant, as did one of his daughters. Yet none of this evidence was thoroughly investigated before Dr Davis made his diagnosis that Mumtaz probably suffered from Munchausen's.

With three criminal cases in one year - those of Sally Clark, Trupti Patel and now Angela Cannings - all gone horribly wrong, the courts throwing out Meadow's finding of serial baby-killing, the fightback by the medical establishment has not been long in coming.

He is a hero, according to a letter in yesterday's Daily Telegraph by Professor A. W. Craft, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics, saluting Meadow's 'courage', assuring us that his portrait will not be taken down and calling on the press and public to appreciate the importance of child protection work, citing the Victoria Climbié case.

A simple point is that if Craft cannot understand the difference between the appalling evidence of child battery in the Climbié case and the complete absence of evidence of abuse in the cases of Sally, Trupti and Angela then I would be wary of asking him for a sticking plaster for a cut finger, lest he amputate both my arms.

The facts are that some mothers do abuse, even kill their children; and that some mothers who have done no such thing have been jailed or lost their babies in the Family Courts on highly contentious evidence provided by Meadow and his label.

Could meadow be a great and courageous doctor who has just been a little unlucky lately? A fax arrived from him the other day, replying to a list of questions. Number one was about Meadow's Law, that 'one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, until proven otherwise'.

'It is not my rule of thumb' he asserted. In fact the rule of thumb was devised by a Texas pathologist but adopted by Meadow without specific attribution. I commend to readers page 29 of The ABC of Child Abuse , edited by a Roy Meadow, in a chapter written by a Roy Meadow, setting out the sensible working rule of one, two, three.

On the infamous '73 million to one' statistic he used against Sally Clark (one of the judges who turned down her first appeal was, co-incidentally, Mrs Justice Bracewell, the same judge who found against Mumtaz), Meadow wrote: 'Your account of the Appeal Court finding is incorrect. I have copies of the full judgments of the first and second appeals. Neither of them said that any part of the evidence was "grossly misleading" and "manifestly wrong".'

That's astonishing. Observe closely what he's done: he's selected the written findings only, ignoring what was said by Lord Justice Kay in open court when the second appeal was granted. Memory can play tricks, so I checked my notebook, and double-checked with my producer, Jim Booth, and triple-checked with John Batt of Sally Clark's team: one, two, three of us heard the learned judge say 'grossly misleading' and 'manifestly wrong'.

Knowing how he treats evidence, his third assertion gave me a pricking in my thumbs: that 'the 73 million to one statistic is not mine'. Evidentially, that is right. Yet he lifted '73 million to one' from a draft copy of a cot death study report before it was published. One of the authors of that report, Professor Peter Fleming, said of his use of '73 million to one' in the Sally Clark case: 'one should never use population statistics for an individual - it's fundamentally not correct;' two: Peter Donnelly, professor of statistics at Oxford, said: 'it's just plain wrong', as did, three, Ray Hill, professor of maths at Salford.

Understanding the mind of Professor Sir Roy Meadow has taken me two years, since I first made a Five Live Report on '73 million to one' in July 2001. Long before Angela Cannings went before the jury that convicted her, we established that Professor Meadow was wrong about statistics and genetics and that he had shredded his database.

Officially, nothing happened and the witch-hunt against Angela ground on. Very few scientists and doctors would say boo about Professor Meadow, a shining exception being Jean Golding, professor of epidemiology at Bristol.

Even though the tide in the criminal courts has turned, the suffering caused in the Family Courts continues. One thinks of Karen Haynes, her first baby dying in hospital, her second taken away at 25 minutes old, for good, on the evidence of Sir Roy - the judge, coincidentally, being Mrs Justice Bracewell.

Until the Government unlocks the doors on the closed world of the Family Courts, the damage caused by Professor Sir Roy Meadow and his Munchausen's label cannot be assessed. But one look into Mumtaz's eyes tells you that the suffering is real and terrible and has no place in a civilised society.

One is left with a different rule of thumb - you could call it Sweeney's Law - that unless proven otherwise, one miscarriage of justice is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three means there is something wrong - not with the accused - but the accuser.

· John Sweeney reports for the BBC's Real Story with Fiona Bruce


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