Sunday 14 December 2003

'Missing three years with my boy is the worst thing in world'

After last week's release of Angela Cannings, 50 more 'smothering' cases are to be reviewed. Olga Craig reports on a medical and legal scandal

In the lifers' wing of Durham jail prisoner Donna Anthony has never heard her name spoken. On the rare occasions that inmates address her directly, they refer to her only as BKB. The initials are whispered as she passes by. At night they are screamed at her through the walls of her cell. In the prison laundry, where she works, they are scribbled on her table.

In the eyes of the convicted killers with whom Donna shares her life, her crime is so heinous that even they shun and despise the "Baby-Killing Bitch".

Donna's crime, according to the expert witness whose words sealed her fate when she stood trial in November 1998, was to smother her two babies. That expert, Prof Sir Roy Meadow, insisted in court that the death in 1997 of Michael, Donna's four-month-old son, had been caused by smothering "right down to the smallest detail". T

he death of her 11-month-old daughter Jordan, a year earlier, had been deemed a cot death. But after Michael died and Donna was charged with killing both babies, it came to light that a button had been found in Jordan's stomach.

But yet again, Prof Meadow's words sealed Donna's fate. "The ingestion of foreign bodies is really very, very rare in babies under the age of one year," Prof Meadow told the jury. It took the jurors only two hours to return a guilty verdict and Donna received a life sentence.

Last week, when Angela Cannings stood on the steps of the High Court, a free woman after serving four years of a life sentence when she was wrongly convicted of killing two of her babies, Donna Anthony was given fresh hope that her own appeal will prove her innocence. Mrs Cannings' conviction, like Donna's, had rested upon the same expert witness: Prof Sir Roy Meadow.

Prof Meadow is now to be investigated by the General Medical Council. The discrediting of his Meadow's Law - which decreed "one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder" - and his claim that women harm their babies to draw attention to themselves (dubbed by him Munchausen's Syndrome "by Proxy" in 1993 during the Beverley Allitt trial) has led to at least 50 more cases being reopened. In all of them, women have been convicted of murder or manslaughter of their young babies.

While there has been widespread rejoicing that these women - the majority of whom are believed innocent - could be released, their plight has revealed a hitherto unreported heartache suffered by them and their families.

In scores of these cases the women's surviving children have been taken into care - in some cases fostered or even adopted - and the family torn asunder.

In many instances, even where the mother is only being investigated about the death of one of her babies and has not been charged with any crime, the authorities have decreed that she is "unfit" to care for her other children.

Such is the secrecy shrouding the machinations of the family court (their proceedings may not be made public) that the families have little redress.

Reuniting such families several years on - in many cases where a newborn baby has been taken into care after the death of an older child - will cause untold anguish and, very likely, deep psychological damage.

The problem was highlighted in the case of Sally Clark, 38, the solicitor released on appeal in January after serving three years of a life sentence for murdering her two sons in November 1999. She, too, was convicted partly on the evidence of Prof Meadow, and that of Dr Alan Williams, a pathologist, who has been severely criticised for withholding crucial evidence from the jury which indicated a medical explanation for the death of one of her sons.

During the time she was on remand and in prison, Mrs Clark was unable to see her third child. She has since described being separated from him as "being worse than death".

Mrs Clark's son was taken away from her at birth and spent his first year in foster care. Stephen, her husband, was allowed to bring the baby to see her for two hours nearly every weekend, and mother and child spent a day together every month. But the anguish it caused Mrs Clark was enormous.

"I have to rely on second-hand material to know what cuddly toys he has in his bed, what his favourite video is, whether he prefers jam or marmalade on his toast," she said at the time.

"Nothing will ever be able to compensate me or our little boy for the loss of these precious moments. Being deprived of more than three years of being a mum to my little boy is the worst thing in the world."

For the Government, the issue may well become a minefield. As news of Mrs Cannings release was flashed across television screens, Margaret Hodge, the Minister of State for Women, hastily convened a meeting. She knew that Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, was already prepared for a review of some 50 cases in which women have been convicted and in which Prof Meadow was the expert witness.

Mrs Hodge, however, had a much deeper concern: she knew this would have serious implications for the families of these women, should they be released. "It is a nightmare," one of her senior officials remarked. "It will be massive."

As both women sat in Mrs Hodge's office, they were joined by Vera Baird, the Labour MP and barrister, and Tony Colman, MP. "The moment he came in Tony asked, 'What are you going to do about the children in these cases?' " one official said. "Margaret said, 'I think we will have to carry out a thorough review.' "

Privately, ministers are appalled at the full enormity of what may be involved. "Some of these women had their children taken away," said one minister. "There is now the issue of whether those children have to be returned. But it is not a simple thing to do. Many have been settled with foster parents."

The news that the Government realises the wide implications for both the children and their families will go some way to easing the fears of hundreds of families in which a mother is (wrongly) being investigated over suspicions she killed her child. For legal reasons, none can speak freely, but one such mother, who watched as Angela Cannings was freed last week, spoke movingly of her own private despair.

Under investigation by Birmingham social services after the death of two babies, her third child was taken into care. She can see him just once a week and then only when supervised. She travelled to London to see Angela Cannings emerge on to the steps of the High Court, and as she stood quietly in the background watching the family celebrate, she sobbed: "Please let that be me, please let me be going home to my child."

The plight of these families has been further highlighted by Dr James Le Fanu, a columnist for this paper, who is campaigning to stop cot death mothers being accused of murder.

Dr Le Fanu - who maintains that "the notion that scores of ordinary mothers who have never lifted a finger against their children should be capable of killing or trying to kill those they love most is not just unbelievable, it is obscene", wrote movingly in The Telegraph Review earlier this year of a young mother suspected of hurting her child.

Sarah (not her real name) rushed her five-month-old daughter Hettie to hospital after she fell off a bed and gashed her head. For three days she and her husband, John, sat at their daughter's bedside in intensive care, willing her to live.

When a consultant asked to speak to them they thought he was bringing the results of a brain scan. Instead, to their horror, he told them such an injury could only have been caused by excessive force. Within minutes they were told that they were under investigation by police and that social services had initiated a court order to have Hettie placed in foster care.

As Dr Le Fanu points out, in situations such as Sarah's, the case is heard in the Family Court and thus can neither be reported nor have its findings scrutinised by others.

"In this hidden world," he says, "the heavy artillery of medical expertise asserts "Shaken Baby Syndrome" to be the only possible explanation for the child's injuries, even when there is no other physical or anecdotal evidence of abuse. The outcome is rarely in doubt and, in the process, families like Sarah's are torn apart and lives ruined."

Dr Le Fanu carried out meticulous research and discovered that John Plunkett, the forensic pathologist, had identified at least a score of cases in which accidental falls had inflicted similar injuries to those that Hettie had suffered.

However, when the case came before the Family Court the expert witness insisted Shaken Baby Syndrome was the only possible explanation and the judge could do little other than abide by their opinion - even though Hettie's sister had witnessed her tumbling from the bed.

Though he did rule that Hettie should not be taken into care, Sarah was not allowed to look after her daughter unsupervised for the next 12 months lest she "try to harm her again". Sarah was ordered to have a psychiatric assessment, which took several months.

Happily, the psychiatrist's report confirmed what had been obvious to all but the expert witness: that Sarah and John were a loving and devoted couple who cherished their children. The court was left with no alternative but to lift the court order.

"Had they not been articulate and educated, with friends able to make sense of the impenetrable jargon involved and reassure them that the experts can be wrong, their lives - like so many in their circumstances - could so easily have been crushed beyond repair," Dr Le Fanu says.

For numerous other wrongly accused mothers, the discrediting of Prof Meadow's theory and the Government review will bring some hope that their families may be reunited. What the cost will be in emotional terms, however, is incalculable.


Home To

Mothers Against MSBP Allegations