Sunday 18 December 2004
'We can't reunite thousands of mothers with children wrongly taken from them'
Ministers are to review as many as 5,000 civil cases of families affected over the past 15 years by Prof Meadow's now-discredited theory of Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy. This accused mothers of harming their children to draw attention to themselves.
Many mothers say that they have been vindicated in their insistence that they were wrongly accused and now want their children back. However, Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, has ruled out any widespread return.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mrs Hodge said that it would be wrong to raise the hopes of the families torn apart by the doctor's theory. It was called into question following three major miscarriages of criminal justice and is being investigated by the General Medical Council.
Mrs Hodge said that the exact number of civil cases where Prof Meadow's theory had been used to remove children from mothers was unknown, but could run into "thousands or even tens of thousands".
She added, however: "If a miscarriage of justice was made 10 or 15 years ago, what is in the child's interest now? If the adoption order was made on the back of Meadow's evidence and that was 10 years ago, what is in the real interest of the child? If they were taken as babies the only parent they know is the adopted one. It is incredibly difficult. It is a really tough call to make.
"The sort of families that are coming forward are heartbroken families. But if the child was adopted at birth the sensible thing to do is to let it stay. As children's minister my prime interest has to be the interests of the child."
Mrs Hodge made clear that whatever she decided, those families who thought they had been wronged could go back to the family court.
"What is clear is that any parent who feels that a judgment was made on the back of evidence from Meadow would be entitled to go back to the courts and try to have the case reopened and would be eligible for legal aid," she said. "They can come forward and say there is new evidence."
She would not, however, issue guidance that all children in such circumstances should be returned.
"This is where we are hitting an increasingly difficult dilemma," she admitted. It would not be possible simply to "turn the clock back".
Prof Meadow's theory was discredited following the cases of three mothers who were wrongly accused of killing their children on his evidence. Sally Clark was cleared on appeal, Trupti Patel was acquitted and Angela Cannings, who was jailed in 2002 for murdering her two baby sons, had the conviction quashed last December. On that occasion, three High Court judges said some of the professor's evidence was "simply wrong".
The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, is examining a further 250 criminal trials involving Munchausen's Syndrome By Proxy, to see whether more mothers imprisoned for murdering their babies might be innocent.
Mrs Hodge is likely to ask local authorities to search through their records to find all family law cases involving Meadow. Some campaigners estimate that 5,000 children were taken into care because of Prof Meadow.
In these civil cases, children were taken from their mothers on a balance of probability that they were harming them or might harm them in the future. In criminal cases, harm has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Another option being considered by Mrs Hodge is to appoint a judge to trawl through the records of each authority to identify possible miscarriages of justice, but this would prove costly. In addition, the Government may ask Prof Meadow to surrender all his notes and files.
Mrs Hodge said that the enormity of the problem and the complexities facing her could not be underestimated. In many cases it would be extremely difficult to prove that Prof Meadow had been central to the decision to take the children away. Even if some children were shown to have been taken away unjustly it would not be a simple matter of returning them.
Addressing the question of the reliability of Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, Mrs Hodge said: "The whole issue is a crucial one of whether this is a proper diagnosis."
She said she would wait for the verdict of the General Medical Council and the Court of Appeal, but one option would be to set up an international panel to review the theory, which is used as a diagnosis throughout the world.
Mrs Hodge said a further problem was the issue of compensation. As well as mothers suing their local authorities for taking their children away, there could be young adults who may sue for the loss of family life.
She said that she hoped that if it was not possible to reconcile families formally they would at least be helped to establish contact with each other in the way adopted children sometimes seek to do now.
"The Government is not running away from this issue," Mrs Hodge insisted. "I hope the families understand that these are really, really difficult decisions we have to take."
Her decision will be influenced heavily by the judgment of the Court of Appeal and by the General Medical Council, where Prof Meadow faces charges of serious professional misconduct. The hearing is likely to take place in the autumn and he faces a ban from practising.
Families whose lives have been blighted by his theory reacted with disappointment yesterday to Mrs Hodge's view that they were unlikely to get their children back.
A mother whose eight-year-old child was taken from her seven years ago after social workers suspected that she was suffering from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy said: "Something has to be done by the Government. It is vindictive. They suspect you of this thing and it gets out of hand and you can't stop them."
The woman, who is 50, cannot be named for legal reasons. She added: "What gets me is it was enough for them just to suspect me of Munchausen's to take my daughter away. If I protest or dispute the evidence they say I'm lying and that proves I've got Munchausen's because lying is one of the symptoms. That's how it works."
Sat 17 Jan 2004
over Future of Meadows Care Children
Mothers Against MSBP Allegations