Sunday 21 December 2003

'Wrong' test result used to take children away


An Auckland woman had two children taken off her by social workers after a hospital laboratory performed the wrong test on her four-year-old son's urine and used the results as "proof" she drugged him, according to a top chemist.

The woman, who cannot be named, had four children removed from her care in the United Kingdom in 1996 after a court ruled that she suffered from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) - a controversial diagnosis said to cause parents to induce or fabricate illnesses in their children to get attention.

British authorities alerted Child, Youth and Family (CYF) after the woman married a New Zealander, moved to Auckland and had two more children.

Social workers removed the pre-schoolers in August 2000 after routine tests - done when her four-year-old son was admitted to Starship children's hospital with bronchitis - revealed he had been given an adult sedative zopiclone.

The Family Court agreed and both parents lost custody. The children are now being cared for by family and, because the mother has declined to exercise her right to supervised access, she has not seen them for almost two years.

Former Auckland University analytical chemist Mike Fitzpatrick says the hospital laboratory, LabPlus, breached international standards by relying on a screening test, thin layer chromatography (TLC), and did not confirm its results with a more accurate test.

Fitzpatrick took zopiclone and a drug the boy had been prescribed for an ear infection, co-trimoxazole, and did a TLC test on his own urine. He found that the two drugs were "indistinguishable".

"I was staggered that they relied on TLC," Fitzpatrick told the Sunday Star-Times. "That wouldn't be good enough to test for dope in the horse racing industry, it wouldn't last three seconds in court and that mother has had her children taken off her on the basis of it."

The government-owned laboratory Environmental Science and Research (ESR) that does testing for criminal cases, but was not involved in this case, said it would normally use a higher level test known as gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and would be "very reluctant" to rely on TLC.

LabPLus did a GC-MS test but zopiclone was not detected. The laboratory's senior scientific specialist Ron Couch told the Family Court GC-MS could not detect zopiclone in urine but Fitzpatrick and ESR experts say that is wrong.

Fitzpatrick, who did not give evidence at the original hearing, prepared an extensive affidavit for a hearing at the High Court in mid-2001 that was a prelude to a possible appeal. However, the woman's lawyers submitted only a brief affidavit and Justice Penlington ruled that it was inadmissible because it should have been submitted to the Family Court. The appeal was dropped.

In a statement, Auckland District Health Board chief medical officer David Sage said any challenge to the LabPlus evidence should be made in the "normal legal forum".

The revelations come amid growing disquiet about the validity of the MSBP diagnosis. The founder of the theory, Sir Roy Meadow, 70, faces being struck off over his evidence in three high-profile cases involving British women who were subsequently cleared of charges of murdering their babies.

Sally Clark, 39, was released in January this year after serving almost three years in jail for the murder of her two children. Trupti Patel, 35, was acquitted of smothering her three babies earlier this year and Angela Cannings, 40 - sentenced to life for killing her two children - was released this month.

Dr David Southall, the British paediatrician who diagnosed the Auckland woman, faces three charges of serious misconduct. The disciplinary process is private, but it is understood the General Medical Council has agreed to consider complaints against Southall from the Auckland woman and Sally Clark's husband.

The British opposition spokesman on health, Lord Frederick Howe, told the Sunday Star-Times the woman's case was a "gross miscarriage of justice and there is no sound reason whatsoever to justify the removal of her children."

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Mothers Against MSBP Allegations