Parents cast doubt on secret abuse study

Cleared couples are seeking an inquiry. Brian Morgan reports
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The Independent Online
Parents who were investigated by a secret video-surveillance team and later cleared of child-abuse allegations are demanding an inquiry into what they say were over-zealous procedures.

Tomorrow the findings of Professor David Southall's team will be published and will detail a series of attacks on babies and young children by apparently caring parents and step-parents.

The secret cameras, which filmed parents suffocating, punching, kicking and poisoning children between the ages of two months and four years were set up in the Royal Brompton Hospital, London, and North Staffordshire Hospital, Stoke-on-Trent, between 1986 and1994. The videotaped evidence led to 33 criminal prosecutions.

All but one of the 39 children attacked were placed in care and it emerged that 12 of their brothers and sisters had died in circumstances originally thought to be cot deaths.

However, some parents who have been cleared of abuse have spoken out against the research techniques.

They believe doctors may have created such anxiety among some mothers that it led them to act against their babies. They fear that High Court judges place too much reliance on expert evidence and that professional medical bodies and the Department of Health have ignored repeated requests from as long ago as 1994 for an investigation into diagnoses of child abuse by the team.

Two of the cleared families have spoken of their disquiet to the Independent on Sunday. Among the cases investigated by Professor Southall's team was that of Gwyneth and Ray Tenney and their daughter Angharad. The couple are still fighting to clear their name four years after they were investigated.

They say that they recognise their case in the report in the American journal Pediatrics describing the development ofcovert video surveillance, but were not asked for their consent for inclusion.

Mrs Tenney and Angharad spent 16 days in North Staffordshire Hospital in 1992, secretly monitored on video. Although the doctors later admitted there was no suffocation attempt during the surveillance, Angharad was taken into care and remained with a foster family until a judge ordered her return under her father's supervision.

After the family's local authority, the London borough of Harrow, had completed its investigation into the allegations against Mrs Tenney and heard alternative expert opinion challenging the video team's view, it decided she had not harmed her child.

The study began after Angharad had suffered more than a dozen apparent life-threatening events or apnoea attacks, after Mrs Tenney had lost another child to cot death.

Professor Southall and his colleague Dr Martin Samuels were previously based at the Royal Brompton Hospital, to which Angharad was referred, and they believed their breathing monitor could distinguish deliberate suffocation of a baby from naturally occurring apnoea attacks. Analysis from one attack suffered by Angharad was, in their opinion, "indicative" of suffocation and they believed Mrs Tenney was responsible.

Harrow council's inquiries later found evidence disproving the suffocation allegation, and according to a council statement issued in October 1993, the "diagnosis had not been agreed by the British Paediatric Association".

Mrs Tenney told the Independent on Sunday yesterday that she believes the only way to establish her innocence now is for the police to investigate the cot death and the suffocation allegation. She said: "The police did not take the allegations seriously as far as criminal action was concerned, but this has still been a terrible strain on our marriage. I hope the publicity surrounding the new report will help draw some attention to the doctors' methods".

In another case, Sharon and David Bozier were given one of Professor Southall's home monitors for their daughter Hannah, soon after her birth in September 1992, by a paediatrician at Crawley Hospital where she was referred for her breathing problems. When doctors alleged that Mrs Bozier was causing Hannah's breathing attacks and had lied about her condition, causing an unnecessary operation, Hannah was taken into care.

It cost the family pounds 2,000 of their own money before they obtained legal aid to fight the allegation, but after Hannah had spent more than a year in care, the parents regained custody.

During their own investigations into what they believe was misdiagnosis of child abuse, the Boziers discovered that their own paediatrician at Crawley had written to Professor Southall in strong terms, complaining at being excluded from discussions about his concerns that doctors were acting as "agents provocateurs".

Professor Southall responded that the exclusion was an oversight but doubted if these were problems they had "engendered ourselves" because the mother had "lied" repeatedly about her daughter's condition.

A report by another paediatrician later suggested that the mother's accounts of her daughter's breathing attacks were the result of the "great deal of additional anxiety in a mother who was already anxious".