Parents of sick children 'being falsely accused'

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The Independent Online
FEARS that parents may be falsely accused of smothering or attacking their children are being examined by the British Paediatric Association.

Many association members are worried about wrong diagnoses of a rare mental syndrome - Munchausen by Proxy (MSBP), where adults harm children to gain


The association is to set up a working party to agree a diagnosis for one form of MSBP, 'repeated smothering'. It will 'agree the appropriate investigation of children with suspected imposed upper airway obstruction,' said Paul Dunn, for the association.

Sue Amphlett, director of the charity Parents Against Injustice, believes Munchausen by Proxy could become a 'dustbin diagnosis' for health workers unable to discover the real cause of illness. Wardship cases have hinged on a contested MSBP diagnosis.

MSBP was first described in 1977 by Professor Roy Meadow, of Leeds University. Several hundred cases have been documented, some leading to trials.

In today's Lancet and British Journal of Hospital Medicine, Dr Colin Morley, consultant paediatrician at Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge, warns against false accusations of mothers whose babies suffer breathing problems.

He challenged some diagnostic indicators published this year in a BJHM paper by Professor David Southall and his colleague, Dr Martin Samuels. They had suggested recordings of physiological data from a baby suffering suffocation may, in time, be as good as video surveillance for establishing the guilt of abusers.

Dr Morley says diagnosis should be based on 'fact rather than opinion'. In his BJHM and Lancet letters he asks for evidence on cases of wrongful diagnosis using the criteria. He is backed in the Lancet letters column by Paul Johnson, consultant at the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford. Dr Johnson wrote: 'Why should mothers risk incrimination based solely on opinion from an as yet unproven technique?'

Professor Southall, Dr Samuels and Dr Morley will all serve on the BPA working party.

Professor Southall said yesterday: 'We see hundreds of babies a year who have been referred to us because of unexplained cyanotic attacks (going blue). MSBP is always the last option when we have done all the physiological tests. But then we have to go out of our way to find objective evidence that will stand up in court.'

Christopher and Jennifer Attwood, of Birmingham, were accused of Munchausen by Proxy as their five-month-old daughter Emma lay in intensive care at Selly Oak hospital. They were cleared only after a post-mortem examination proved Emma had had polymyositis, a rare muscle-destroying disease.

Shortly before she died the Attwoods were approached at the hospital by police. They were questioned all night, and Mrs Attwood was taken home at 4am for a search of her house.

Minutes of a child protection case conference, seen by the Independent, show that on 20 February police said they were told by a hospital doctor that Emma had been 'suffocated or smothered'. The police and health authority refused to comment.

Mr Attwood said: 'You would not think anything had been learnt from Cleveland or Rochdale.'

Smothering accusation, page 3