NSPCC fears a 'charter for child killers'

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The Independent Online

Children's charities have warned that parents who abuse or murder their children may escape prosecution because of the controversy surrounding cot death cases.

The damning High Court ruling in the Angela Cannings case last week is raising serious concerns that child abuse cases could become impossible to prove or prosecute.

And the notoriety heaped on Professor Sir Roy Meadow, the expert witness at the centre of the cot death scandal, is causing many paediatricians to say they do not want to become involved in child abuse cases.

But children's charities are concerned that the Cannings ruling could demonise paediatricians and social workers, and allow a small minority of parents literally to get away with murder.

High Court judges, who cleared Mrs Cannings of killing two of her children, ruled that in cases where two expert witnesses disagree on the cause of death, there should be no prosecution.

The judgment also seriously questioned Professor Meadow's theory that one cot death in a family is a tragedy, two are suspicious and three, unless proved otherwise, must mean murder.

The ruling prompted the Attorney General to order an urgent review of all cases in which a mother was convicted of killing a child under the age of two.

Thousands of parents, who had their children taken away and fostered or adopted after being accused of abuse, have also called for reviews of their cases.

Professor Meadow is under investigation by the General Medical Council and is to appear before a professional conduct committee.

Christopher Cloke, head of child protection policy at the NSPCC, said: "I do think this is a cause for serious concern. We don't want to see innocent parents being prosecuted, but we are also concerned that where children have been abused, it will now be very difficult to prove or prosecute a case.

"I have heard healthcare professionals say they would be reluctant to get involved in any child abuse cases after what has happened in the Cannings case.

"We need experienced people, well trained in child protection issues, to ensure that children are protected."

The National Confidential Inquiry into Stillbirth and Death in Infancy, the most recent and conclusive research into cot death, estimated that 6 per cent of deaths diagnosed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids) are in fact murder. That means there are at least 20 cases a year in which parents have murdered their babies and it has been diagnosed as cot death.

Professor Meadow was the first person, 20 years ago, to describe the condition Munchausen's Syndrome By Proxy, in which parents deliberately harm their children to draw attention to themselves.

Research by experts at Bournemouth University, published last year, found that child murder cases in England and Wales have fallen by 66 per cent in the past 20 years and are now the fifth lowest in the Western world.

By comparison, child homicide rates in the US have reached record highs and are the fourth highest in the West.

The lead researcher, Professor Colin Pritchard, said the success had been down to investment in child protection units in Britain.

He said: "Unlike the US, which cut its child welfare programmes, English services have been safeguarded. Social Services, despite the rare tragic mishaps, have never worked closer with police and child health and have made inroads into the previous high tolls."

The NSPCC is calling for a national system of investigating all child deaths to try to improve understanding of cot death and abuse cases.

Mr Cloke said: "What we need are experienced paediatric pathologists, trained social workers and close working between all the different agencies so that all deaths are thoroughly and fairly investigated."