Jeremy Laurance: The sad truth: some parents do harm their children

They are murdered, mostly by parents or carers, at the rate of one or two a week


In December 2003, a shop assistant from Wiltshire stood on the steps outside the Court of Appeal with her husband and seven-year-old daughter and said: "I would like to go home now and be Mummy." Angela Cannings had served 19 months in jail, separated from her family, for a crime she did not commit. When her conviction for the murder of her two baby sons was quashed, the Government responded with the biggest review of criminal convictions in legal history.

The expectation at the time was that scores could be overturned. The review caused turmoil in the medical and legal professions and fuelled the widespread conviction that doctors' erroneous theories of child abuse had ripped innocent families apart. MPs were besieged by aggrieved parents protesting that their children had been unjustly taken away.

Two years on, the outcome has been very different. There has been no unravelling of the child protection system and no procession of wrongly convicted parents through the Court of Appeal. Out of 297 whose cases were reviewed, two have had their convictions quashed and one had his sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter.

A major figure in the scandal, the consultant paediatrician and child-abuse expert Professor Sir Roy Meadow, whose medical evidence helped secure convictions in a number of cases, was struck off the medical register last July. Now this decision too is under review. Last week, Professor Meadow launched an appeal in the High Court against the verdict and penalty imposed by the General Medical Council. Judgment is expected shortly.

Professor Meadow wrongly told the jury in the case of Sally Clark, whose conviction for murdering her two baby sons in 1999 was quashed in 2003, that the chances of two cot deaths in one family were 73 million to one. The GMC, whose hearing only related to the statistical evidence in the Sally Clark case, accepted that he had no intention to mislead but concluded that he had "abused his position as a doctor by giving erroneous and misleading evidence".

His supporters, including the Lancet medical journal, believe his punishment was unduly harsh and hope the judge will rule that it is wrong to regard differences of medical opinion as evidence of negligence on the part of one of the protagonists.

To coincide with the Attorney General's review, the former Children's minister Margaret Hodge ordered a separate review of 28,866 cases dealt with in the family courts, where children had been removed from their parents following allegations of harm. It was suggested at the time that hundreds could be overturned. The final figure was "10 or 20" where the action taken was deemed inappropriate, according to Andrew Cozens, a former president of the Association of Social Services Directors.

The Cannings case and its aftermath has had a seismic effect on the medical profession. It triggered an overhaul of the child protection system, new training for paediatricians to spot child abuse, and more rigorous investigation of cot deaths - all measures that specialists believe will improve the care of families suffering the trauma of the loss of a child while ensuring that suspicious circumstances ring alarm bells. But the case has seriously undermined confidence in the medical expert witness system. Paediatricians willing to testify in court are now hard to find.

The upshot is that, instead of exposing a witch-hunt by paediatricians against innocent parents, as many believed, the review triggered by the Clark and Cannings cases has instead confirmed what doctors and social workers have long said - that parents do indeed harm their children.

Some innocent parents, including Angela Cannings and Sally Clark, were undoubtedly wrongly convicted. But children are murdered, mostly by parents or carers, at the rate of one or two a week in Britain. They are abused - physically, sexually and emotionally - much more frequently. How can we protect them while avoiding the terrible outcomes suffered by the Cannings and Clark families?

A change in the law is needed so that mothers who kill their babies receive treatment, not jail. The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths estimates that, based on past experience, around 6 per cent of the 350 unexplained infant deaths a year arouse grounds for suspicion, about 20 a year.

Charging a mother suspected of killing her baby solves nothing. These are not crimes in the usual sense and the mothers who commit them need help. Professor Sir Alan Craft, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says they should be dealt with in the civil rather than the criminal courts under the child protection service. Three Appeal Court judges called for a review of the "outdated and unsatisfactory" infanticide law last year.

In the vast majority of cases, mothers who kill their babies are not a danger to anybody outside the family. What the doctors and social workers need to do is to make sure that other children are safe and then give the mothers help so they can get their own children back.

The courts hand down longer sentences for killing a baby than for murdering someone in the street. That is neither just nor does it help the families whom the law is there to protect - as Angela Cannings and her surviving daughter know.

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