Britain rethinks child protection

Like most proud parents, the Carters keep plenty of pictures of their kids on display in their living room. But unlike most, pictures are all they have.

The four youngsters were removed five years ago after Michelle Carter was accused of trying to poison her youngest child. The Carters say the evidence was highly selective and protest their innocence, but the courts decided otherwise, sending two of the children into foster care and two to adoptive parents.

For Michelle Carter, it was almost more than she could bear. "We asked our barrister about an appeal and he said: 'The only advice I can give is to go home and forget you have four children,' " recalls Will SCarter. "Michelle went home and [tried to kill herself]."

Over the past generation, a tough line on child protection has resulted in the removal of thousands of children from their families across the English-speaking world, where grim cases of mistreatment convinced authorities that the best policy was to whisk children away - sometimes from school or in night raids - at the slightest suspicion of harm.

Yet the tide may be about to turn. In two high-profile British cases, mothers convicted last year of killing their babies have been set free. Two months ago, the British government ordered a review of hundreds of other cases. Campaigners express cautious hope that what they see as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history is about to be exposed.

"There are ways of safeguarding children without resorting to draconian measures," says Penny Mellor, an advocate who has helped mothers try to regain custody. She argues that abuse certainly happens, but is not as widespread as was thought. "It's quite easy to ring fence a parent while an investigation is under way. You have to be absolutely spot-on with any diagnosis of child abuse before you take that child out of its home."

Child abuse worked its way to national and international prominence in the 1970s, when a string of cases involving maltreatment and even murder made a powerful case for rapid action. By the 1990s, Meadow's Law - named for a British pediatrician who argued that more than one case of sudden infant death syndrome in a family was suspicious enough for action to be taken - was widely used to promote removing children at the slightest suggestion of maltreatment.

Indeed, Dr. Meadow was highly influential in changing views on child protection, testifying in many cases, including the Carters'. (The family, whose name has been changed for legal reasons, is seeking the right to appeal.) His principal thrust was that many parents, mostly mothers, were harming their children to draw attention to themselves. He named the affliction Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy - a diagnosis that caught on quickly, with thousands of cases in Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

To many, Meadow's approach was the only way to ensure safety. "What are we supposed to do - wait until the child dies?" asks leading British pediatrician Alan Craft. "That's a real possibility if you don't remove children from abusing families."

The problem, say lawyers and rights campaigners, was that Meadow's Law became too powerful. Often, Meadow's opinion was the only one courts sought.

Cases in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand were heard in secretive courts with no proper defense teams for the accused; judges were asked only to look for reasonable doubt, not conclusive proof. The possibility that a child might be suffering from other problems was often overlooked. Parents claimed they were essentially guilty until proven innocent.

"Roy Meadow was held in great regard, so judges often felt his view held sway," says Bozena Michalowska-Howells, civil-litigation partner at Leigh, Day & Co., a law firm that has represented about 20 families. "In a case where you had Roy Meadow as an expert, his opinion was sufficiently eminent not to justify another expert being put forward on the side of the parent."

Or, as Michelle Carter puts it: "If you've got a parent on one side and this professor-doctor on the other, who is a judge going to believe?"

Sociologists say the bias toward removal was partly rooted in fears generated by persistently high abuse rates. In Britain, for example, at least one child has died every week as a result of abuse, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

But Helen Hayward-Brown, a medical sociologist at the University of Western Sydney who has followed the debate in her native Australia, says other social trends responsible for the zero-tolerance approach. "We live in what's now termed a risk society," she says in a phone interview from Sydney. "We see risk everywhere, and professionals have been told families are no longer safe places - they are full of risk, where children can be harmed."

She adds that society is also highly suspicious of anything unexplainable, such as an ailment that is not easily diagnosed.

Campaigners say it's time for a wholesale review of every case where Meadow's Law has held sway. They warn that the cost of getting it wrong is high: leave a child within an abusive family and it will suffer grievously; remove it from a loving family and it will suffer no less.

Meadow's theories are now partly in retreat. The exoneration in Britain last year of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, both convicted of suffocating their babies on the strength of his evidence, has cast a huge question mark over the Munchausen diagnosis and the concomitant legal system. Meadow himself is under investigation by Britain's General Medical Council. Many wrongful convictions could be overturned, although dozens of other pediatricians still pursue cases in other countries.

The government, meanwhile, has decided to revamp the child-welfare system to tackle abuse, appointing a Children's Commissioner to coordinate better in the way child protection is handled.

But pediatricians warn that a backlash against their profession could undermine the work done to protect children. "The real problem is that we are in danger of dismantling the system which has been set up to protect children," argues Dr. Craft. "The growing number of complaints is making pediatricians very wary about getting involved in child protection."

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