[back] Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy

DOCTORS' CHILD ABUSE THEORY THAT IS TEARING FAMILIES APART

By Lucy Johnston and Jonathan Calvert

2000 Daily Express

Scores of families are being torn apart by doctors using a highly controversial psychiatric theory to diagnose child abuse by parents.

A growing number of children are being taken into care after their parents are accused of Munchausen’s by proxy—creating illnesses or disorders in someone else to gain medical attention.

Two leading consultants in the field, Professor David Southall and Dr Martin Samuels, have recently been suspended after allegations they falsely accused families. (BB Note: They have been suspended since Dec. 99 and remain under investigation in several official and professional inquiries in UK as well as individual actions by affected families.)

Such is the concern that a support group, Dare to Care, has been set up to help parents. It has assisted 50 families who say they were wrongly accused. All but six—who are still fighting—have now been cleared.

Founder Penny Mellor said some parents are blamed for undiagnosed illnesses in their offspring. Children can be taken away because they display problems that could have been caused by other factors such as an adverse reaction to drugs or routine vaccinations.

She said: "This is legalised kidnapping. It devastates the lives of parents and the children it seeks to protect, who are often put into a loveless and sometimes abusive care system that churns out dysfunctional adults." In one case a mother was accused of breaking her child’s bones. She later proved her son had brittle-bone disease.

In another a four-year-old boy was put on the at-risk register after the mother was accused of trying to suffocate him and burn his skin with corrosive. She later proved his breathing problems and blisters were caused by a severe allergy to foods and chemicals.

Some parents are accused of causing behavioural problems. In one, a pregnant woman and her two hyperactive sons were locked in a psychiatric unit and videoed 24 hours a day for four months at a cost of 100,000. The woman later proved her sons had a severe form of autism and a neurological malfunction, attention deficit disorder.

In a similar case two children aged 12 and 13 were taken into care because of violent and unruly behaviour and now claim they are being physically abused by care staff. A police investigation has been launched into the allegations.

The phrase "Munchausen’s by proxy" was coined in 1977 by Professor Roy Meadow. It was popularised by Professor Southall in the Beverly Allitt case, in which a nurse was jailed for killing four babies in her care and trying to murder nine others.

Perpetrators are said to fit a profile. However, some experts say many of the characteristics of this could apply to non-abusing parents. They include showing an "unnatural" interest in the child’s health, trying to be a perfect mother and even denying they are abusers. Once a case gets to court doctors only have to demonstrate that on the balance of probabilities a parent is abusing a child.

Charles Pragnell, a social care consultant, said that once accused, families stand little chance.

"The system is stacked against them," he said. "Parents often have to face a legal system, social services and police who all work hand in hand with each other."

Express Newspapers, 2000