Britain Rethinks Child Protection

By Mark Rice-Oxley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Britain Rethinks Child Protection


Mark Rice-Oxley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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