L. Neil Smith's
Number 258, February 8, 2004

Government has no requirement to protect anyone

False Condition, False Charges
by Wendy McElroy

Special to TLE

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) is the psychiatric diagnosis by which a parent — almost always a mother — is accused of harming or killing a child in order to garner attention. Over the last decade, British women who sought pediatric aid risked a diagnosis that could lead not only to the termination of parental rights but also to imprisonment based on "expert" testimony. Perhaps as many as tens of thousands of children have been taken away by the State on the basis of MSBP. Now that diagnosis is being widely being widely discredited in Britain.

With MSBP's originator — pediatrician Sir Roy Meadow — under government investigation, British newspapers are sorting through the raging scandal. The Guardian comments, "[T]he fallout from the Meadow affair is set to go global. Thousands of families around the world who have had their children taken into care are to demand their cases be re-examined."

In recent years, a slew of articles on MSBP have appeared in American medical journals. A FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (August 2003) included an article entitled "Munchausen syndrome by proxy: the importance of behavioral artifacts." Some American doctors, such as Dr. Marc Feldman, advertise online their availability to testify as expert witnesses in MSBP trials. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Feldman estimates there are more than 1,200 new cases of Munchausen's by proxy annually in the United States.

Organizations like MAMA (Mothers Against MSPB Accusations) have sprung up in "response to the fast growing number of false allegations" of MSBP. MAMA claims "families across America, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are being destroyed by doctors and other professionals who make false and even malicious allegations against desperate mothers of chronically/critically ill children." The London Times points out that, this week, "the first anti- Munchausen's conference will take place in Australia."

How will the furor impact North America? The best indication may be the unfolding events across the Atlantic.

Scandal in Britain was sparked by a High Court review that revealed three mothers had been wrongly accused based on his testimony. In one case, Meadow assessed the odds of two unexplained infant deaths within the same family at one-in-73 million; that figure sent the mother to jail. In that case, Meadow's math was rejected by the Royal Statistical Society, which issued a press release advising the government of a misconduct of justice.

The three cases are not isolated. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has announced an investigation into 258 other verdicts. With the High Court's reversal of "Meadow's cases," the news magazine The Economist aptly stated (01/24), "an entire medical and legal edifice collapsed." It is not merely Meadow's credibility but also the research upon which MSBP rests research inexplicably shredded by Meadow — which is under attack.

The anxiety of anti-MSBP campaigners, who have been vocal since 1996, now revolves around one question: what happens next?

Parents cry out "return our children!" But Margaret Hodge, the British minister for children, says it may be wrong to do so. Admitting that tens of thousands of children could be involved, Hodge maintains, "If an adoption order was made... 10 years ago, what is in the real interest of the child?... [I]f the child was adopted at birth the sensible thing to do is to let it stay."

At least three factors strongly contributed to this sustained debacle.

First, medical advances and educational campaigns have caused a marked decrease in "cot deaths" that is, unexplained deaths in babies in Britain. Over the last decade, The Economist explained that the number of such deaths "halved... and has since fallen to around 300." But the fact that fewer babies die mysteriously casts greater suspicion upon those who do. Someone must be to blame.

Second, in both Britain and North America, there has been a great willingness some would say a great eagerness to place legal blame upon parents for any problem concerning children. Every bruise seems to raise the specter of child abuse. The Economist reports, "As early as 1995, the Canadian government was encouraging investigators in cot death cases to ‘think dirty' a slogan later picked up in other countries where infant deaths had fallen." Parents were considered guilty until proven innocent.

As one website claims, "It's been estimated that as many as one in five cot deaths is really... Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy." (The "murdering" mother is said to bask in widespread sympathy even as she poses a threat to her other children.)

Third, there has been a lack of accountability.

The Guardian pointed to high level negligence: Prime Minister Tony Blair and key officials ignored warnings from "a leading child psychologist and former government adviser" regarding several cases in which parents had been wrongly separated from children because of MSBP accusations. The British child welfare system seems to be systemically flawed.

The parallels between Britain and North America are too strong for the scandal not to ripple over. Soon, courts over here may be reversing verdicts; officials may be weighing whether to return children to parents who are strangers. The facts of MSBP e.g. is it a valid psychiatric condition and, if so, what is the prevalence? — may be lost in the emotional explosion.

Visit my home page and blog, drop by ifeminists.com, For photo (05/02/02)


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