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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Accused of abuse, but never tried
Participants at a protest outside the High Court in London
Parents have lost access to their children without a criminal trial

Mothers Sally Clark and Trupti Patel found themselves in the dock accused of murdering their babies partly on the strength of expert testimony by Sir Roy Meadows. But other families have been forcibly separated thanks to Sir Roy's testimony without police charges ever being brought.

The jury at Trupti Patel's trial took just 90 minutes on 11 June to discount the prosecution's case that the 35-year-old had caused the deaths of her three baby sons between 1997 and 2001 - an allegation partly based on the expert medical opinion of paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow that three such unexplained deaths in one family was "very unusual".

There was no jury to find in favour of Maxine Carter [not her real name] in 1999 when Sir Roy helped convince a judge at a family court that she had tried to poison her baby daughter. All four of Maxine's children were immediately taken into care - with the youngest two being put up for adoption - even though police never pressed charges for the alleged poisoning.

Never charged

"If someone gave that tablet to my daughter, I want them to be arrested and charged," says Mrs Carter, who found herself facing civil proceedings to wrest her children from her rather than a criminal trial.

Maxine's husband, Will Carter, has a theory why this should be so. "I think they know that if our case went to a criminal court, they'd be found wrong and end up with egg of their faces."

Jay and Trupti Patel - after the 35-year-old was found not guilty
Trupti Patel faced the "trauma" of being accused of killing three babies
The Carters joined other couples accused of killing or abusing their children who gathered yesterday for a demonstration outside the high court in London to protest against the influence of expert witnesses in deciding such cases.

Many, including the Carters, donned symbolic cloth gags, since they cannot be photographed or publicly named because the family court fears their being identified will impact on the children taken from them and resettled elsewhere.

The Carters' ordeal began when their 16-month-old daughter suffered a stroke and several heart attacks. Six months later, though the girl had recovered, a urine sample dating from her period of sickness tested positive from a drug prescribed to one of the couple's older children.

Decisive testimony

"The little tablets were beige and we had a beige carpet. The baby must have found one - which look a bit like Smarties - and put it in her mouth," says Mr Carter.

Both sides agreed that Sir Roy should be brought in to look at the case.

"We were told he was the top guy, so we thought: 'Great! He'll know what a big cock up this has been,'" says Mr Carter.

Juries are [not] the right people to decide these things as they can be swayed more easily by the mother standing in front of them
Eleanor Platt, QC
However, Sir Roy diagnosed Mrs Carter as suffering Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy - a condition he first identified, in which mothers harm their children as a way to attract attention to themselves. The judge was told the child had consumed up to 12 tablets - a dose Sir Roy said the baby was unlikely to have taken herself accidental. The Carters say the number of tablets taken is disputed, and could have been just one.

"It was my word against his. Who is the judge going to believe, a parent or a health professional?" says Mrs Carter.

Karen and Mark Haynes [not their real names] also say Sir Roy's testimony to a family court swung the judgement against their plea that Mrs Haynes had not smothered to death her baby son and that the couple's newborn child should not be taken into care.

"Meadow was the most convincing of the witnesses in court, perhaps because he has had so much practice. Though other experts said our baby had not been killed, the judge believed him," says Mr Haynes.

Are juries better?

A leading barrister says family court proceedings are far better at weighing complex medical evidence than the criminal court Trupti Patel faced.

Eleanor Platt, QC - who sits in the family court and is president of the Medico-Legal Society - says she does not think "juries are the right people to decide these things as they can be swayed more easily by the mother standing in front of them".

Sally Clark after being released in January 2003
Sir Roy's evidence was questioned at Sally Clark's appeal
She says that judges sitting on civil family courts are there to ensure the welfare of children, and not to prosecute the parent - a role for the Crown Prosecution Service and the criminal courts.

"Being a civil court there is a different standard of proof," says Mrs Platt. Where juries must belief a guilt "beyond reasonable doubt", family court judges must consider the "balance of probabilities".

While the unexplained deaths of infants are rare, family court judges are experienced in hearing medical testimony on abuse cases and seek the widest spectrum of opinion to help decide what care is best for a child, she says. In the case of the Carters and the Haynes, this meant the judges took note of Sir Roy's opinions.

The criminal cases of Trupti Patel and Sally Clark (who was wrongly imprisoned for three years for murder after cot death claimed her two sons) has brought Sir Roy's decisive testimony into question, but so far only the evidence he gave in criminal proceedings is to be re-examined. This will not help reunite the Carters or the Haynes with their children.

"We need to change the family court system," says Mr Haynes - whose daughter was taken into care just 25 minutes after being born. "We've lost one son to sudden infant death syndrome and we are destined to remain childless for the rest of our lives unless we speak out against this injustice."


SEE ALSO:
Patel mother suffers child ban
13 Jun 03  |  Berkshire
The science behind cot deaths
11 Jun 03  |  Health



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