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Last Updated: Monday, 23 February, 2004, 20:53 GMT
Review of children in care cases
Angela Cannings
Angela Cannings was cleared of killing her boys
Cases in which children have been taken into care on the basis of disputed medical evidence are to be reviewed.

Children's Minister Margaret Hodge has written to local authorities in the light of the case of Angela Cannings who was cleared of killing her babies.

The case raised concerns that some children had been taken into care after cot deaths were misdiagnosed as abuse.

She told MPs on Monday that the numbers involved were likely to be in the low hundreds rather than thousands.

Mrs Hodge added that the interests of the child were key.

Convictions

Last month the attorney general announced a review of up to 258 convictions of parents for killing their children.

Councils should stand ready to act in the light of the outcome of that review
Margaret Hodge

It followed the Court of Appeal's decision in December last year to overturn Mrs Cannings' 2002 conviction for smothering her two sons.

Evidence from cot death expert Sir Roy Meadow helped convict Mrs Cannings and another mother, Sally Clark, of murder. Both were later cleared.

Giving their reasons for overturning Mrs Cannings' conviction last month, the judges said: "If the outcome of the trial depends exclusively, or almost exclusively, on a serious disagreement between distinguished and reputable experts, it will often be unwise, and therefore unsafe, to proceed.

"Unless we are sure of guilt, the dreadful possibility always remains that a mother, already brutally scarred by the unexplained deaths of her babies, may find herself in prison for life for killing them when she should not be there at all."

Reviews

Mrs Hodge said she shared the "deep concern" expressed by MPs and the public following Mrs Cannings' case and recognised there may well be other cases where parents and children had been wrongly separated.

The minister said she would now be writing to social services across the country to ask them to consider those cases which are affected by the attorney general's review.

"In such cases, councils should again consider ... whether there are now doubts about the reliability of the expert evidence," she told the Commons.

"If that is so... they should then consider whether to apply to the court for the care order to be discharged or whether to support any application that may be made by the parents or the child."

High profile

She said in cases where the child had already been adopted, those adoptions should only be set aside "in the most exceptional circumstances".

"It would risk causing distress to adoptive families where children are happily settled. That would be quite wrong."

Tory shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve said cases should be re-examined not only where expert witness evidence had been challenged but also where convictions relied solely on that evidence.

Mr Grieve said that by limiting the reviews to contested evidence there was a risk that a large number of cases could be overlooked.

The children's charity NSPCC said it backed the decision to review the cases.

"If any of the reviews of individual cases, where there are supervision or care orders, do point to children being wrongly separated from their parents, it may be in a child's best interests to be reunited with his or her birth parents.

"The child's best interests must remain paramount in any decision about their future."

Professor Meadow's theory of Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy suggests some mothers harm their children to draw attention to themselves.

His evidence was also used in the high profile prosecutions of Mrs Clark and Trupti Patel.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Alison Holt
"Social Services Departments now have 12 weeks to examine their files"



SEE ALSO:
Cot death expert breaks silence
21 Jan 04  |  Health
Profile: Sir Roy Meadow
10 Dec 03  |  Health
Child death cases face review
11 Dec 03  |  Wiltshire
The science behind cot deaths
11 Jun 03  |  Health
Mother cleared of killing sons
10 Dec 03  |  Wiltshire


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