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The Doctors Who Take Away Your Kids (30 Minutes)

30 Minutes investigates how thousands of children have been taken way from their families by the state and put into care, all on the basis of one doctor’s opinion.

30 Minutes: "The Doctors Who Take Away Your Kids" was broadcast on Channel 4 on 19th June, 6pm

In England last year, nearly six thousand children were registered at risk of physical abuse. But the figures vary hugely from place to place. For example, a child in the Wirral is 13 times more likely to be registered compared to a child in Oldham. Yet there’s no evidence that parents in the Wirral are more abusive than those in Oldham.

The problem is that diagnosing abuse is far from an exact science. It’s all down to the examining doctor’s opinion. And some doctors are far more ready to diagnose child abuse than their colleagues.

Andrea Colley had all three of her children taken into care – all on the say-so of a vet. Three puppies had all died in the family home, in mysterious circumstances. After post-mortems, the vet decided the dogs had been deliberately killed.

He contacted the police who brought in Professor David Southall, a renowned but controversial paediatrician who has frequently testified in court as an expert witness on child abuse. Despite not meeting the family, he diagnosed Andrea as suffering from Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, and a danger to her children who were then taken into care.

Fortunately, a psychiatrist examined Andrea and disagreed with Professor Southall. The children were returned home and eventually Andrea’s husband admitted he had killed the dogs, while suffering from a breakdown.

Harry was a perfectly normal, healthy little boy. There was no evidence that he was at risk of abuse. When he fell off a sofa onto his head, his parents insisted he have a brain scan. It showed that he had suffered a serious brain haemorrhage. Doctors argued that such a serious injury could only have been caused by a severe blow – which was ruled out because Harry had no cuts or bruises – or by being very severely shaken. With no other suspects in the frame, his parents immediately fell under suspicion.

Harry was taken into care. But the doctors had made a terrible mistake. Harry’s haemorrhage was actually due to a previously undiagnosed condition he suffers from called platelet storage disorder. After three months, Harry was returned to his parents. But they are so worried he might have another accident – and be taken away from them again – they make him wear a crash helmet all the time.

GP James Le Fanu believes some doctors are too eager to diagnose abuse. “There are certainly hardliners who’ve managed to convince themselves that a particular pattern of injury is diagnostic of child abuse,” he says.

It’s the fear of another Victoria Climbie catastrophe that is forcing doctors to be more certain than the evidence warrants and no one wants to send a child home to die. Paediatrician Mike Coren from St Mary’s Hospital says pressure from the police and the courts means doctors are just not allowed to admit when they’re not sure.

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