FAMILIES who have been accused of trying to harm their own children are planning legal action in the wake of what independent experts warn could be a "second Cleveland" scandal.
Children have been placed on "at risk" registers or taken into care after their parents have been diagnosed as suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP). However, childcare professionals are sceptical that the condition - in which mothers harm or induce illness in their children to draw attention to themselves - even exists. They claim that hundreds of parents, often with genuinely sick children, have been falsely labelled as MSBP mothers.
At least 40 families are contesting MSBP diagnoses by health and social workers. Twenty other women are threatening civil actions against 40 doctors, health and police authorities and social services.
Sharon Payne, along with her two children Megan and Connor, is suing a doctor, the King's Lynn Health and Wisbech Hospitals NHS trust and Norfolk social services after her children were put on the "at risk" register for a year.
Payne claims the problems began when her son was admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties and then a chest infection in 1993, when he was one year old. Doctors accused her of suffering from MSBP, and Megan and Connor were placed on a child protection register. Payne claims she was forced to go into a psychiatric unit for three months in order to prevent her children being taken away from their father and placed in care.
The family is suing with the help of legal aid on the grounds of misdiagnosis, negligence and false imprisonment. "I was absolutely devastated by what happened to me and by being told that I could harm my children," said Payne.
Janet Davis, 44, a former paediatric nurse from Berkshire who is also receiving legal aid, is threatening to sue doctors on the grounds of medical negligence after her son was placed on the register for four months.
He was removed from the register after social workers accepted that he had severe allergies and a statement was inserted into his medical records saying there was no evidence that he had been deliberately harmed by his mother.
Charles Pragnell, a social work expert who has advised public inquiries into social services, said he was concerned at the use of MSBP as a diagnosis. "This is another Cleveland," he said. Pragnell investigated the allegations of malpractice in Cleveland when, in 1987, 121 children were taken from their parents and placed in local authority care; 96 of them were then returned home when it emerged that there was no evidence of abuse.
"The most recent research raises serious questions as to whether MSBP exists as a medical diagnosis," said Pragnell, who believes there should be an inquiry into the syndrome. "It seems there are hundreds of doctors using the diagnosis and you have to ask whether it has been validated. The cost to families is immediate and long-term trauma."
The government has already started an inquiry into the clinical trials carried out at North Staffordshire hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, including those by Dr David Southall, involving premature babies. Southall is one of the doctors at the centre of criticism by some families. A separate hospital investigation is looking into his use of covert video surveillance of parents and children.
Allan Levy QC, a child protection expert, said he did not believe the problem was on the scale of Cleveland, but said mistakes had been made.
"It has become flavour of the month and you do wonder whether a few people are becoming over-enthusiastic in finding it," he said.
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