About the Family Law Week blog

The Family Law Week Blog is a companion site to Family Law Week. It complements the news, cases and articles published on Family Law Week with additional comment and coverage of the wider aspects of family law.

The Blog is edited by Jacqui Gilliatt, of 4 Brick Court and Lucy Reed, of St Johns Chambers.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Removing the children before the children get removed

Lots of media attention in the last couple of weeks about case of Fran Lyons. Her website Asking for a Chance gives the background. Press coverage includes a Daily Mail article , Woman's Hour, & ITV news .

Fran has had mental health problems earlier in her life and now she is expecting a baby. The local authority are apparently saying that they will remove the baby at birth, having been advised that Fran might harm the baby as a result of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. Fran was understandably terrified about what will happen. She moved into a different local authority area but has now decided to take herself off to Europe.

I don't know all the background details of the case but if half of what is written about the case is true, it is difficult to see how the local authority would have persuaded a court to grant them an emergency protection order or interim care order: see the article on the Interim Removal of Children from their Parents on the main Family Law Week site. In one of the cases referred to Mr Justice McFarlane specifically says that cases involving fabricated or induced illness with no medical evidence of immediate risk of direct harm to the child will rarely warrant an emergency protection order. In addition there is case law which suggests that Munchausens Syndrome By Proxy (MBSP) or factititious illness (a syndrome in which parents are thought to fabricate or induce illness in children) does not even exist. Mr Justice Ryder said this: "The terms ‘Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy’ and ‘Factitious (and Induced) Illness (by Proxy)’ are child protection labels that are merely descriptions of a range of behaviours, not a paediatric, psychiatric or psychological disease that is identifiable. The terms do not relate to an organised or universally recognised body of knowledge or experience that has identified a medical disease (ie an illness or condition) and there are no internationally accepted medical criteria for the use of either label. In reality, the use of the label is intended to connote that in the individual case there are materials susceptible of analysis by paediatricians and of findings of fact by a court concerning fabrication, exaggeration, minimisation or omission in the reporting of symptoms and evidence of harm by act, omission or suggestion (induction). Where such facts exist the context and assessments can provide an insight into the degree of risk that a child may face and the court is likely to be assisted as to that aspect by psychiatric and/or psychological expert evidence." Fran says that she has been diagnosed as likely to suffer from this syndrome by a Paediatrician who has not in fact ever met her. Further she says that the Psychiatrist(s) that know her do not agree. It is difficult to see how that diagnosis could possibly be made on a paper assessment before the baby has even been born and suffered any harm at all. Writing about diagnosing MBSP, Professor Tim David, a leading Paediatrician said: "This is one area where confusion can occur. The diagnosis is made in the same way as in any other case of physical abuse, and not by identifying certain parental characteristics, such as the mother being a nurse." And even if it were true that Fran did have the condition of MBSP this does not mean she could not be given support and Psychiatric treatment.

I appreciate that the public debate has been rather one-sided in that the local authority have not been able to contribute much by way of detail, but it does seem that Fran would have had a good case to put to the court. I can't help thinking that I might well have been tempted, if in her shoes, to duck out of all the stress and strain of combining first time motherhood with care proceedings by skipping off to live abroad. I do wish though that the public debate that there has been had included a little more about the legal principles and difficulty likely to be faced by local authorities when trying to justify removal & a little less on baby adoption targets which in fact have been withdrawn.

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