Friday, 20 April 2012

Wrongly Accused

It is, of course, impossible to say exactly what went wrong in the sad case of the couple who were wrongly accused of killing their four-month-old son and as a result had another child taken into care at birth. All we know at this stage are the bare facts as given in the first press and radio reports of the case.

The couple has now been cleared of all criminal charges and their daughter has been restored to their care. We are told that their son was suffering from rickets that was not diagnosed at the time of his death. Rickets results in softening of the bones predisposing towards fractures that can occur spontaneously as a result of the normal handling of a small child, so producing symptoms similar to those of a shaken baby.

Cases like this one have also resulted in injustice in the past. The crucial issue appears to be that everything rests on the medical diagnosis. There is no history of poor care and there is no other reason to suspect that the parents would harm a child. Without the diagnosis there would be no concern at all; with it care proceedings and criminal charges appear to be the only option.

We need to learn much more about the risks in cases like this one. It would certainly be preferable to be aware of any conflicting medical opinions as early as possible, rather than having rival experts disputing their differing diagnoses in court many months, or even years, after the event. And it would certainly be best to spend more time getting the diagnosis right in the first place.

However, this type of case is not routinely put through the Serious Case Review process and there seems to be no repository of learning of how to reduce the risks of mistakenly proceeding against innocent parents. Perhaps some research would be a good idea?