Parents are getting away with murder

If you want to get away with a crime, and you’re a parent or a
carer, try child murder. An NSPCC working group last week reported
on loopholes in the law that allow parents to walk free after a
child dies in suspicious circumstances, because it cannot be proved
who was responsible for the injuries.

In the three years to December 2000, police forces dealt with three
cases a week in which children under 10 had been killed by parents
or carers. Alarmingly, in six out of 10 cases no charges were
brought because each parent accused the other, or both denied
responsibility and allegedly concocted a story. Only 27 per cent of
cases ended in a conviction compared with 90 per cent killed by a

The working group makes a series of recommendations including:
allowing previous assaults on the child to be revealed, the
establishment of a register of those convicted of violence to
children, and a stronger onus on parents or carers who were with a
child at the time of death to provide an explanation. I would add
another: to place greater emphasis on any history of domestic

In January 1992, Sally Emery and her boyfriend Brian Hedman were
charged with ill-treatment of their child Chanel, who had died of a
ruptured bowel and whose body was a map of injuries. Each accused
the other. Emery claimed that she had been battered by Hedman and
she was in fear of him. She received four years for failing to
protect. Helena Kennedy QC in Eve was Framed, Women and British
,1 writes of the case, arguing the sentence
was too long, ” …it’s crucial that we acknowledge the full impact
of extreme violence on mothers”.

In the US, battered women’s syndrome is frequently used in court to
explain the inexplicable: why a mother stands by while her child is
beaten to death. The syndrome is based on a traumatic bond forged
through regular bouts of violence; one partner setting out to
isolate and undermine the other until the distorted dynamic becomes
regarded as “normal” – and inescapable. But domestic violence, of
course, is not always present when a child is killed by his
parents. Mothers can also inflict the most horrific cruelty.

If a child dies and forensic evidence indicates that only the
parents could have been present, it’s a criminal shame that the
criterion of responsibility accepted in a civil court – the balance
of probability – is not also applicable for certain criminal

1 Helena Kennedy, Eve was Framed, Women and
British Justice
, Vintage, 1993

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