Don’t let mistakes hinder investigation

Mothers can and do kill their babies. Yet, professionals are likely
to be deterred from acting when they witness the present hounding
of Sir Roy Meadow in the aftermath of Sally Clark’s release from

The jury in her original trial had allegedly been swayed by
Meadow’s use of one erroneous statistic – that the chances of two
cot deaths occurring in one family are “73 million to one”.

It would be a double tragedy, however, if the injustice meted out
to Sally Clark then created a climate in which the protection of
babies became difficult to ensure. The myth is already gaining
ground that several women are now serving time condemned, as the
Daily Mail words it: “On statistical probabilities rather
than hard proof.”

The odds of a double cot death have been quoted as one in 8,500 and
one in 64. The truth is that such odds are irrelevant. According to
the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) there are 370
cots death a year and only one family will experience a second cot
death. What matters is that collecting the corroborative evidence
is not made any easier by the appalling inefficiency of the system
once a baby dies. For more than 15 years the FSID has campaigned
for a paediatrician to visit within 24 hours of a baby’s death to
obtain a full medical history; all post-mortems to be conducted by
a paediatric pathologist and a specialist in baby disorders and a
case conference of all professionals to discuss the death and plan
follow-up support. None of the above is yet part of normal

The deaths of many babies remain a mystery. Proper research is
vital. Some 3,500 babies die each year, most in the first week of
life. No published information exists about deaths of other babies
in these families. FSID runs a programme called Care of the Next
Infant to support families who have had a previous cot death.

Of the first 5,000 babies enrolled in the programme 44 died. Eight
were deemed true cot deaths; 11 died due to natural causes; seven
arose from maltreatment – crucially, for the remaining 18, the
information was inadequate.

Meadow has spent decades in the service of children. He is human,
he makes errors and, for Sally Clark, that had a disastrous
consequence. Still, it would be even more damaging to the very
young if professionals allowed their confidence to be undermined to
the point where their much-needed vigilance wavers.

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