Another week, another broadside in the propaganda war being waged against the nation’s child-protection system by the right wing press.
And, as in any war, truth can be the first casualty.
The latest lopsided horror story concerns Fran Lyon, a pregnant 22-year-old who, according to the Sunday Telegraph, has been “told that her baby will be taken from her [by Hexham social services] at birth because she is deemed capable of ‘emotional abuse’, even though psychiatrists treating her say there is no evidence to suggest that she will harm her child in any way”.
The Daily Mail’s coverage, while based on some facts, is also provocative – it suggests the issue boils down to “Whose baby is it anyway?”.
Both papers have been running stories for some weeks now in support of MP John Hemming’s campaign to portray social workers as “legal baby-snatchers”.
Normally, issues of confidentiality mean that the validity of such stories cannot be tested, but thanks to unique circumstances – Lyon herself has offered confidential details and documents relating to her case to journalists – the published “truths” of this case can be examined in some detail.
Details failed to emerge
This is not about whether the decision by social services is right or wrong. It is about the way the process has been misrepresented. Several significant details failed to emerge in both newspapers’ coverage, all of which cast this story in a different light.
This was not Lyon’s fault. I spoke to her and she was entirely open and frank about her history and personal circumstances. It is those hijacking her story in the service of their own agendas that have dealt economically with the facts.
The Sunday Telegraph led readers to believe that “Miss Lyon came under scrutiny because she had a mental health problem when she was 16 after being physically and emotionally abused by her father and raped by a stranger”. But this was not the trigger for concerns. There had been, Lyon told me, “a difficult incident with my ex where I needed to call the police and the police put a report through to social services because I was pregnant”.
Social workers did their duty
So far, then, so fully in line with every government edict issued in the wake of the Victoria Climbié Report, including the Children Act 2004, that “places a statutory duty on key people and bodies to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”. In notifying social services, the police were doing no more than their statutory duty – and, post-Laming, God help them if they hadn’t.
Next, it was the turn of social workers to do their duty. Lyon was invited to an initial interview at which, she says, the focus was on her former partner. She says she was then asked to attend a second interview with her mother and that this was “focused on my childhood and my previous mental health issues”.
Lyon frank about her history
Lyon, who works for Borderline UK, helping people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, is frank about her own personal history.
She explains that, by 13 or 14, she was “already seriously anorexic” and “was being quite seriously abused”.
By her own account, she was raped by an acquaintance while working as a volunteer in a charity shop and her behaviour became increasingly self-destructive. In addition to her difficulties with eating, she began self-harming by cutting her arms.
To complicate matters further, Lyon says that since the age of 11 she has suffered from angioedema (swelling of the skin) and for the past two years has been fitted with a permanent tracheostomy tube to help her breathe.
At 15, Lyon says she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and admitted to the Cassel Hospital in Richmond, south London, where she spent a year as an in-patient, followed by nine months as an out-patient. The diagnosis was finally removed when she was 18.
Hemming accused social services
Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, told the Sunday Telegraph that in reaching the decision to intervene when Lyon’s baby was born, social services ignored “evidence from professionals treating her, that she would have no problems”.
But, according to Lyon, her last contact with a psychiatrist as a patient was four years ago. After her second interview with social services, however, Lyon contacted Dr Stella Newrith, the last psychiatrist to have treated her, and asked her to write a letter in support. This Dr Newrith did, on Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust headed paper.
“On the basis of my clinical observations,” wrote Dr Newrith, “I consider the risk of harm to a child to be so unlikely as to be negligible. There has never been any clinical evidence to suggest that Fran would put herself or others at risk, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that she would put a child at risk of emotional, physical or sexual harm.”
Doctor was responding to concerns
According to the Sunday Telegraph, the recommendation that Lyon’s baby should be taken from her at birth was based “in part on a letter from a paediatrician she has never met” and the concern that she “was likely to suffer from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a condition unproven by science in which a mother will make up an illness in her child, or harm it, to draw attention to herself”. (The Daily Mail shared the Sunday Telegraph’s ill-informed view of MSBP – now better known as fabricated or induced illness (FII) – describing it as “an unproven condition”.)
It is quite clear from the letter, shown to me by Lyon, that the doctor was not raising but responding to concerns about fabricated or induced illness that had been put to him. Indeed, his first concern was that it should be determined “whether or not Ms Holton [as Lyon used to be known] does indeed fabricate or induce symptoms or illnesses in herself”.
Hemming’s two agendas
For Hemming, Lyon’s story taps into two agendas – his campaigns against social services and the adoption system and the diagnosis of FII.
In 2005, Hemming accused social services in Birmingham of acting like the “Gestapo” after they had followed up a doctor’s reported concerns about a woman pregnant with the married MP’s child. On 23 October 2005, Hemming told the Daily Mail that social workers had “threatened to place his newborn baby daughter…on an at-risk register”. His threat to sue the council came to nothing.
Commenting on the Fran Lyon story, the MP told the Daily Mail: “How can it be in the child’s best interests to take a baby away from its mother at birth? The reason why they do it is because it’s much harder to take away a baby the longer it spends with its mother, and a healthy newborn baby is so much easier to find adoptive parents for.”
Hemming is also a member of a cross-party group of MPs seeking “the review or withdrawal” of the government guidelines on FII, issued in 2002 and has been a frequent contributor to the website Mothers Against Munchausen Allegations (Mama).
An awful situation
This is, of course, a sad and difficult case and no one could blame Lyon for taking the action she has. All she wants is to be able to keep her baby when it is born. Similarly, however, the professionals involved – social workers, doctors and the police – should not be castigated for carrying out their statutory duties.
To her credit, and despite the heavy-handed rhetoric of the Sunday Telegraph and Hemming, Lyon appears to share that view. “I don’t believe anybody is in this to cause harm,” she told me. Indeed, she says she has sympathy with the social workers in her case, who “are in an awful situation with an incredibly difficult call to make. All I’m asking is that I’m given a chance to assuage their concerns and fears. Hopefully that isn’t too unreasonable.”
Of course it isn’t. What is unreasonable, however, is that yet again a delicate human story has been hijacked and misrepresented in the name of a vociferous campaign to undermine public confidence in the child protection system.
* Fran Lyon’s appeal against the decision is ongoing