Martin Oliver puts a spotlight on a growing controversy
In Australia and overseas, government authorities sometimes remove children from their families. We’ve all seen the headlines, and it is unnerving to read these stories.
In most cases, this distressing step is undertaken when neglect, domestic violence, sexual abuse, alcoholism, and-or drug use is involved, and children need to be relocated to a safer home.
However, there are hidden dimensions few of think about in relation to the issue of children being removed from their biological parents.
Parents are being profiled for their use of natural health therapies and false accusations of medical child abuse are being made against them.
In such a situation, children may be ‘medically kidnapped’ if the authorities disagree with their health care.
Secrecy supports these types of questionable practices, and if society is going to challenge them, it is necessary to shine a light down a dark tunnel.
Australia holds a record
Australia removes more children per head than any other Western country, an interesting record to hold. And sadly, the number of cases has seen a steep rise during the past five years. Similar trends are also occurring overseas.
Factors underlying Australia’s high figures include an authoritarian mindset, a government preference for punitive measures against families with challenges rather than offering support, and a high degree of risk-aversion that is allowed to trump respect for human rights.
Nationally, levels of child removal are highest in the Northern Territory and New South Wales, and lowest in Victoria and Western Australia. Friday evenings are notorious for a large number of child removals, with the only possible conclusion being the head start that this offers agencies engaged in taking children, before distraught parents are able to reach a solicitor.
Child removal is also several times higher among indigenous children, especially in remote communities. While some of this can be explained by family dysfunction, it risks a re-run of the ‘stolen generation’. For removal of Aboriginal children, it is far more common for staff to be accompanied by police. There are even reports of the indiscriminate removal of indigenous youth in vans.
In NSW, for example, child protection is increasingly outsourced to NGOs such as Brighter Futures and Barnados, which require parents to sign performance contracts. If the parents fail to measure up, they are liable to lose their children. The definition of ‘neglect’ can extend to being poor, and the child lacking his or her own bedroom.
One Australian woman who is involved in challenging these practices is Mary Moore from the Alliance for Family Preservation and Restoration. Also active is Dr Helen Hayward-Brown, an Australian medical anthropologist and sociologist, who has been supporting women whose children have been taken away in questionable circumstances. Dr Hayward-Brown is familiar with the situation in NSW, where the removal rate is well above the Australian national average.
To any outsider looking at the figures, with Children’s Court judges’ ruling 90 per cent of cases in favour of Family and Community Services (FaCS), there appears to be a presumption of guilt against the parents. FaCS is considered to have a zealous child protection culture, and case workers tend to have a one-sided view where child removal is seen as a success. All of this is reflected in state legislation that works against parents’ interests.
For a parent who feels that a child has been removed without sufficient justification, it is recommended to talk online to support groups and other parents for advice and help. Sadly, parents have been known to fight for years to get a child back, and obtaining a good legal team can be a very costly exercise.
American figures show a wide range of better life outcomes for children who stay with troubled parents compared to those who are fostered.
A highly concerning 1999 figure from the UK shows that fostered children were seven to eight times more likely to be abused when compared to those who remained in a dysfunctional family setting. It goes without saying that where doubt exists that a child is being mistreated, removal is, in addition to being unjust, a far more expensive option for taxpayers than maintaining the status quo.
The medical link
Equally concerning are the questionable circumstances under which this sometimes takes place. There are signs that Australia’s culture of antagonism towards natural therapies and natural approaches to child-rearing are to an extent feeding into the increase in child removals.
As a result of questionable negative reviews carried out by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), and the resulting negative media coverage, there is a common but incorrect viewpoint that natural therapies and supplements are worthless. Homeopathy has recently been described in a Department of Health report as having ‘unacceptable risks’, despite being a safe modality with no side effects.
An interest in natural therapies can be flagged by the child protection system. Where information originating in the media is taken literally by protection workers, parents with natural approaches to health care could be seen as a threat to their children. Anybody who takes on board the tabloid scare stories about ‘dangerous’ supplements without seeing the bigger picture is liable to believe that they are all risky and best avoided. At least one parent has been accused of poisoning her children by giving them vitamins, even though they were medically prescribed.
Difficulties can arise when there is incompatibility between childcare workers and parents. For example, a worker with a conservative mindset may judge some parents’ lifestyle choices as ‘weird’.
In some cases, child protection workers have been concerned that a child fed a natural wholefood diet is missing out on the ‘normal’ unhealthy foods consumed by his or her peers. In these instances, a parent may deflect the risk of a child being taken by stocking the pantry with sugar-laden processed food that will never be eaten.
Some states have commenced mandatory reporting by hospitals of children with abnormal heights or weights, and also unvaccinated children. Non-vaccinating is now regarded as a low-level form of child abuse, and to an extent increases the likelihood of children being taken away.
For parents, one recommendation is to think carefully about contacting child protection agencies or NGOs, about one’s own children, or those of a relative or friend. Apparently, even a casual request for advice is likely to result in attempts to remove children. Similarly, when talking to these agencies, it is wise to avoid volunteering more information than is necessary, because regardless of how pleasant the officer is, it is could be used against you.
At a time when Australian child welfare workers are being criticised in the media for sometimes failing to remove children from serious abuse, there is a strong argument for ensuring that priorities are decided wisely and objectively, and are not influenced by flawed and short-sighted ideologies.
Accusations of medical abuse
Baron Munchausen was a fictional 18th century nobleman who was notorious for spinning tall tales. During the 1990s, a new medical label was created called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP), which accuses a parent, usually the mother, of making a child ill in order to gain attention, or as an excuse to argue with medical experts.
Following a high-profile UK court case involving a woman named Sally Clark, who was wrongly imprisoned for three and a half years after two of her young children died, MSbP has been largely discredited due to the frequency of false accusations. However, it still survives, and is sometimes known as ‘factitious or induced illness’.
Another term, ‘medical child abuse’, refers to cases where a parent is believed to have caused a child to receive unnecessary or potentially harmful medical care. Most accusations have no valid scientific basis. In general, accusations of MSbP and medical child abuse crop up disproportionately in Anglo countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Another country with a high incidence is Germany.
While the frequency of accusations decreased in Australia for a few years around the early 2010s, it is now rising sharply, with the Hunter region around Newcastle a particular blackspot. Typically, a child is removed from the parents, who may in a worst-case scenario face time in jail.
Dr Hayward-Brown is an expert in this field, and has taken on the challenging and harrowing role of supporting women who are going through the nightmare of being wrongly accused of MSbP or medical child abuse.
Risk factors for being on the receiving end of such accusations may include:
- A child being unvaccinated.
- Taking the child to a children’s hospital where he or she is seen by specialists. Interacting with the family doctor poses a minimal threat of false accusations being made.
- Making several medical visits in connection with the same matter.
- Being knowledgeable, voicing an opinion and disagreeing with doctors. A parent who objects to a hospital treatment protocol is frequently notified to child protection.
- Attempting to obtain a second opinion, sometimes less kindly referred to as ‘doctor shopping’. The notion of ‘potentially harmful medical care’ tied to medical child abuse accusations can be defined as a course of action that contradicts an initial medical opinion.
- Having a child with a controversial diagnosis.
- Having a child with digestive issues.
- Having a child with a diagnosis of mitochondrial disorder. The existence of this condition is disputed, and some doctors reject its existence. Families can find themselves in the position of pawns between rival medical factions.
To an observer, the difficulties with this list would be that it appears to take normal mothering behaviour and apply a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ principle.
And observing various cases in which a child has receives medical-related harm, suffered vaccine damage, or was the victim of medical malpractice, medical child abuse accusations have at times been made against the parents, deflecting responsibility away from a vaccine or the medical professional.
The term Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was coined for cases where babies tragically die, unexpectedly. SIDS-affected parents can find themselves accused of MSbP.
Another type of accusation is known as Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), where there is the belief that parents have caused trauma to the baby’s head. In reality, the checklist symptoms for SBS can include birth interventions, previous injuries, accidental falls, in utero strokes, infections, vitamin deficiencies, and even vaccines.
Dr Hayward-Brown states that 80 per cent of her MSbP cases follow on from a complaint against the medical profession.
Reading this figure given by Dr Hayward-Brown, it would be hard to escape concluding that the medical child abuse label is largely a tool for discrediting and undermining mothers. It also would be difficult to avoid the idea that this response by the medical system shares some similarities with the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages.
Forced medical treatment
Cases sometimes reach the media involving a controversy over a child’s medical care, particularly where a serious condition such as cancer is involved. This is an emotive topic where it is possible to appreciate both the views of the parents, and those of government agencies that hopefully have the child’s best interests at heart.
Typically, the parents are interested in pursuing natural approaches, and are coming up against a medical mainstream wedded to radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Commonly, the natural avenue is viewed as a form of medical neglect. However, figures for chemotherapy published in Clinical Oncology showed that its use increased Australian five-year survival rates by only 2.3 per cent, a statistic that omits later mortality resulting from chemotherapy-induced health deterioration.
Some cases involve parents who have given medical marijuana to children for conditions such as seizures, with remarkable results, despite this not being fully legalised in Australia. When viewed from a narrow perspective, some may mistakenly view this as drugging children with a harmful substance, even though the psychoactive THC content is absent in medical marijuana.
In some instances, the child in question is in his or her teens, and is mature enough to have an informed say in his or her own treatment, but may be unwillingly forced to undergo treatment, against the parents’ wishes too, and may be taken from the family.
All of this is tough for the parents, who not only have the emotional impact of a sick child, but can also face the double-blow of being unable both to see their offspring, and to decide upon or even influence his or her health care decisions.
Unfortunately, in Australia there is a trend towards parents having a diminishing say over their children’s hospital treatment, and sometimes the option of obtaining a second medical opinion is blocked, so parents are locked into dealing with the original hospital they approached.
There is even less justification for a recent unsettling trend in Australia towards treating childhood illness as a child protection issue by default.
Dr Hayward-Brown has been informed by some parents with children in hospital that nearly half of the parents in their ward are either experiencing issues with child protection agencies, or have already had children taken away.
Freedom and choice
Some parts of the world, including Australia, are seeing a global trend towards medical authoritarianism that can appear in the form of parental rights being undermined. If this continues along its current trajectory, it could reach a point where the state eventually takes on the role of primary decision-maker, with the parents adopting more of a caretaker-style role.
Frequently, the message can be spun in such a way that the public is at risk of believing that restrictions on health choices are designed to protect us all from ‘quack’ natural therapists and ‘dangerous’ supplements. The health freedom message needs to be given a serious airing in the media, which has recently tended to show a bias against natural health.
One valuable step is to join the Your Health Your Choice health freedom campaign which has the goal of preserving access to natural therapies, and which has already attracted more than 30,000 sign-ups.
Alliance for Family Preservation and Restoration; www.allianceforfamilypreservationandrestoration.webs.com
Dr. Helen Hayward-Brown; www.drhelenhaywardbrown.net.au
MAMA (Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy); www.msbp.com
Your Health Your Choice; www.yourhealthyourchoice.com.au
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, NSW.