Press release - 2nd August 2004

False child abuse allegations are being made by NHS staff when mothers make complaints about maternity care, says maternity pressure group

The Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services is demanding government investigation, following a series of cases where false allegations of possible child abuse were made after mothers had made serious and valid complaints about health care. "We believe these are being used as a pre-emptive strike, and as a punishment, when mothers complain", says Jean Robinson, Hon. Research Officer, and a former member of the GMC's Professional Conduct Committee. Now we have the case of a mother who was not only alleged to be a risk to her children, but ended up in court on false criminal charges as well. She narrowly escaped being sent to prison.

On 9th July Mrs Shaynel Ahmed was found not guilty at Bradford Crown Court of four charges of racial harassment of Mrs Agnes Rotowa, a health visitor, who was then employed at the New Cross Street health centre.

Mrs Rotowa said that Mrs Ahmed had sworn at her, including using racially abusive terms, run after her in the street, and shouted at her from her car. She had been so badly affected she had had to have time off work with migraine.

When asked by prosecuting counsel why a professional health visitor should make such allegations if they were not true, Mrs Ahmed said that she had made a serious complaint about her health care which could lead to a medical negligence claim. Failure to provide her with antenatal care had meant that she had to have an amniocentesis as she was 40 years old and at high risk of having a handicapped baby. At the time Mrs Rotowa and another health visitor called at her house, it had been at her request. This was two days after the amniocentesis, which increased the risk of miscarriage, when she had internal bruising and was worried that she could lose the baby. She was in no state to be "aggressive" as was alleged when Mrs Rotowa and another health visitor (Joan Barton, who did not give evidence) called at her house.

Mrs Rotowa said that after the visit she reported Mrs Ahmed to social services as a risk to her children, because she had been aggressive and also because she had been sound-proofing her flat.

Mrs Ahmed, who walked with some difficulty into the witness box, explained that she had a back injury caused by her previous job as a paramedic. This was exacerbated by her pregnancy and she had been prescribed crutches and a Zimmer frame at the time. She could not, therefore, have run after Mrs Rotowa.

Retired Professor and lecturer in medical ethics Jean Robinson, who accompanied Mrs Ahmed, said "In no way would I have supported Mrs Ahmed if I thought for a moment she had been guilty of racial harassment. I have fought race discrimination all my life. It was clear from the history that the allegations were untrue. There is a great deal of background to this case which could not be brought out in court."

Mrs Robinson, who is Honorary Research Officer for the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, says "For forty years AIMS has supported parents who had complaints about the quality of maternity care. As a very experienced pressure group, we are now so alarmed at the number of cases we have had where false allegations of child abuse have been made to social services after people made legitimate complaints about health care, in order to discredit them, that we have demanded action from the Department of Health. We have found that pregnant women and new mothers are particularly vulnerable, since their babies are seen as prime candidates for adoption. Two of the cases we took to the Department are already the subject of enquiries, and we have just sent them details of two more.

A recent study of health visitors has shown that mothers call them "the health police". Women are lying when asked about postnatal depression for fear that their children will be taken if they reveal they are depressed. Mrs Robinson says "This is very dangerous, because suicide is known to be the largest single cause of mothers' death after childbirth, yet they are afraid to go for help. We found out from our help line that women were treating themselves with St. John's Wort, a herbal remedy for depression, because they were afraid to tell anyone. We knew what was happening long before the research was published in the Journal of the Royal College of Practitioners."

"It is very sad that so many health visitors nowadays are concentrating on looking for potential abuse rather than supporting and helping parents. No-one needed help and support more than Mrs Ahmed, and that was what she was seeking. Unfortunately like many of our other clients she was plunged into greater anxiety - and in her case it amounted to fear of going to prison. As a former member of the Ethics Committee of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and of the General Medical Council, I am appalled. Mrs Ahmed is very grateful to her barrister, Stephen Gutterage, who did a great job at very short notice."

NOTE: Because Mrs Ahmed had been unable to obtain blood tests earlier in her pregnancy to see if she had an increased risk of having a handicapped child, she had had an amniocentesis, which might not have been necessary.

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