Daughter whose mother died by suicide after being wrongfully accused of fabricating her illness launches lawsuit

Maya Kowalski, the 17-year-old daughter of Beata Kowalski, and the subject of a new Netflix documentary called “Take Care of Maya” is suing the US hospital which claimed her mother had made up her symptoms. Her mother died by suicide.

Beata was accused of Fabricated or induced illness (FII), a rare form of child abuse where a parent or carer exaggerates or deliberately induces symptoms of illness in their child, after she contacted doctors with concerns about Maya’s health. Critics of the phenomenon, which is considered a form of mental illness, say the condition does not exist. FII was previously called Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Maya suffered from debilitating headaches, asthma, and painful lesions on her arms and legs, as well as cramps and curling sensations in her feet. Medical staff, unable to get to the bottom of the symptoms, began to suspect Maya’s mother was lying about her daughter’s condition.

What followed was an unrelenting quest to blame Maya’s mother for her illness.

After her mother’s suicide, a professor at Brown University’s medical school who studies complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) wrote a report which said that Maya’s symptoms and response to treatments were consistent with CRPS, and that the diagnoses of FII and factitious disorder were incorrect.

The trial against Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital begins in September. The Netflix documentary about Maya and her family will air on June 19.

A piece in The Cut offers a very good overview of Maya’s case.

We wish Maya lots of luck.

The latest

These are the latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Image of the month

Our image of the month offers a platform for children, women and men who want to express their experiences through art, and share those experiences with the outside world. The art is transformed into the website’s page header for a month, and includes an introductory post about the artist, and their creation.

We are very fortunate to be able to feature the work of Paul Brian Tovey, who has very kindly agreed to be Researching Reform’s Artist In Residence.

Paul is an adult adoptee whose adoptive parents physically, emotionally and sexually abused him in childhood. His work reflects the impact this maltreatment has had on his mental health and his physical health, as a child and as an adult.

Paul currently campaigns for adoptees to have the legal right to revert back to their birth identities.

This month’s painting is titled, “Going Home – Finding The Sun Sisters,” and is about Paul’s search to find his natural cousins.

Speaking to Researching Reform, Paul said, “Two cousins found after others … Slightly special since they are my birth father Brian’s twin sister’s girls, Lynn and Jane. Age and other responsibilities have prevented me from seeing them so far but I have made contact and cheeked them on Facebook.”

“It’s a sense of both loss and gain. It’s often like this for Adoptees who find someone but realise they have also lost so many life-chances to have lived with their own kind and family. I was 6 at Adoption and 3 when I left Bristol, so I do have a powerful area of imprints of my Bristol roots.”

“One of my cousins – Jane, owns a couple of horses which she loves, and I understand that connection. The simple souls of animals brings us in touch with our own natures and capacity to love. I do have other cousins too and in the picture I am cheeking them as much as I can. I aim to improve my cheek quotient on everyone I find (Winking).”

Paul has written a poem, which is intended to be read alongside his art:

It was a day the Sun Sisters rode the Istol Horse,

They were shining blood of my blood of light of course,

For when you are almost home past the Adoptee scenes,

The cruel fates for some, but finally touching genes,

The Sun is allowed to smile for a while on your cross,

And you weep and grin and shine and shine inside loss,

This is the way it is for some seeking an integration,

Broken children that never wanted that family separation.

Revealed: 78 percent of children involved in serious incident reports were known to social services, police

Welcome to another week.

The government has released the latest data for serious incident notifications involving children. Serious incidents are defined as those “that involve death or serious harm to a child where abuse or neglect is known or suspected, and any death of a looked after child,” and are recorded by local authorities.

The government says the figures published on 25 May are no longer considered “experimental” and are the first “official” statistics since the Department for Education (DfE) began rolling the reports out four years ago.

However, the statistics should still be treated with a great deal of caution. This extract from the report explains why:

“The Department [for Education] considers these statistics to be an accurate account of the number of serious incidents that local authorities have notified to the Panel. However, whilst reporting has improved in recent years, the Department is aware that, in some instances, not all incidents that meet the definition for a serious incident are notified, particularly those relating to serious harm.”

Worth noting is that incident notifications are different to actual incidents. The report says, “The data shows the number of incidents reported in the period, rather than the number of incidents that occurred in the period.”

Furthermore, what constitutes serious harm in the report is unclear, which is deeply problematic. This is what the DfE says:

“Serious harm includes (but is not limited to) serious and/or long-term impairment of a child’s mental health or intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development. It also covers impairment of physical health.”

In summary, current concerns are that the data can’t capture the exact number of genuinely serious incidents in a given period, because some incidents will be missed (which within a reasonable margin is understandable though not ideal), some (or many) reported incidents may not be valid, and the definition of serious harm is vague and could be casting a much wider net than it should.

It’s also really important for us to mention that data from the same department tells us that In the last five years (2017-2021) there were an average of 58 child deaths by assault or “undetermined intent” a year in the UK, while an average of 54 children a year (from 2014 to 2017) suffered non-fatal serious harm.

While any number of children drying or being harmed is too many, the stark contrast between those figures and the figures in this report is worth bearing in mind.

Onto the data in the report.

The headline for us at least, is that from 2022 to 2023, 78 percent of notifications involved children who were known to an agency. The report explains that the definition of “agency” can mean that it “only includes children known to children’s social care but in other cases can include agencies such as the police, GP services, health visitors, early help, midwifery, etc.”

It adds that the percentage is “the lowest proportion in the series [the last four years].” That figure at 78 percent is shocking, regardless of any decrease.

In 2022-23, the report said that there were 456 serious incident notifications, up 14 from a year earlier, but down 42 from 2018-19. It adds that it isn’t possible to tell from the data whether the increase from 2020 to 2021 was due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were 201 incident notifications relating to child deaths, and 244 incident notifications relating to serious harm.

A section called “nature of notifications” offers a further breakdown of the kinds of reports that were made:

  • child death notifications were up 10 from a year earlier but down 26 from 2018-19 
  • serious harm notifications were up 17 from a year earlier and up 8 from 2018-19
  • serious harm remained the most common nature of incident

Once again, it is unclear what constitutes serious harm for the purposes of the report.

Some more observations from the report:

In 2022-23, under 1s remained the most common age group, accounting for 35 percent of notifications. In comparison, at 6 percent, under 1s accounted for a much smaller proportion in the latest children in need figures. During the same timeframe, boys accounted for 55 percent of all notifications.

The table below offers a look at the ages of the children involved.

From 2022 to 2023, based on notifications recorded with a known ethnicity, 3 in 10 related to children from ethnic minority groups (excluding white minorities). The majority of incidents related to children with white ethnicity.

The report holds that most “incidents” related to children living at home (7 in 10). This is followed by children living with relatives, and children in both short term and long term foster care, hospitals and then residential children’s homes.

The vast majority of children involved in recorded incidents (as opposed to occurring incidents) were not on a child protection plan, while 1 in 9 were held to be on such a plan.

The report includes a zip file with more detailed data, including a breakdown of recorded incidents for each local authority. That data holds that the two most affected areas from 2022 to 2023 were the North West, and London. The next report will be published in May 2024.

You can access the latest report in full, here.

UN tells UK government to reduce the number of children in care – Report

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has today published a scathing report about the UK government’s child rights record, which makes for embarrassing reading. Along with concerns about Britain’s child protection sector, including the disproportionate number of children in state care, the UN also urged England to ban all forms of corporal punishment.

The periodic reports are designed to track the UK’s progress in implementing child-welfare focused recommendations, policy and legislation. The UK has ratified several pieces of legislation which focus on children’s rights, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The report covers all forms of violence against children.

While the committee welcomed some improvements, including the prohibition of marriage under 18 years of age in England and Wales, the lowering of the voting age to 16 years in Wales and the prohibition of corporal punishment in Scotland and Jersey, its 23 page report was devoted almost entirely to serious concerns about the ways in which the UK is failing to protect children and uphold their rights.

Before we get into the concerns the UN raised about children’s social care in England and Wales, it’s worth setting out some of the key recommendations in the committee’s report. These included:

  • Developing mandatory child-rights impact assessment procedures for legislation and policies relevant to children in England, Northern Ireland and Wales;
  • Ensuring government action plans include a special focus on children in disadvantaged situations, including asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children, children belonging to minority groups, children with disabilities, children in care, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, socioeconomically disadvantaged children and so-called “young carers” or children with caregiver responsibilities;
  • Introducing budgetary allocations for children in disadvantaged situations and ensuring that children are not affected by austerity measures;
  • Improving data collection as it relates to children in all settings, including care;
  • Giving national human rights institutions and/or Children’s Commissioners, appropriate powers to monitor children’s rights and to receive, investigate and address complaints by children in a child-friendly manner;
  • Adopting a national strategy for awareness-raising of children’s rights among the public, and promote the active involvement of children in public outreach activities;
  • Providing confidential, child-friendly and independent complaints mechanisms in schools, alternative care settings, foster care systems, mental health settings and detention for reporting all forms of violence, abuse, discrimination and other violations of their rights, and raise awareness among children of their right to file a complaint under existing mechanisms;
  • Expanding the types of support provided under the legal aid budget;
  • Ensuring children have access to officials working with children in the justice system who have been adequately trained on children’s rights and child-friendly proceedings.

There’s a huge amount of bold type in this report, which has been done to show the government that the concerns are not only serious but also need to be addressed immediately.

The concerns themselves cover racism, homelessness, poverty, restricting a child’s right to demonstrate, maltreatment of disabled children, the use of restraints on children, the use of stop and search on children, restrictions on gender identity, restrictive voting age laws, the asylum process, maltreatment, child mortality rates, child deaths, child protection, lack of support for care leavers, and much, much more.

Children’s social care, which the UN calls “alternative care” has its own section in the report, which is entitled, “Family environment and alternative care.”

The committee said it was “deeply concerned” about “the large number of children in alternative care, including in unregulated accommodations such as hotels, and unnecessary or frequent transfers of alternative care or changes in social workers assigned to children; the placement of children, including children in situations of vulnerability, in secure care and residential care homes, sometimes amounting to deprivation of liberty and insufficient support services for children living in and leaving alternative care.”

The UN goes on to urge the UK government to reduce the number of children in care without delay, to provide community-based care options for children who cannot stay with their families, and to “facilitate the reintegration of children into their families and communities whenever possible.”

In relation to children’s social care, the committee said it “remained seriously concerned about, the high prevalence of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, gender-based violence and other forms of violence against children, including in alternative care, and insufficient measures to investigate such cases and bring perpetrators to justice,” and “Inadequate resources allocated to related services for child victims.”

The committee goes on to make several, urgent recommendations, including:

  • Ensuring that child protection systems take a child rights-based approach in preventing and addressing cases of abuse and neglect, including psychological violence; that social services and other mechanisms for identifying and supporting children at risk of violence as well as child victims of violence are adequately resourced; and that child victims are fully recognized as victims and have access to community based, trauma care and child-sensitive support services;
  • Developing measures aimed at preventing violence against children in alternative care, children with disabilities, asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children and children belonging to minority groups;
  • Ensuring that the principle of the best interests of the child is consistently applied in all policies, programmes and legislative, administrative and judicial proceedings affecting children, including in relation to placement in alternative care;
  • Conducting an independent inquiry into the unexpected deaths of children in alternative care, custody, mental health care and the military, and ensure the regular collection and publication of disaggregated data on child deaths in all institutional settings;
  • Ensuring the right of all children, including younger children, children with disabilities and children in care, to express their views and to have them taken into account in all decisions affecting them, including in courts and relevant judicial proceedings and regarding domestic violence, custody, placement in alternative care, health, including mental health treatment, education, justice, migration and asylum;
  • Ensuring that all relevant professionals working with and for children systematically receive appropriate training on the right of the child to be heard and to have his or her opinions taken into account;
  • Investigating all cases of abuse and maltreatment of children in alternative care and health settings, particularly among children with disabilities, adequately sanction perpetrators and provide reparation to victims;
  • Ensuring that children are heard in decisions affecting them in alternative care placement throughout their stay;
  • Strengthening measures, including through increased funding, aimed at providing education, skills, housing and opportunities for independent living for children leaving alternative care and;
  • The provision of advocacy services for all children in care as an “opt-out”, rather than an “opt-in”, service.

It’s a dense report, with a lot of troubling observations, but worth a read if you have the time and the patience.

The report can be accessed here.

Roundup of the latest child protection cases

The news outlet Local Government Lawyer has rounded up two recent child protection cases which offer some important insights.

The first case, Re M (Adoption – notification of birth father) [2023] EWFC 17, is about a birth father’s right to be notified before an adoption takes place.

The second case, Re P, H-L (Children) (Mobile Phone Extraction) (Rev1) [2023] EWCA Civ 206, offers guidance on the correct procedure for gathering relevant mobile phone material in care proceedings.

The article and the analyses of both cases were written by Jennifer Frost, a barrister at St Mary’s Family Law Chambers, in Nottingham.

This is the background to the first case, Re M (Adoption – notification of birth father):

“A 21 month old boy (“M”) was placed with prospective adopters when he was a day old. M’s mother C was twenty-one when she gave birth to him, she was not in a relationship with the birth father. C did not wish the birth father to know of the pregnancy, of M’s birth, or to have any say in the very difficult decisions she made for M.

C says she was supported in her decision not to tell the birth father about M by social workers, who told her that the decision was hers to make, she did not have to disclose the birth father’s identity, and her wish for confidentiality would be respected. Both domestic and European law in this area stress the importance of engagement of the wider family in the adoption process.

Any request for an adoption that excludes a father or close family members should be closely scrutinised. The local authority could not compel C to disclose the birth father’s identity but did have a duty both to critically analyse C’s reasons for refusing to disclose, and if considered appropriate, to make its own independent enquiries as to the birth father’s identity.

The local authority did not explore with C the reasons for her refusal in any detail, did not take any steps independently to find out the birth father’s identity, and did not seek advice from its legal department as to how to proceed. On 11 March 2022 the prospective adopters applied to the Court to adopt M. The first hearing was listed on 6 June 2022 at which the court declined to make the adoption order, the Court could not do so without first having considered the question of whether or not the birth father should be notified.”

This is the background to the second case, Re P, H-L (Children) (Mobile Phone Extraction), which comes straight from the judgment:

The care proceedings concern two children: S, a girl now aged 16 and J, a boy aged 11 years. The allegations which are made against the father and which the local authority contend will support findings that the threshold criteria is satisfied, relate to alleged physical abuse of J and alleged sexual abuse of S between March 2020 and June 2021.

The allegations of sexual abuse first came to light on 21 July 2021 when S made a complaint to a teacher at school. On 22 July 2021, S participated in an ABE interview where she repeated her allegations. The following day, the father handed himself into the police, a warrant having been issued for his arrest.

The police did not carry out a mobile phone extraction from S’s phone as part of their investigations. On the information before the Court, it is impossible to have an entirely reliable account of the history of, who and when any individual had access to, S’s mobile phone. What is however clear is that, as of July 2021, S did not have her phone, it having been confiscated by her father or step-mother.

S was also unable to gain access to her social media accounts as her step-mother had changed her passwords. S’s father, it would appear, started to use the confiscated phone but he subsequently told the police that he has ‘no luck with phones’ and that he had ‘dropped the phone’ the week before his arrest which ‘broke it’, meaning he threw it away.

No attempt to access any phone or social media records which might relate to S and her allegations was thereafter made by the police, notwithstanding that it was known from an early stage that S’s first accounts of the alleged abuse had been made through mobile phone messages. S told the police that the messages would be on her phone but that she had not had it in her possession since February 2021. The father also knew this to be the case and made reference to this fact in his police interview.

On 4 December 2021, the police notified S that they would not be pursuing criminal charges against her father.

Care proceedings were issued on 10 February 2022. Absent any significant police investigation, the family court was faced with considerable difficulties in obtaining relevant evidence. This Court was told that 10 orders had been made for police disclosure and that statements had had to be obtained in the family proceedings from a number of S’s friends in the absence of any police investigation, consent to do so having been obtained from the parents of the young people. This unsatisfactory state of affairs meant that, 16 months after S had made her allegations, the court was still making fruitless orders for disclosure.

Shortly before a case management hearing on 17 November 2022, S produced information from her phone including a Snapchat video of the father and J. As a consequence, the judge made a case management order which included a requirement that: ‘If [S] is in possession of any further evidence on social media, particularly in the form of text messages, that is relevant to the issues before the court, these should be disclosed by [S] and served on the children’s solicitor 4pm on by (sic) 23.11.22’. This was the only case management order which referred to the disclosure of messages. No further messages were provided by S before the fact finding began.

The fact finding hearing therefore began on 28 November 2022 without any police disclosure or detailed evidence by way of text or social media communications between S and G, who was then 17 and who had been her boyfriend in July 2021, or between S and various friends.

S gave oral evidence on 1 and 2 December 2022. She spoke about her separate communications with G, her father and her friends. She produced material from her phone including a video clip of her father allegedly mistreating J.

Inevitably, this disclosure from the witness box stalled the proceedings as consideration was given as to how to manage this new material. Following her oral evidence, S made contact with G who agreed to restore S to his contacts/friends. This allowed S to gain access to her communications with G which included allegations that her father had abused her. S also gained access to her messages between herself and her friends.

The Court has not been told, and it may be unknown, how it was that S was now able to access all these messages and her social media accounts. However it came about, S spent many hours that evening in the company of the Guardian taking screenshots of various messages. Inevitably, the results, although done with the best of intentions, were unsatisfactory.

In addition to S’s disclosure of relevant social media communications, the father attached to his witness statement dated 19.7.202, messages between himself and S retrieved from the discarded phone. Once again, it is not clear to this Court in what circumstances that had been possible, it having been suggested by the father that communications made on that phone were irretrievable.

Over the next few days, the parties and the court were given tranches of evidence relating to messages between S and G and her friends. On 9 December 2022 the father made a formal application under Part 25 Family Procedure Rules 2010 (“FPR 2010”) for permission to instruct Evidence Matters to carry out a forensic digital analysis of S’s mobile device and social media platforms.

The application related to three separate tranches of material:
i) Communications between S and G. There was no opposition to this. Even though G was not (then) 18, the court and parties approached his position as having ‘implicitly’ given consent.

ii) Communications between S and the father. There was no dispute in relation to these communications.

iii) Communications between S and three identified friends, two of whom had filed witness statements. The Guardian objected to the making of an order in relation to these messages saying, firstly, that analysis of this material was a ‘fishing expedition’ on the part of the father and, secondly, that it reversed the standard of proof resulting in S having to disprove the father’s case.

Further, the Guardian argued, the examination and disclosure of this material was a gross interference with the Article 8 rights of the friends and disclosure was not a proportionate interference with these rights. The local authority and the Guardian submitted that the consent of the parents of S’s friends must be sought and obtained before any work could be carried out by Evidence Matters.

You can access the full article and the analysis here.

The latest

Welcome to another, shorter, week.

These are the latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Photo by Victoria Akvarel on Pexels.com

‘It was Like a Prison Cell for Me’ Children in Care, Reunited with Parents in New Initiative, Speak Out 

As some of our readers will know, during the day Researching Reform works as a child rights journalist and our latest story is about a groundbreaking new project which is reuniting children in the care system with their birth families.

The project is run by Coventry City Council. The story includes the personal experiences of mothers and their children being reunited, and how this project and the social work teams inside it, work to support rather than judge families. The project is starting to be rolled out across other councils, and families can ask to be referred to the scheme.

The piece is free to read on Byline Times and can be accessed here.

For those on Twitter who feel this new initiative would benefit people in your network, you can access and tweet or share the link here.

We would like to thank the mothers and the children who spoke with us, and shared their stories with us, and the team at Coventry City Council who were open to discussing the challenges inside the system and are trying to change social work practice.

Mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse: call for evidence

The UK government has launched a consultation which would like views on how implementing a duty to report child sexual abuse in England is likely to affect children, organisations, and affected workforces and volunteers; and how different aspects could be implemented.

In the consultation’s introduction, the government says, “Investigations undertaken by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse documented unacceptable cases of organisations and institutions failing to protect those in their care from child sexual abuse (Lambeth Council, Residential Schools, Child Sexual Exploitation in Organised Networks, and more). This must not be allowed to happen again.”

The call for evidence, which is limited to England, follows a recommendation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) to implement a duty to report suspected child abuse. Members of the public have been invited to share their evidence, along with:

  1. Persons working in regulated activity in relation to children (under the Safeguarding and Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, as amended).
  2. Volunteers who would be undertaking regulated activity in relation to children if they were unsupervised.
  3. Anyone working with children in any capacity.
  4. Persons working in a position of trust (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 ).
  5. Police officers.
  6. Local authorities; including children’s social care workers
  7. Welsh Government.
  8. NHS England, Directors of Public Health and Integrated Care Boards
  9. Inspectorates and regulators.
  10. Education settings and workforce, including Early Years and Further Education.
  11. Children’s activity settings and workforces (children’s sports, drama, arts, and music clubs)
  12. Civil Society and Youth organisations (charities, voluntary, community and social enterprises).
  13. Academics and research institutions such as What Works Centres
  14. Professional organisations such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the BMA etc.

The IICSA’s recommendation, which is number 13 in the IICSA’s report says:

Mandatory reporting

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government and Welsh Government introduce legislation which places certain individuals – ‘mandated reporters’ – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse where they:

  • receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; or
  • witness a child being sexually abused; or
  • observe recognised indicators of child sexual abuse.

The following persons should be designated ‘mandated reporters’:

  • any person working in regulated activity in relation to children (under the Safeguarding and Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, as amended);
  • any person working in a position of trust (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as amended); and
  • police officers.

For the purposes of mandatory reporting, ‘child sexual abuse’ should be interpreted as any act that would be an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 where the alleged victim is a child under the age of 18.

Where the child is aged between 13 and under 16 years old, a report need not be made where the mandated reporter reasonably believes that:

  • the relationship between the parties is consensual and not intimidatory, exploitative or coercive; and
  • the child has not been harmed and is not at risk of being harmed; and
  • there is no material difference in capacity or maturity between the parties engaged in the sexual activity concerned, and there is a difference in age of no more than three years.

These exceptions should not, however, apply where the alleged perpetrator is in a position of trust within the meaning of the 2003 Act.

Where the child is under the age of 13, a report must always be made.

Reports should be made to either local authority children’s social care or the police as soon as is practicable.

It should be a criminal offence for mandated reporters to fail to report child sexual abuse where they:

  • are in receipt of a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; or
  • witness a child being sexually abused.

The survey for the consultation can be accessed here.

The consultation closes on Monday 14 August, 2023.

Enquiries (including requests for the paper in an alternative format) can be sent to:

IICSA Response
Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Unit
Home Office
5th Floor, Fry Building
2 Marsham Street

Email: mr_csa@homeoffice.gov.uk