Child abuse specialist examines lessons to be learned from death of tragic …
IT is easy to react to babies’ shocking deaths with rage, incomprehension and a search for blame.
It’s easy, at these times, for us not to think straight. But our legal system has to think straight.
Kimberley Hainey, a drug addict whose toddler son’s mummified body had been left for months in his cot in her squalid flat, has now been cleared after the Court of Appeal quashed her conviction for what was thought to be a shocking murder.
The judges overturned the verdict and criticised prosecutors for using expert witness evidence from unqualified specialists.
But the Hainey case is just the latest example in the UK, where mothers convicted of murdering their babies have been freed on appeal after a conflict of “expert” physical evidence, producing an unsatisfactory, unresolved result for everyone.
We do not know what happened to Hainey’s son Declan. We do not know how or why he died.
We do not know Kimberley Hainey’s mental state or whether she can now be trusted to be a safe parent.
We do not know what role (if any) negligence by health and social workers played in this tragedy as the disappearance of a baby failed apparently to ring any alarm bells.
But expert witnesses do know their integrity and reputation will be questioned next time – and must be wondering if testifying is worth the risk in these highly emotive cases.
It was astonishing that the three judges seemed to refer to Sue Black, a professor of anatomy, as “an obvious quack doctor” though they later insisted they were not referring to a specific witness.
Respected across the world for work behalf of victims of violence and genocide, Prof Black has given vital evidence in a number of important prosecutions like that of paedophile Neil Strachan.
All the judges needed to say was that her professional opinion was disputed. Besides, she was giving an opinion about bones, where she is indeed a specialist.
Relying so heavily on expert evidence, then overturning it and blaming these same experts simply ignores other important aspects of these cases. It guarantees black and white verdicts – the mother goes from innocent to guilty and then back to innocent.
But does either verdict really fit? For instance, it seems likely that Hainey’s son was neglected during his too short life. But was that neglect fatal? We don’t know and we never will because our black and white system demanded a black and white verdict.
We can ask, however, would a mentally well woman, a woman fit to stand trial and be sentenced to many years behind bars, really leave her dead child in his cot, in her own flat, for months on end?
Sometimes people with very troubled history and traumatic childhoods are affected in ways that can make them unsafe.
Many have problems with addictions, trying desperately to blot out the memories and nightmares. A small number of mothers also react in different ways to dissociated acts they may be unaware of.
I don’t know if these things applied to Kimberley Hainey. I am convinced that in our courts, the possible effects of very traumatic life events should be taken just as much into account by expert witnesses as conflicting evidence about a child’s bones.
We need to ask why murder charges, as opposed to culpable homicide or lesser charges, are even brought in such cases.
And why the ridiculous situation where infanticide, which allows more options in sentencing – including psychological help – can only be invoked if the mother admits killing her own baby.
That’s the last thing most mothers would ever admit.
Either issues around or after childbirth can affect a mother’s behaviour and mental state, or they can’t. It shouldn’t depend on how the mother pleads.
These cases demand an urgent rethink.
Before the next tragic example – and sadly there is bound to be one – we must find much better ways to ensure justice is done and seen to be done.
And better ways to ensure the safety of some of our most vulnerable young children.