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Psychiatrist vilified by UK newspapers is cleared of all charges

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g1893 (Published 03 March 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1893
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

A psychiatrist who was accused in the tabloid press of wrongly diagnosing mental illness in mothers so that social services could take their babies away has been cleared of all charges by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service.

George Hibbert, dubbed “the doctor who broke up families” in a front page story by the Daily Mail, ran Tadpole Cottage, a private centre in Wiltshire where mothers were sent with their babies for assessment of their parenting abilities.

In a case that echoed that of the child protection paediatrician David Southall, the newspaper took up the cases of mothers whose babies had been taken into care through the courts on Hibbert’s recommendation. The Daily Telegraph also ran similar stories.

The case took five and a half years to reach a hearing, at which the tribunal service panel found all the factual allegations unproved, meaning that there was no need to go on to consider whether the psychiatrist’s practice was impaired.

The panel noted that the expert witness for the General Medical Council, Margaret Oates, had confirmed under questioning by Hibbert’s counsel, Martin Spencer QC, that the criticisms she had made of his conduct “were matters which could have been dealt with locally, between professional colleagues, and need not have been brought before the [Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service].”

Oates admitted to the panel that she was not an expert on “the dual role of a doctor who had a duty as a psychiatrist to his patient but who also had an overriding duty to the family court, having been instructed to provide an expert opinion,” said panel chairwoman Carrie Ryan-Palmer.

The hearing concerned the case of Miss A, who sold her story to the Daily Mail through the website www.cash4yourstory.co.uk. She had “a long and complex history of mental illness, familial difficulties, alcohol abuse and personal problems,” said Ryan-Palmer.

The consensus of psychiatrists was that Miss A had unstable personality disorder, borderline type. Hibbert gave her a diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder.

Her four previous children were taken into care, and the family court ordered that she go to Tadpole Cottage in 2007 with her fifth baby to assess whether she was fit to care for him. At the centre she displayed disruptive and threatening behaviour, threatening to “smash the place up” if she was made to stay.

Hibbert recommended that the assessment be terminated, and Miss A left with her solicitor, leaving the baby behind. The next day she was admitted to St George’s Hospital claiming to be suicidal, although she later admitted that she was not.

The tribunal cleared Hibbert of telling a nurse at St George’s that Miss A had left of her own accord when he knew this to be untrue and of submitting a final report to the court that did not provide an accurate account of Miss A’s discharge from Tadpole Cottage. He was also cleared of failing to provide a care plan in advance of her discharge, and the panel accepted that he had no duty to provide one. Two other charges were dropped by the GMC.

The baby was put into foster care. He was later returned to her after another assessment elsewhere but was subsequently taken into care permanently. Miss A’s treating psychiatrist before her admission to Tadpole Cottage, who had encouraged her to complain to the GMC, gave evidence, but the panel “did not find her to be an impressive witness.”

Hibbert, 61, has retired from clinical work and had offered to give up his registration voluntarily. He said that his case showed why doctors were reluctant to undertake child protection work. “It’s a high price to pay for protecting other people’s children,” he said.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1893