Intended for healthcare professionals


Video surveillance uncovers parental child abuse

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 01 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1111
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. BMJ

    Evidence of child abuse carried out by parents has been uncovered by secret video cameras hidden in two hospitals, according to a report by Professor David Southall in which he calls for sweeping changes in Britain's approach to child protection.

    The report, which is to be published in Pediatrics on 3 November, is based on covert video surveillance of 39 children admitted to hospital after recurrent episodes of losing consciousness, going blue, or stopping breathing. There was strong suspicion that the children were in serious danger of life threatening abuse by a parent or step parent.

    Parents were secretly filmed and were seen on film attempting to suffocate, kicking, punching, and poisoning their children, who were aged from 2 months to 44 months. The covert surveillance, which was carried out at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London and at North Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke on Trent between 1986 and 1994, uncovered deliberate suffocation in 30 of the children. The video evidence led to care orders in 38 of the 39 cases and to 33 criminal prosecutions. After the abuse was detected 23 parents or step parents were identified by a psychiatrist as clearly having a serious personality disorder.

    None of the 39 children under surveillance died, but out of a total of 41 siblings, 12 had previously died suddenly and unexpectedly. Eleven of these deaths had been classified as the sudden infant death syndrome, but after the video surveillance, four parents admitted to suffocating eight of these siblings. The death of another sibling supposedly from gastroenteritis was investigated again after video surveillance of her sister showed poisoning and physical abuse. The sibling was found to have died from deliberate salt poisoning. Other signs of abuse were documented in the medical, social, and police records of a further 15 siblings.

    The report says that child abuse carried out by parents with a personality disorder can be extremely difficult to detect. Many parents seemed caring in the presence of professionals, but within seconds of being alone with the child they became cruel and sadistic. The report states: “A proportion of serious child abuse is inflicted by severely disturbed, deceitful but plausible parents. This abuse may be difficult to recognise, life threatening, and associated with extreme degrees of physical and mental harm that are difficult to imagine.”


    Professor David SouthallSMITH DAVIS PRESS

    Professor Southall, consultant paediatrician at North Staffordshire Hospital, said: “The United Kingdom has probably one of the best child protection systems in the world, and yet our work, as well as our clinical experience in child abuse, leads us to believe that the British philosophy, enshrined in the Children Act, of working together with parents will generally fail to protect children from this kind of abuse.” His report calls for more assertive methods of investigation and decision making.