Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When past mental health diagnoses become a weapon

I've been trying to write this post for some time, but it's really hard to exactly express what I'm feeling, so I'll just list it: anger (and a whole lot of it), disgust, fear, anger, incredulity, outrage, shock, sadness, and more (righteous) anger.

A woman, Fran Lyon, whose website can be found here detailing what's going on, who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder when she was a teen (which is ridiculous b/c you're not supposed to be diagnosed with a personality disorder until you're over 18) is being threatened with having her baby taken away from her, 7 years after her diagnosis, and 6 years since her therapist has said she has recovered from her symptoms. (For a breakdown of BPD look to my old post found here. Read this first if you know little or nothing about BPD/ERD.)

From Writhe Safely (link at bottom):
A man rapes a woman, her resulting PTSD is misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder.

Women who have been raped are traumatized and eligible for the non-punishing dx of PTSD, which sits on AXIS I of treatable mental illness.

BPD is an AXIS II diagnosis, the AXIS referring to disorders of the personality, that are by definition lifelong and untreatable.

Daily Mail article (Reproduced in full here with my own emphasis added).
The daughter of teachers and with a glittering academic future, Fran was delighted when she became pregnant. But social services discovered the illness she thought she'd put behind her - and will confiscate her daughter when she is born...

Fran Lyon is due to give birth to her first child - a daughter she has already named Molly - on January 3. But the prospect, far from being one of joyous anticipation, fills her with a dread that keeps her awake at night.

It's not because Fran doesn't want the child. She does. Desperately. And not because she is frightened of the pain of labour. She is prepared for that.

It is what happens afterwards that fuels Fran's anxiety. And there can be no preparation for that pain.

For within 30 minutes of birth, barring any medical complications, Molly will be handed by doctors to social workers. They have instructions to take away Fran's newborn baby and place her in foster care.

The 22-year-old will then be transferred from the maternity wing to a gynaecological ward, because Northumberland Council has decided that Fran - who has never harmed anyone in her life - is potentially a risk to other mothers and their babies.

Fran has no idea if she will be able to touch her baby, even for a minute, before leaving hospital alone, or if she will ever get her daughter back. Her biggest fear is that she won't, and that Molly will be put up for adoption.

'It is incredibly upsetting not knowing if I will be allowed even to hold my baby,' says Fran, a charity worker. 'Until social services became involved in my life, I was having a normal pregnancy and was full of excitement.

'They have taken away what should be the most precious time in my life - and I will never get that back. I'm already in love with my baby. I can feel her moving, I talk to her. I've bought her baby books and clothes. You just can't undo that attachment.'

Fran is an intelligent and articulate woman. She has nine A- starred GCSEs, five grade A A-levels and is in the third year of a neuroscience degree at Edinburgh University - which she is completing at home in Hexham, Northumberland.

However, what concerns Hexham Children's Services, which is part of Northumberland Council, is Fran's medical history.

Having had a difficult relationship with her parents, who are teachers in good state schools, from the age of 15, she started selfharming. Fran spent three years - on and off - in psychiatric hospitals.

Her problems appear to have begun when she was raped by an acquaintance at the age of 14. Diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, she was discharged from a therapeutic facility in 2002, where she had spent 13 months, and spent nine months as an outpatient.

Today, she needs no medication and, according to her former psychiatrist, Dr Stella Newrith, 'has made a significant recovery to the point where her difficulties are indistinguishable from those of much of the general population'.

In a letter to Northumberland Council, Dr Newrith, who treated Fran for a year when she was 16 and has known her for many years, stated: 'There has never been any clinical evidence to suggest that Fran would put herself or others at risk, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest she would put a child at risk of emotional, physical or sexual harm.'

Furthermore, she said: 'I would view the removal of Fran's baby as an extraordinarily heavy-handed gesture. It is also my professional opinion that doing so would be an infringement of Fran's human rights, as it would be much the same as removing a child from someone from the general population.'

Yet on August 16, a child protection case conference recommended that Fran's baby should be taken away at birth - a decision based in part on the contents of a letter from consultant paediatrician Dr Martin Ward Platt, who has never met Fran and could not be present at the meeting.

In his letter, Dr Ward Platt states that 'even in the absence of psychological assessment, if the professionals were concerned on the evidence available that [this woman] probably does fabricate or induce illness, there would be no option but to put the baby into foster care at birth pending a post-natal forensic psychological assessment'.

However, he warned that it was necessary first to establish as far as possible whether or not Fran does suffer from this illness - something Fran claims they have failed to do.

Fran has never been diagnosed with this condition, yet she has nevertheless been deemed by Northumberland Council as someone likely to suffer from Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, a controversial and unproven condition in which a parent - usually the mother - makes up or induces an illness in her child to draw attention to herself.

And so, unless a judicial review next week rules in Fran's favour, her baby Molly will almost certainly be taken away at birth.

'I can understand why they might have concerns about my past, but the speed with which they have come to this conclusion, despite the evidence of my own psychiatrist, is terrifying,' she says.

'I was at the case conference and it lasted just ten minutes.

'This letter from Dr Ward Platt was given to me just five minutes before the meeting started, and when it was produced, the chairman said there was no point - in the light of what this letter stated - even considering the other evidence which I wanted to present, which was letters of support from psychiatrists.

'I think they simply panicked, and when people panic they make, in my opinion, bad judgments. I left that meeting numb with shock. I'd had absolutely no time to digest the letter or argue my case, and I was so horrified at what they'd said that I just couldn't even begin to respond to it.

'I have never harmed anyone in my life. I have no criminal convictions. I believe I can be a good mother to Molly - but they are not even prepared to give me a chance to prove that.

'I have offered to stay in a mother and baby unit after Molly's birth for as long as they want, and to be monitored. I would be prepared to stay there for 18 years if it meant I could be with my baby. But that, it seems, is not even an option.'

Fran's case is far from unusual. Two thousands babies under one year old were taken from their parents last year by social services - three times the number ten years ago. Critics believe councils are doing this to help meet government adoption 'targets'.

Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, chairman of the Justice for Families campaign group, certainly thinks so.

'How can it be in the child's best interests to take a baby away from its mother at birth? The reason why they do it is because it's much harder to take away a baby the longer it spends with its mother, and a healthy newborn baby is so much easier to find adoptive parents for.

'It is estimated that 97 per cent of babies taken away from their mothers at birth, on the basis that the mothers are "capable of emotional abuse", are never returned to them - and that is simply scandalous.

'Of course, there are cases where it is right to do so, but the whole public family law system is corrupt because of the secrecy which surrounds it. Decisions are based on opinion and conjecture, rather than fact and evidence.

'What does Fran's case tell us? That no woman who has been raped or had mental health problems can be allowed to have a baby, even years later?

'What could be more traumatic than for a mother to have her baby taken away at birth? It's monstrous. That, in itself, can cause mental health problems, which is then used by social services against the mother as a reason not to return the baby. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

'There has been a massive increase in younger babies being taken into care, before there is even any evidence of harm - and you have to ask why that is.'

Despite her own troubled past, Fran Lyon is convinced she can be a good parent, and is desperate to prove that. From the start, she has been open and honest with social workers about her medical history, but she feels this has been used against her.

Although she describes her childhood as 'difficult', she refuses to elaborate, other than to say that she is close to her mother and younger brother, but has no contact with her father.

The catalyst for her severe mental health problems was, she says, the rape she suffered when she was 14.

She told police that she was attacked while working as a Saturday volunteer in a charity shop in Northampton, when the shop's founder - a middle-aged man - drove her to an empty warehouse supposedly to pick up supplies for the shop.

When Fran reported the rape, he was interviewed by police. Three more women claiming they, too, had been attacked came forward and agreed to testify against him. However, in 2001 the man killed himself before the Crown Prosecution Service could decide whether to proceed.

'After the rape, I became clinically depressed,' says Fran. 'I lost a huge amount of weight and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after trying to kill myself with an overdose of tablets. It wasn't a cry for help; I wanted to die because of what he had done to me.'

She spent the next three years, on and off, in residential psychiatric hospitals in Oxford, Nottingham and London after being diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, in her case characterised by self-harming, instability and suicidal tendencies.

For the final 13 months, Fran went to a therapeutic residential clinic, where she attended individual psychotherapy sessions and group analysis before being discharged as an outpatient.

By the time she was 18, she appeared to have put her problems behind her.

She started to flourish, taking five A-levels at Orpington College in Kent and applying to study neuroscience at Edinburgh University.

At the same time, she worked for two mental health charities, Borderline and Personality Plus. It was through that job, two years ago, that she met the man who is the father of Molly.

'Of course, I was worried when I fell pregnant. I wondered how we would cope as a couple, because we weren't living together,' says Fran.

'But once that wore off, I was excited. I would go shopping with my mum to baby departments, buying books and looking at prams.'

But a few weeks ago, all normality ended. Social services suddenly became involved when Fran phoned the police after what she describes as a 'disturbing incident' with her partner. Fran's relationship with him ended immediately.

'The case was referred to social services and I was interviewed by two social workers, who said from the beginning that they would have to look at the whole family, not just one person in isolation,' says Fran.

'At that first meeting, they asked about my concerns regarding the baby's father, but then it became clear through their questions that their investigation was centred on me. I have never made a secret of my mental health problems. I felt I had nothing to hide.'

Fran was co- operative, she says, because she naively thought children's services would offer her help and support. She was stunned when she received a letter informing her that a child protection case conference would be held on August 16.

'That's when I became frightened and thought for the first time: "Are they going to take my baby away from me?"

'I couldn't believe how everything had happened so quickly. When you are up against a big system such as social services, it is very easy to feel overrun and overwhelmed.'

Realising the seriousness of the situation, Fran instructed a solicitor and contacted her former psychiatrist, Dr Stella Newrith, who offered her full support.

A second psychiatrist, who Fran knew through her charity work, offered a character reference stating: 'I have no doubt that her diligence and capacity, particularly in dealing with complex emotional situations, will stand her in good stead for the rigours of parenthood.'

Yet these testimonials, Fran says, were never even read out at the conference after Dr Ward Platt's letter was produced.

Northumberland Council insists that two highly experienced doctors - another consultant paediatrician and a medical consultant - attended the case conference.

Neither they, nor anyone else present - including Fran solicitor - made any objection. Feeling stunned and intimidated by what she had heard, she felt unable to speak out.

Everything she wanted to say will now be heard - with the help of a new solicitor who specialises in such cases - at appeal.

According to MP John Hemming, Fran should win her case; but there is no guarantee that she will. Both he and Fran are particularly concerned that last week social workers contacted the psychiatrist who provided a character reference for Fran. They believe this was done with the intention of 'pressurising' the witness into withdrawing his support, and undermining Fran's appeal.

It was seemingly suggested by a social worker to the doctor in question that Fran had given incorrect details about her health to hospital staff: in short, doubt was cast on the reality of an ectopic pregnancy Fran suffered on Christmas Eve two years ago.

'Is it ethical for social workers to go behind my back and speak to my witnesses, discussing my private confidential medical history and suggesting to them that I might have made things up?' says Fran.

'I did have an ectopic pregnancy, and I have the scars to prove that I had abdominal surgery.' Mr Hemming goes further, describing such behaviour as akin to witness nobbling. He also claims it is not uncommon for social workers to pressurise witnesses - a punishable practice in the criminal courts.

'There is a culture in which the end is seen to justify the means, and sometimes the means employed would not be tolerated in any other court of law,' he says. 'Yet if anyone tries to speak out, they are guilty of contempt of court. The whole family court system, because of the secrecy which surrounds it, is vulnerable to bad practice. Social workers are under pressure not to lose cases.' Northumberland Council, while legally prevented from speaking about individual cases, insists there is nothing sinister in their actions.

A spokeswoman said it was the court which would make the ultimate decision, after hearing legal representation from both sides. 'Safeguarding children is our top priority,' said a spokeswoman. 'We speak to all sides without bias or pressure. 'We would welcome a review of the family court arrangements, and support transparency, as long as this is in the best interests of the children.

'Safeguarding arrangements have been praised as good following a rigorous inspection by a number of Government departments. It was specifically noted that "good action was taken to enable parents to keep their children safe in the home and the community. Our duty to safeguard children is our only motivation, and we strive to keep children with their families wherever possible, or extended families if that is not possible.

'We do not have numerical targets for adoption; nor have we received any financial rewards in relation to adoption figures.'

As for Fran, the final four months of her pregnancy are filled with stress and uncertainty, and the nagging terror that her worst nightmare will become a reality and her baby daughter will be snatched away from her. 'Some days I feel positive,' she says quietly.

'But others I feel totally overwhelmed. All I am asking for is a chance to prove that I will be a good mother.'

Sadly, that wish may not be granted her.

Now I was diagnosed as BPD a few years ago, not by my therapist who believes that I only have severe PTSD whose symptoms mimic those of BPD, but by a psychiatrist I had to see in order to get meds. Now in my disability file held by the government I will always be labeled as BPD. (Thanks, doc.) As Fran's case shows, this can be very dangerous. Now I do not plan on having children, but my friends not only trust me with their children, but encourage us to spend a lot of time together (mostly b/c I seem to be everyone's favourite crazy auntie). The thought that because I have been diagnosed with BPD that I should be a danger to children is ridiculous. BPD is characterised by self-harm, not with harming others. I wish I could express more of how I feel about this situation, but I am just too overwhelmed with disgust and anger to be eloquent.

In the News:
Journal Live article
Telegraph article
Sky News article

From the blogosphere:
The Roadkill Diaries' Tony Blair's Britain
Writhe Safely's How Psychiatry Blames the Victim
Uncool's Fran Lyon (also a hat tip to Lina for making me aware of the situation)
The Trouble with Spikol's Horrifying Violation of Human Rights
*NEW* S511's Link Roundup

I will be updating this as more blogs and news items appear, and I will have another blog when the court decision is made. I'm hoping for the best, but I'm not holding my breath since society seems to think that anyone diagnosed with a mental health disorder is less then human.


MaggieH of Against Pornography said...

LC wrote:
"The thought that because I have been diagnosed with BPD that I should be a danger to children is ridiculous. BPD is characterised by self-harm, not with harming others. I wish I could express more of how I feel about this situation, but I am just too overwhelmed with disgust and anger to be eloquent."

I empathize with you, Lost Clown. Making the claim that women who were diagnosed with BPD can be a danger to children is so stupid and ridiculous. It makes me mad too.

Also, I've read your other old post which you linked to this one and, honestly, I can identify with some of the stuff that you wrote there and here. Having been sexually abused by my first (porn-using) boyfriend when I was younger, I wonder if I haven't got PTSD myself coz I had blanked out the abusive experience for nine years before it suddenly came back to my memory recently (I wrote about it on my website).

I wanted to ask you: do people with PTSD sometimes take Valium sometimes to be able to get a good sleep? You don't have to answer that question if you don't want to, of course (it's entirely up to you). I just wondered, that's all, because of some of the stuff that you wrote that made me think about me and some of the habits I have sometimes.

I can tell you I would never harm anybody, that's for sure, and certainly not children. I'm sure you wouldn't either and I'm also sure Fran wouldn't either. This is so ridiculous and awful that those people make such assumptions about women with PTSD.



lost clown said...

I've often been prescribed Valium or a medication from the same family when I go to the hospital for anxiety to help me sleep (generally for me to get to the hospital I have to be up for at least 1 day and usually go after 2 in the morning)

I take seroquel to go to sleep, or else I can't. Seroquel is used mostly for schizophrenia, but it makes me sleep so it's good enough for me.

Terry said...

How awful. That's always been my nightmare fear, that someone could use my medical history to take my children away. Even though the youngest is 17 now, the fear doesn't go away.

This may be happening in the UK but I don't believe the situation is any better in the US.

hexyhex said...

Oh, god. How awful.

lost clown said...

Neither do I, Terry. Neither do I.

MaggieH of Against Pornography said...

Thank you, Lost Clown, for your posts. Great readings, they are very helpful.

Poor Fran, though. This must me so awful for her having to go through this kind of situation!

The Blogmaster said...

They just keep thinking up more and more reasons.

Chloƫ said...

Tis is disgusting in two ways to me. First the barbaric way this woman has been treated.

secondly this is the first I have heard of this case. I live in the Uk i read newspapers and i watch the news. When you compare this with the insane amount of coverage the father's 4 justice campaign got it's terrible.

It seems to me she a victim of double stigma , mental illness and even worse being a woman with mental illness.

delphyne said...

The Munchausen's industry strikes again. Don't they know it is a discredited diagnosis? There is something fishy going on here if you ask me.

S511 said...

I'm glad to see more people who are angry about this situation.
The Social Services gained entry into Fran Lyons life through an incident when she felt unsafe and called the police. When child protection is an issue the 'holistic' approach means the Social workers go over all involved with a fine tooth comb and, unfortunately for Fran and as near as I can make out..., because she is not ashamed of past mental health issues and volunteers to help Mental Health Charities, the combination of her past mental health and a mix of ignorance and well meaning inquiries into Fran’s suitability as a parent spiralled uncontrollably. The SS asked (paid) for an expert opinion on the subject and that expert (who's opinion was the opposite of all who treated Fran) decided she was a risk.

Drs/Psychs can hedge their bets with 'suspicions' of 'possible' harm where there's no proof.
They get paid and can't get criticised for unsubstantiated suspicions as long as they are in 'good faith'

If any of this is inaccurate reporting fact of the case I’m sorry. There are links on my blog to news stories regarding Fran and False Allegation Websites and Forums that any parent should visit at least once lest the shadow of suspicion fall on them too.

sparkle said...

This is terrifying. Moreover it isn’t from some far flung obscure place. This is my local council we are talking about and I have actually worked for this very Social Services department. And this blog is the first I have heard about it - can you believe it! There has been nothing in the local papers or the local news.

About 20 years ago a neighbouring Social services experienced the “Marietta Higgs Scandal” where Higgs, a paediatrician using an unproven diagnostic technique led to hundreds of parents in the North-East of England being wrongly accused of molesting their own children.
Now this! Totally outrageous.

sparkle said...

Sorry if that was a tad incoherent. I’m going to make some enquiries and reading up tomorrow.

sohbet chat said...

We all probably know plenty of able-bodied economically secure/wealthy individuals who should never be allowed near children, much less become parents due to their inability to see children as anything more than ego-boosting accessories to their trendy lives or their tendency to emotionally and/or physically abuse their children. People like some co-workers I’ve had or in extreme cases…Joel Steinberg.

If they are allowed to have children without much social disapproval and scorn, why shouldn’t that right be acknowledged and honored for disabled individuals….many of whom would probably be far more loving and caring parents?

thank you

Sonia said...

thank you so much for this post. I'm new to your blog.

I strongly believe that there is so much trauma in this world/society that people are given diagnoses to get them out of the way/shut them up because the consequence of the irresponsible, outrageous way this world lives and treats one another is too much and we haven't cultivated the tools to really heal it.

you are so damn right.