- Dr Waney Squires is back to work after being branded a ‘liar’ over her views
- She questioned the validity of many cases of Shaken Baby Disorder
- After giving evidence against Lorraine Harris in 2000 for the death of her child, she spoke in her defence at a 2005 appeal
- She was struck off in March for ‘deliberately misleading’ judges in SBS cases
Dr Waney Squier is back to work at last – but cannot give evidence at court cases for three years
Dr Waney Squier is back to work at last. A world expert on babies’ brains, she relished her return this week to the hospital where she first thought the unthinkable: that hundreds of British parents over four decades have been wrongly accused of killing their children by shaking them.
After going public with this controversial view, she was considered a thorn in the side of the child protection and medical establishment, and was even accused of being an apologist for real abusers.
Early in 2010, the mild-mannered neuro-pathologist, now 68, was reported to the General Medical Council by police for ‘deliberately misleading’ judges and juries in Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) cases.
This led to a long-winded disciplinary inquiry and, in March this year, she was struck off the medical register.
It was only after a successful appeal to the High Court last month that she was reinstated as a doctor, although the judge barred her from giving evidence in SBS cases for the next three years.
Today, recovering from her long ordeal, she is battered but unbowed.
Most of all, she is worried that many of the convictions of parents and carers accused of killing babies by shaking them have been wrong. She believes it could be half of the cases or considerably more.
In a quiet yet steely voice as she sits on the sofa at her Oxford home sipping a mug of coffee, she insists: ‘We need a public inquiry into how this syndrome is still being used to condemn people in the family and criminal courts. They are being accused on the basis of it, yet it is only an hypothesis with no scientific evidence to support it.’
Dr Squier’s opinion has just gained credence from the most important piece of research on SBS to have been published for 40 years.
Top health and ethics investigators in Sweden have concluded there is no science to prove, incontrovertibly, that the syndrome actually exists.
The Swedish research challenges the long-accepted wisdom that a ‘triad’ of symptoms — swelling of the baby’s brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the eyes — are concrete evidence that a baby or young child has been deliberately shaken.
The use of this triad as evidence has led to thousands of parents and carers being sent to prison in this country and across the Western world since the term SBS was first coined by a U.S. paediatric radiologist, Dr John Caffey, during the Seventies.
In Britain, it is estimated that 250 SBS cases go through the criminal and family courts each year.
Dr Squier she is one of only two consultant paediatric neuropathologists in England and has spent 32 years at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford (pictured)
As Rioch Edwards-Brown, a London-based campaigner for parents accused of SBS, says: ‘Families have had their lives destroyed by false accusations that they hurt or killed their babies by violently shaking them.
‘They have been convicted on what is medical opinion and dogma rather than scientific fact.’
Dr Squier is convinced this is the reality, too — even though in the past she thought very differently.
A divorcee and mother of two daughters, she is one of only two consultant paediatric neuropathologists in England and has spent 32 years at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where she has examined more than 3,000 brains, mainly of young children.
More than a quarter of her 120 research studies have been on SBS and, as more and more people were accused of baby killing by shaking over the years, she became a highly sought-after prosecution expert by police in the criminal courts, and social services in the secretive family courts.
She was asked to write a report for the prosecution when a young woman called Lorraine Harris stood trial in 2000 at Nottingham Crown Court charged with manslaughter.
While described as a careful, caring mother, Harris was accused of shaking her four-month-old son, Patrick, to death.
There were no external injuries to the baby, such as bruising, or evidence that he had been roughly held, but the triad of SBS symptoms were found at his post mortem.
Although she vehemently protested her innocence, Lorraine was convicted and jailed for three years. But going to prison was far from the only punishment she suffered.
Her partner left her because of the charges and her son was buried without her being told.
Another boy she gave birth to as she was starting her sentence was taken away for adoption at one day old and she was never allowed to see him again.
Her life was all but destroyed.
But, significantly, by the time Lorraine’s appeal was heard in 2005, Dr Squier had had a change of heart. She had come to question whether the triad of symptoms were a definite indication of SBS; indeed, she had become convinced they were not.
She was asked to write a report for the prosecution when a young woman called Lorraine Harris stood trial in 2000 – only to speak in the defendant’s favour at her 2005 appeal
She changed her mind because of research by another neuropathologist, Dr Jennian Geddes, of the Royal London Hospital, who had become troubled by the number of SBS cases in which there was no sign of physical damage to the child’s fragile body other than the infamous triad of symptoms.
Dr Geddes questioned whether it was actually possible for anyone to shake a small baby so violently as to inflict SBS without there being bruising to the child’s upper arms or the rest of the body — after all, the forces involved in creating the three symptoms of SBS are, according to those medics who believe in it, the same as those involved in a 70mph car crash.
But Dr Geddes was perplexed by another mystery. She knew that when a baby was involved in a fatal car crash, it suffered traumatic damage to nerves in the brain, provoked by the effects of whiplash.
Surely a shaken baby, whose head would be moving back and forth with all the force of a violent car crash, would suffer from whiplash too?
To find out, Dr Geddes did something no one had done before. She compared the brains of 53 babies and children whose deaths had been attributed to violent shaking with those of youngsters killed in car crashes.
Her findings revealed that 50 out of the 53 brains of the so-called shaken babies showed no damage to the brain nerves. There was no whiplash effect, which convinced her that the babies could not have been shaken to death.
Dr Geddes concluded that the classic triad of symptoms could be produced by all manner of other traumas, often trivial-seeming ones. She found that a child rolling off a sofa, or banging itself in a baby bouncer, for instance, prompted retinal bleeding.
Even more worryingly, she said injuries associated with the triad could also occur naturally, for instance during childbirth because of the pressure on the child’s skull.
After Dr Squier came across Dr Geddes’s research, her views on SBS were completely transformed.
After Dr Squier came across Dr Geddes’s research, her views on SBS were completely transformed
‘A light went on in my head,’ Dr Squier has said. ‘I became concerned that the whole basis for SBS was poor. It made me feel guilty about my previous unquestioning acceptance of the shaking hypothesis.’
She began to conduct her own investigations and concluded that shaking as a cause of death in babies could ‘virtually be excluded’ unless there was also evidence of body trauma, such as serious damage to the neck.
‘When a baby is shaken, the head will flop back and forth and the neck becomes the weak point. In other words, if you shake a baby so hard that it dies, it is the neck that is going to show the damage, not the brain,’ Dr Squier has explained.
She made a complete U-turn and changed sides in the case of Lorraine Harris. Having been a prosecution witness at the original trial, she bravely appeared as an expert witness for the defence at the appeal — and Lorraine’s conviction was quashed.
During the hearing, the court was told that the baby had stopped breathing after a vaccination.
He also suffered from a blood disorder which was only discovered after his death, and this might have caused the triad of symptoms which convinced experts his death was caused by SBS. Tellingly, he also had a difficult forceps delivery.
Dr Squier has never forgotten Lorraine Harris, although the two women have never met. ‘I felt terrible that I may have contributed to her being wrongly imprisoned. Now we must make sure such a thing never happens again,’ she tells me intently this week.
She was being criticised behind her back by doctors, lawyers, social workers and police officers who still clung to the orthodoxy of SBS
‘Mainstream paediatricians are making the diagnosis of SBS because it is in the textbooks and they cling to it. When my views changed, I felt it important that I spoke out rather than keep quiet.
‘I had an obligation to say publicly that something was going wrong.’
Dr Squier soon suffered the consequences of breaking ranks. She was being criticised behind her back by doctors, lawyers, social workers and police officers who still clung to the orthodoxy of SBS.
And worse was to come. She was shocked in 2010 to receive a letter from the Human Tissue Authority, an organisation which regulates the use of human organs and tissue.
It transpired that Scotland Yard had raised concerns about the way she was handling post-mortem tissue and the possibility that unrecorded material was being stored, used and disposed of, without their knowledge. An investigation was launched, every piece of tissue accounted for, and no action was taken.
But the detractors did not give up, and she appears to have been targeted by Scotland Yard for challenging the existence of SBS which the police have relied on for years to get successful convictions.
In September 2010, an important conference on SBS took place in Atlanta, Georgia.
One of the people attending was Detective Inspector Colin Welsh, then a lead investigator at Scotland Yard’s child abuse investigation command.
At a public session, he talked disparagingly about the way prosecution cases had failed largely due to the evidence of defence witnesses such as Dr Squier.
He suggested such expert witnesses should be eliminated from criminal and possibly family court trials, arguing that their complex scientific evidence confused juries and even judges.
Today, Dr Squier says one of the worst things about her ordeal was being portrayed as a ‘liar’
In the audience was an American lawyer called Heather Kirkwood, who was so shocked at DI Welsh’s stance that she took notes and, later, signed an affidavit saying that the notes were a true record of what he said.
When Dr Squier came under the scrutiny of the GMC, Kirkwood spoke up in her defence.
‘We have learned much of what we thought we knew about SBS was wrong, and that many of the babies we thought were shaken were instead suffering from birth injuries, childhood stroke, or infectious disease’, she said.
‘Now we know that we got it wrong, we need to get it right. Instead, many prominent advocates of shaken baby theory have resorted to attacking researchers such as Dr Squier, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the infant brain.
‘Families and children deserve better. We have to have an open, honest, debate.’
Today, Dr Squier says one of the worst things about her ordeal was being portrayed as a ‘liar’ during the disciplinary hearing by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, the independent disciplinary arm of the GMC.
Her ordeal means there are now few paediatricians or pathologists prepared to give expert defence evidence in shaken baby cases. Accused parents have become so desperate for help that they write to Dr Squier begging for advice.
‘I was getting up to one letter a week before my hearing ended in March. I always try to refer them to a decent lawyer,’ she says.
‘Now families are beginning to realise what’s going on. They are getting scared of taking their ill children to hospital in case they are accused of shaking them.’
Yet there is one bright light at the end of the tunnel for Dr Squier. She is spending the next six months re-writing a key textbook on paediatric neuropathology.
It will contain a section on SBS and highlight her belief that a medical myth has sent many innocent parents to prison.