Starting a family when you have a mental health diagnosis: unfit to be a mother?

30 Nov
Photo by Bicycle Bill

Photo by Bicycle Bill

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Scroll down to the web links section for links to all the coverage & commentary on the Essex forced caesarean & adoption story

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On starting a family when you’re managing a mental health problem: reality and scare stories

Earlier today, a story about a mother with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder broke which was so utterly grotesque that it has caused a storm of protest on twitter and elsewhere. Questions are to be asked in the House of Commons. Although so far we only have a story reported in the Telegraph newspaper (based on incomplete information), there appear to be 2 main aspects. These fall into familiar media narratives:

  1. “Evil social workers steal our children.” And, in this instance, rip a baby from it’s mother’s womb in an enforced caesarean the mother didn’t know about till she came round to find the scar in her abdomen. As reported in the Telegraph, a woman with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, visiting the UK for two weeks from Italy, was sectioned and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Without informing her, social workers went to court and a judge made an order that a caesarean section could be performed on the woman and the baby taken away. Without warning, the woman was forcibly sedated and, when she woke up, a caesarean section had been performed on  her and her baby removed. She has never seen the baby.
  2. “Women with mental health problems are unfit mothers.” The Telegraph reports that, subsequently, the mother went to court to seek the return of her baby. The judge decided against returning her baby because – despite the fact she was currently well – he said her lifetime risk of relapse meant she was an unfit mother.

There are other troubling aspects to the news story too, but these are the two that relate to mental ill-health. I comment below on these aspects. In summary:

  1. We don’t yet know all the facts around the caesarean section in 2012. It seems so grotesquely barbaric and traumatising that there must be more to it. A c-section is a medical matter, not one for social services. Other seemingly plausible explanations have been put forward and what’s been reported doesn’t ring true. Court of Protection cases are not routinely reported, so we may never see the judgment in this case and the local authority involved may be unable to comment. The main source of information for media coverage is the original Telegraph report, which is based on information provided by only one source (the mother’s solicitor). As a comparison, the Telegraph report refers to a “panic attack”, whereas other commentary refers to a psychotic episode. And the Telegraph story is  written by a journalist who has been criticised for writing misleading court reports in pursuit of his cause. He is a journalist with an agenda. At best we can say for certain that the information we have is incomplete.
  2. As written, it appears that the fact that the woman had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was the judge’s justification for refusing to return the child to its mother.  This is appalling. This – and the real problems women managing mental health problems face in accessing the support they need – are the real issues for debate.

This scare story contrasts sharply with the reality of women’s experiences of managing a mental health problem and wishing to start a family (for instance this by Erica Camus, 33, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and contemplating whether she can become a mother; or these comments by Seaneen Molloy, in her twenties, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and also wishing to become a mother).

Many women’s mental health problems will start during child bearing years – so there are a lot of us affected. Women and couples make decisions every day about sex, contraception, psychiatric medication and abortion. With so many of us living this reality daily, the real conversations should be about the following issues:

Let’s hope that the furore generated by this seemingly sensationalised scare story provides a window of opportunity to discuss these real issues women face daily. And let’s hope that women who are wrestling with these very issues now will not decide to have a termination, or to not have children, or to not seek help with mental health concerns as a result of such scare stories.

Allesandra Pacchieri (Daily Mail, 4th December 2013)

Allesandra Pacchieri with her youngest daughter, Baby P (Daily Mail, 4th December 2013)

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Here are my thoughts (tweets edited only slightly due to the lateness of the hour) in response to the initial Telegraph story:

The Telegraph reports that a judge ordered – without even telling her – that a mother could be forcibly sedated & her baby delivered by caesarian section then taken. And that a new judge has ruled that a bipolar diagnosis – just the diagnosis – makes a mother unfit to have her child with her.

Can you imagine a mother with Crohn’s disease who experienced a relapse being forcibly sedated and having her baby removed by secret caesarean? Just like bipolar disorder, doctors diagnose Crohn’s as a lifelong relapsing and remitting condition. At times of relapse, a parent with Crohn’s may be unable to take care of their child. Would anyone say that a mother with Crohn’s was, by virtue of that diagnosis alone, unfit to keep her child just in case she relapsed? No. That judgment seems reserved for those of us with a mental rather than physical health diagnosis.

My impression is that society, doctors and the courts infantilise women who are pregnant. And that certainly happens to people with mental health problems. That’s a double whammy for pregnant women who are managing mental health problems if their case comes before a court.

One question that arises in reading the Telegraph story is where was the perinatal psychiatric service? The point of perinatal psychiatric services is to support mothers through pregnancy and delivery. Since pregnancy is linked to bipolar relapse, it’s all the more important for women to get proper perinatal psychiatric care. That doesn’t seem to have been the case with this mother, though there is a perinatal psychiatric service in Essex.

However, the scary message from these two legal cases, as reported, seems to be this: if you have a bipolar diagnosis, you shouldn’t tell anyone that you’re pregnant because, if you do, you could lose your baby. That you should steer clear of mental health services at all costs.

Wouldn’t a better message be that, if you have a bipolar diagnosis and you want to become pregnant, you should get in contact with a perinatal mental health service so you can plan the pregnancy? Wouldn’t a better message be that, if you’re already pregnant, you should make contact with a perinatal mental health service so they can support you during and after your pregnancy? Wouldn’t a better message be that, if a woman gets a bipolar diagnosis – or any other mental health diagnosis – she is still a full human being. She is not merely a womb. She is not merely a piece of meat to be sedated and sliced open without her knowledge. She is not merely a risk to children. She is a full human being.

At the moment, we know only a partial view of what has happened. The report is based on instructions the mother gave her solicitor. We don’t know why the caesarean was performed. There must have been some medical reason. We are told that the mother wasn’t warned about the planned caesarean and that the child was taken away without the mother seeing it. We are told that the child hasn’t been returned to the mother for the apparent reason of the mother’s bipolar diagnosis and therefore possibility of relapse.

Let’s hope this is just some really, really badly reported media story that’s actually a bit dull. That would be better than the alternative. It will be interesting to see what comes of this story when it’s reported fully. I wonder if either journalist has relevant expertise. I wonder if either has form for whipping up a storm of controversy for a story that turns out to be far more straightforward.

But basically, if you’re a woman with a bipolar diagnosis, you’re an unfit mother. What a sweeping generalisation that infantilises women & reduces us to no more than our diagnoses.

I can guarantee that, when this story is picked up more widely tomorrow, there will be people who will defend the court’s decisions purely on the basis that the woman had mental health problems. Some – who see a diagnosis, who see risk, rather than a person – will see mental health as a trump card, a byword for dangerousness and unpredictability.

Does a bipolar diagnosis make a mother unfit? No, not in and of itself. No more than would a diagnosis of another relapsing and remitting condition like Crohn’s disease. Yes, the mother might relapse. Maybe relapse is not a possibility but a certainty, so the only question is when the next relapse will happen, not if it will.  That’s equally true of Crohn’s disease.

If a mother has a bipolar diagnosis, that’s an argument for supporting the family, not removing her children. Supporting the family is a far cheaper option than taking children into care of putting them up for adoption. Both are astronomically expensive options financially. If a mother has a bipolar diagnosis, that’s an argument for supporting the family, not removing the children. That’s the humane and compassionate response.

Let’s hope this case receives such an outcry that women with a bipolar disorder will be viewed more realistically. Not infantilised.

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[15th April 2014] The final chapter for mother and child; and the Guardian

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Web links thumbnail.

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Related web links:

The following topics are covered:

  • Statements from the parties involved – including court judgments (including the judges’ reasons), Essex County Council, the mother’s solicitor & MP, and the hospital where she was treated
  • Other court cases related to pregnancies
  • Mainstream media coverage
  • Commentary and blogs – Birthrights charity, British Association of Social Workers, blogging barristers & others
  • Other relevant material – Eg research, perinatal mental health, Court of Protection, twitter conversations

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Statements from the parties involved:

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Other court cases relating to pregnancies:

Case 1 (1998): Forced caesarean was unlawful, despite High Court judge’s ruling

Case 2 (May 2013): Court upheld autonomy of woman with bipolar diagnosis who had changed her mind and wanted abortion

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Mainstream media coverage:

Saturday 30th November:
  • ‘Operate on this mother so that we can take her baby’ – “A mother was given a caesarean section while unconscious – then social services put her baby into care” – Telegraph newspaper, by Christopher Booker – the original story
  • Woman has child taken from her womb by social services“Essex social services have obtained a court order against a woman that allowed her to be forcibly sedated and for her child to be taken from her womb by caesarean section”Telegraph newspaper, by Colin Freeman – follow up a few  hours later
Criticism of Christopher Booker:

Christopher Booker is the journalist who wrote the original Telegraph piece.

  • Must journalists attend court hearings to report accurately?I posted last week on a judgment given by His Honour Judge Bellamy in a family court case involving a mother’s abuse of her baby The judge took the unusual step of criticising media reporting of the case. He said the Telegraph’s Christopher Booker’s reporting was “unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong”. UK Human Rights blog (May 2011)
  • The superhuman cock-ups of Christopher Booker – “The journalist makes so many errors that you would be forgiven for thinking he did it deliberately to waste everyone’s time” – Guardian newspaper (October 2011)
Sunday 1st November
Monday 2nd December
Tuesday 3rd December:
Wednesday 4th December:
Thursday 5th December:
Friday 6th December
Saturday 7th December:
  • Judge must unravel saga of baby snatched from womb – “In the shocking case of an Italian mother whose child was removed by caesarean, the head of Britain’s family courts will be looking closely at social workers’ actions.”Telegraph newspaper, Christopher Booker. He’s back.
  • Father of caesarean scandal woman: Why I DON’T believe she should keep the baby “Alessandra Pacchieri’s baby was taken into care from forced caesarean birth. Controversial decision was approved by secretive Court of Protection. Father Marino has backed the court’s decision to put child up for adoption. Says daughter is a ‘threat’ to the baby because she suffers ‘manic delusions’.” – Daily Mail
Sunday 8th December:

Saturday 14th December:

 

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Commentary & blogs:

Sunday 1st December:
Monday 2nd December:
Tuesday 3rd December:
Wednesday 4th December:
Thursday 5th December:
  • The Court of Protection and the new Family Court: can publishing judgments prevent moral panics?Cardiff Law School, by Julie Doughty and Lucy Series
  • Comment: Forced C-sections and stolen babies“The Alessandra Pacchieri case looks like the ‘stuff of nightmares’, but the problems it highlights are real.” By Jennie Bristow for BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service)
  • One flew over the Hemmings nestMinistry of Truth blog (twitter @Unity_MoT)
  • Views on the forced cesarean judgmentBirthrights (“Birthrights is the UK’s only organisation dedicated to improving women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights”) by barrister Elizabeth Prochaska ‏(twitter @eprochaska) – “All in all, a depressing case for anyone concerned with modern maternity care and the rights of people with mental illness. The comment by Lucy Series on twitter best sums up my reaction: “If you were trying to convince somebody the Mental Capacity Act was progressive, empowering, person-centred, the caesarean judgment would not help you.””
Saturday 7th December:
Sunday 8th December:
Monday 9th December:

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Other relevant material:

The Court of Protection:
  • Revealed: How UK justice is dispensed out of hours down the phone line“The Court of Protection is facing fresh questions about transparency, as The Independent reveals that its judges are making life-or-death decisions over the phone, with incomplete evidence, in proceedings that are not always recorded.” – Independent newspaper (June 2013)
Perinatal mental health:
Research:
  • McPin Foundation – Recruiting women participants for a study on pregnancy and anti-psychotic medication“Have you used psychotropic medication and had a child in the last three years? If so, we would like to speak to you. When women with a severe mental illness want to start a family, or find that they are pregnant, they may have to make decisions about whether to keep using medication, change it or stop it altogether. This can be a difficult decision. We want to find out more about how women decide what they want to do and what could have helped them to make that decision.”
Twitter conversations:

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One Response to “Starting a family when you have a mental health diagnosis: unfit to be a mother?”

  1. NorthernLights 6 December 2013 at 10:31 am #

    The mother was deprived of her children’s custody because she was unfit as a parent, not because she had bipolar disorder. That was stated by the Court of Florence in Italy, which was consulted by the Essex county council at the time of the child’s birth.
    Please consult and research Italian documents concerning the case. To research or to quote all the lies spread in the British papers these days is like supporting a twisted political agenda and it does no favours to anyone, less than probable to mental health patients. Thanks.

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