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Covert video recordings of life-threatening child abuse: lessons for child protection.

Pediatrics 1997 November
OBJECTIVE: To describe historic markers and clinical observations of life-threatening child abuse as diagnosed using covert video surveillance (CVS).

DESIGN: A descriptive, retrospective, partially controlled case study.

SETTING: Two hospitals (in London and North Staffordshire, UK) receiving referrals for the investigation of apparent life-threatening events (ALTE), with the availability of CVS.

PATIENTS: A total of 39 children (age range at CVS, 2 to 44 months; median, 9 months) in whom hospital CVS was used to investigate suspicions of induced illness. Thirty-six were referred for investigation of ALTE, one with suspected epilepsy, one with failure to thrive, and one with suspected strangulation. A control group consisted of 46 children with recurrent ALTE proven on physiologic recordings to be attributable to a natural medical cause (9 attributable to epileptic seizures, and 37 attributable to respiratory problems).

INTERVENTION: Collection of historic details from medical, social service, and police records; interagency collaboration in planning, investigations, and management; development and use of CVS as a clinical tool in the investigation of patients in whom there was suspicion of induced illness.

OUTCOME: Confirmation of attempted suffocation or other child abuse from CVS.

RESULTS: CVS revealed abuse in 33 of 39 suspected cases, with documentation of intentional suffocation observed in 30 patients. Poisonings (with disinfectant or anticonvulsant), a deliberate fracture, and other emotional and physical abuse were also identified under surveillance. The first ALTE occurred at a median age corrected for the expected date of delivery of 3.6 months in the CVS patients and of 0.3 months in controls. Three CVS patients and 27 of the control children (including 20 at <32 weeks' gestation) were born prematurely. Bleeding from the nose and/or mouth was reported in 11 of the 38 patients with ALTE undergoing CVS but in none of the 46 controls. Four patients who had been subjected to recurrent suffocation before CVS had permanent neurologic deficits and/or required anticonvulsant therapy for epileptic seizures resulting from hypoxic cerebral injury. The 39 patients undergoing CVS had 41 siblings, 12 of whom had previously died suddenly and unexpectedly. Eleven of the deaths had been classified as sudden infant death syndrome but after CVS, four parents admitted to suffocating eight of these siblings. One additional sibling who had died suddenly with rotavirus gastroenteritis was reinvestigated after CVS of her sister revealed poisoning, and death was found to be caused by deliberate salt poisoning. Other signs of abuse were documented in the medical, social, and police records of an additional 15 of the siblings. In the 52 siblings of the 46 controls, 2 had died: one from hypoplastic left heart at 5 days and the other suddenly and unexpectedly (classified as sudden infant death syndrome) at 7 weeks. Twenty-three of the abusive parents were diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having personality disorders.

CONCLUSIONS: Induced illness is a severe form of abuse that may cause death or permanent neurologic impairment. It may be accompanied by other severe forms of abuse, may result in behavioral disorders, and may be accompanied by immeasurable suffering. Detection of this abuse requires careful history-taking; thorough examination of the health, social, and police records; and close and focused collaboration between hospital and community child health professionals, child psychiatrists, social workers, and police officers. CVS may help investigate suspicions and ensure that children are protected from additional abuse. When parents have failed to acknowledge that they have deceived health professionals, partnership with them in seeking to protect their children may be neither safe nor effective.

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