Is this doctor responsible for parents being falsely branded as child abusers?
by SUE REID - More by this author »

Last updated at 00:55am on 27th October 2007
Lawrence Alexander suffered a difficult childhood. Neighbours pointed at him in the street. He was inexplicably bullied at school.

When he invited his few friends home for tea, they nearly always refused. His family moved from Cornwall to Sussex and then to Shropshire. In every fresh place, there were whispers.

His parents lost their jobs and the only member of his extended family who sent birthday presents was his father's sister, Aunt Nina.

At 13, Lawrence began to ask why his upbringing seemed different to everyone else's
It is only today, nearly eight years on, that he knows the full truth: his parents had been wrongly accused of one of the worst crimes imaginable — deliberately harming him as a baby.

As a result of the allegation made by children's doctor David Southall, the family became social pariahs.

A bundle of papers in Lawrence's NHS records followed him to every new GP and new school, repeating the claim that his parents had hurt him.

The accusation has scarred his life and theirs.

Lawrence has never before told his deeply shocking story.

The 21-year-old is central to a Government inquiry into Dr Southall, which could establish once and for all his links to one of the worst scandals in British medicine for years.

The doctor has been praised as a pioneer by colleagues, while vilified as arrogant and dangerous by patients.

He has also been in trouble over remarks he made concerning the case of Sally Clark, the mother who was given two life sentences for the murder of her two children before being released after medical evidence emerged to prove she was innocent.

Dr Southall, who had never met Sally, accused her husband of the murders, a totally unfounded allegation which led to the paediatrician being declared guilty of professional misconduct and barred from child protection work for three years.

The present inquiry, overseen by Attorney General Baroness Scotland, wants to find the answer to a crucial question: were Lawrence's parents — and many others — falsely smeared as child abusers so that Dr Southall could put their children into care and use them as guinea pigs in deeply contentious medical experiments, which many would argue were also deeply immoral?

In the 1980s and 1990s, under the aegis of Dr Southall, thousands of sick children were given breathing tests — called 'sleep studies'.

The experiments, authorised by hospital ethics committees, were carried out despite the doubts of worried parents.

Incredibly, it is now alleged that some of the tiny babies were forced to breathe poisonous gases and deprived of oxygen.

The results of these tests were stored by the paediatrician in 4,500 secret files.

But the true nature of the experiments — to discover the cause of cot-death — is only coming to light now the children involved are grown-up.

The Attorney General's officials have asked to see the Southall files.

They want to know what they contain and if they were produced at court hearings at which parents were falsely accused of child abuse.

The suspicion is that justice may have been perverted by the paediatrician because vital evidence in the files — which established that the children he diagnosed as victims of parental abuse had never been harmed but were, in fact, genuinely sick — was deliberately hidden from criminal court judges.

Meanwhile, the Mail can reveal that police forces in the Midlands, Wales and London are also investigating evidence to discover if Dr Southall's experiments, dating back three decades, harmed children.

Officers in Doncaster plan, if necessary, to examine the death certificates of babies who died while in his care.

The General Medical Council (GMC) is also due to resume a hearing in a week's time into Dr Southall's fitness to practice, following a series of complaints by parents of children treated by him.

Dr Southall, who denies any wrongdoing, has worked at the Royal Brompton in London, University Hospital of North Staffordshire in Stoke and hospitals in Wales, the Home Counties, Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley.

One Welsh mother, who says her son was brain damaged by Southall's research, told the hearing earlier this year: "He treated my son like a laboratory rat."

As for Lawrence Alexander's parents, one of the cases being examined at the GMC hearing, they always objected to their son being involved in Dr Southall's sleep study tests.

But when they refused to co-operate, Janet and Robin Alexander were accused by Dr Southall of pretending their son was ill.

Although they say there was not a shred of evidence, the little boy was made a ward of court.

It meant the tests could be done without his parents' agreement, and Lawrence himself narrowly escaped being put into care or adopted.

This week, Lawrence said: "I believe that my loving mother and father were labelled as child abusers by Dr Southall because they tried to stop his experiments on me.

"The appalling slur blackened their names. Yet the idea of my caring parents being child abusers is laughable. They never even smacked me."

Today, Lawrence lives in Ludlow, Shropshire, with his 61-year old father, a former television reporter, and mother, a 49-year-old former nurse.

Tragically, he is 80 per cent physically disabled. At the age of 14, he was struck by a muscle weakness which led to his body sustaining severe cell damage only ever seen before in cancer patients completing chemotherapy.

He says: "I want to know how my health has been ruined. Is it because of the tests I underwent as a small child?

"We now know that the so-called 'sleep studies' carried out by Dr Southall involved giving babies noxious gases, including carbon monoxide.

"Babies were deprived of oxygen. I want to know what implications this has had for my health."

Dr Southall, who has always refused to comment on his work or research to the Daily Mail, has repeatedly been at the centre of controversies.

His involvement with Sally Clark, who died earlier this year, is all the more bizarre because he had nothing to do with the inquiry into her children's deaths.

After watching a television documentary on the couple, he simply phoned the police with his theory that her husband, Steve, was the killer.

Meanwhile, concern has grown about his experiments on children.

Bill Bache, the solicitor for Angela Cannings — another mother accused of infanticide, jailed and then freed on appeal — has written to the Attorney General and the Department of Health estimating that "10,000 people have been affected by the actions of Dr Southall".

He fears that behind this number lurks a potential scandal of gigantic proportions.

Mr Bache is so concerned that he says the Government should look into Dr Southall's work over a 25-year period.

In a letter to the Department of Health he says Dr Southall "may have caused death or very serious bodily harm, including irreparable brain damage" to children.

Mr Bache believes parents were told by the doctor that he would report them to the police and social services if they didn't co-operate with his experiments.

"There is evidence… that he carried out these threats and, as a result, there have been convictions [of parents] for murder and grievous bodily harm, while children have been placed in care or adopted," he says.

His concerns are supported by Lib Dem MP John Hemming, who told the Commons: "Many of the parents of the (Southall) babies who were choked, given carbon monoxide and had their breathing damaged in other ways did not give consent to the experiments."

The Alexanders were no exception. Lawrence first became ill seven weeks after being born.

He would often stop breathing or turn blue: signs of sudden infant death syndrome or cot death.

At first, doctors thought he was epileptic and he underwent numerous brain scans.

At five months, he was referred to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.

His mother says: "We were told Dr Southall, who was a cot-death expert who worked not far away at the Royal Brompton hospital in Chelsea, could help Lawrence.

"However, we were suspicious when we met him there in January of 1987. He looked like a research student.

"Now we know that he was not qualified as a child doctor at the time, but was a senior lecturer in paediatrics."

Lawrence was transferred for one month to the Brompton hospital, where his parents always slept beside him overnight. Dr Southall insisted on exhaustive tests.

Janet says: "We quickly became suspicious that Dr Southall was using our son as a guinea-pig and we told him that we were going to take our child home."

It was then that the paediatrician invited Janet and Robin to a meeting to discuss Lawrence's progress.

Instead, to their horror, they realised that they had stepped into an ambush.

"We found social workers from Kensington and Chelsea Council and their solicitors, sent by Dr Southall," recalls Janet.

"One social worker told me: 'You need help as parents. There is nothing wrong with your child.'

"It suddenly clicked that we were in a dangerous situation. They were saying we made up Lawrence's illness.

"'There was no logic. They asked me to sign papers giving them the legal right to care for Lawrence.

"I had no choice but to do what they said. I was afraid I would lose him for ever."

Janet was told the hospital — and, of course, Dr Southall — was now in charge of Lawrence's care.

Crucially, they would no longer be allowed to see him at night. It meant that he was left unattended by his parents from evening to the following morning and Janet was forced to stop breastfeeding.

Although they did not know it at the time, Dr Southall had accused them of suffering from Munchausen's - Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) — a disorder where parents are said to fabricate an illness about their children to draw attention to themselves.

The theory was devised by another paediatrician, Professor Sir Roy Meadow.

He was found guilty of professional misconduct two years ago for giving "misleading and incorrect" testimony as an expert witness in the case of Sally Clark, who was also wrongly accused of suffering from MSBP.

He has since retired.

But what of Lawrence Alexander?

During the past year, he has been searching for his own childhood medical records, which prove he was enrolled in Dr Southall's sleep studies at the Brompton Hospital.

So what exactly happened during those nights 20 years ago when his parents were barred from seeing him?

Was Dr Southall carrying out experiments on him which amounted to child abuse — the precise crime the paediatrician accused his parents of having committed on their only son?

Significantly, Lawrence's records of the time show clearly that he had a life-threatening illness.

He was suffering from various ailments, most significantly gastro oesophageal reflux (a condition that causes breathing problems and which is linked, inextricably, to cot death.)

Yet nothing was done to cure him. Indeed, Dr Southall told social workers: "His parents have pursued the belief that he is seriously ill… they must now accept that their child is healthy."

The Alexanders fought back against Dr Southall. They sought legal advice and took their case to the High Court.

In late February 1987, a judge in London told them they could return home to Cornwall with Lawrence, but that he should remain the subject of an interim care order.

It was only eight months later that they regained the right to look after their son without the interference of the authorities.

They never again saw Dr Southall, who is still working as a paediatrician in Staffordshire, although he is barred from child protection work.

Yet the stigma of being child abusers remained — even after they changed their surname by deed poll to try to escape the past.

Both sides of the couple's families — apart from the loyal Aunt Nina — refused to speak to them after they were branded abusers.

"Wherever we moved, people seemed to know," recalls Janet.

"Robin was pointed at and called a paedophile. We could not even find jobs in a supermarket.

"Our car was broken into, the house burgled, we received offensive literature and abusive phone calls. The classic paedophile treatment.

"At one school, when Lawrence was 12, the bursar said we could not enter the premises.

"The GP had told the teachers we were child abusers.

"Lawrence began to be bullied when word got out, and had to leave despite his brilliant academic progress. It broke his heart."

From then on, his parents educated him at home. Then, six years ago, he became desperately ill — losing two stone in as many months.

He lay in a darkened room listening to Radio 4. Today, he cannot eat normal food and rests most of the day.

No-one really knows what is wrong with him.

This week, Lawrence said: "It is impossible to imagine how my life would have been without Dr Southall's intervention.

"All he has done for my family is bring us grief, poverty, danger, isolation and now, I fear, ill-health.

"I am not a bitter person, but I hope and pray that there is a proper inquiry into this doctor, his accusations against innocent parents and his invasive experiments.

"I say that for my own sake and thousands of other children just like me.

"The opening of his secret files will be just the start.'