''In prison, I was lowest of the low''
Viv Groskop talks to Angela Cannings, one of three mothers last year cleared of multiple baby murder
Is it too naive to think that we may never see another innocent mother imprisoned for murdering her children? The report published on 6 September by a working group of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Pathologists, chaired by the Labour peer Helena Kennedy QC, wants future decisions to prosecute to be made only after a multi-professional review. It also says that post-mortem examinations of babies who have died suddenly and mysteriously should be carried out by specialist paediatric pathologists.
These are among several welcome safeguards, but they will do nothing to help the women whose cases prompted the review. They include Angela Cannings who, like the solicitor Sally Clark and the pharmacist Trupti Patel, was released from prison last year after her conviction for multiple baby murders was overturned.
Cannings was sentenced to life imprisonment in April 2002 after she had suffered three cot deaths. Like Clark and Patel, she finds that nobody is much interested in her now that her innocence has been established and justice done. But you do not simply slot back into your old life, she argues. She has tried to stay positive and enjoy being reunited with her husband, Terry, and her daughter, Jade, aged eight, but it has not been easy.
"Since Sally Clark's release," Cannings says, "we've found out that she has struggled very badly. I can understand that, because I think I struggle with it inwardly. I don't feel I can offload all my thoughts and feelings on Terry, because he's doing [the same thing] to me, and by lunchtime most days we can end up feeling very low and depressed." However, she forces herself to be optimistic. "I have been given that chance to be back at home with my husband and daughter, and I'm grabbing every opportunity to get something back of what we had."
These women have to deal with the aftermath of months spent in prison as well as the effects on the children they left behind, and with being denied the chance to grieve for their dead babies. For Sally Clark, recovery has been painful, public and seemingly impossible. In June this year, the official account of her story was published (Stolen Innocence: a mother's fight for justice), but she was too upset to give interviews. At the time, her husband, Steve, also a lawyer, said that she finds it hard to leave the house. "Sally still isn't well, and she never will be well again. She has written all this stuff, but she doesn't want to see it. It upsets her. She would really rather this wasn't happening. She is not the happy, confident person she was before this happened to her. She is vulnerable, she has panic attacks, she gets flustered by things that most of us just deal with. She constantly feels that people are judging her, and it is a vicious circle." Adjusting to life with the son who was taken away from her has been just as much of a struggle.
Trupti Patel has also given no interviews. Despite the not guilty verdict, a court order prevents her from spending time alone with her surviving daughter. Her babies Amar, Jamie and Mia all died aged less than three months between 1997 and 2001. At her appeal, her 80-year-old grandmother travelled from India to give evidence that she herself had had five babies who died of unexplained causes. The judge concluded that Patel's babies may have had a rare inherited predisposition to cot death. Outside the court, her solicitor said: "Few mothers will ever experience the death of a baby, let alone the death of three. Virtually no mother, however, will have to face the trauma of being accused of deliberately suffocating her children."
All three women's stories are complicated beyond imagining. Prison and wrongful conviction are just half of it. As Cannings points out, even before she was convicted, she had to undergo virtual house arrest for almost two years while the police gathered evidence. During this investigation, her sister got married; social services insisted that Cannings's mother supervise all contact with Jade during the wedding, and Cannings was allowed only one drink of alcohol - the wedding toast.
All of Cannings's visits to her daughter, then a toddler, were severely restricted and monitored. For four years, of which 21 months were spent in prison, she was not allowed to spend any time alone with Jade, and so could not live in the same house as her husband. It is unthinkable the strain this would put on any marriage, let alone on a parent's relationship with a small child.
Since Cannings's release last December, she, Terry and Jade have left Salisbury in Wiltshire, where the three babies died, and made a new start in Plymouth. Terry gave up his job as a bakery manager at Tesco to look after Jade while his wife was in prison, and so the family lives on state benefits. The couple are both looking for work.
"We've lost four years of family life," Cannings says, "and we never had a chance to grieve for Matthew [the son whose death in 1999 prompted her arrest]. That's still to come for me. But we've started afresh and we are getting used to being together.
"It was a complete shock for me to be back in the family home again, getting used to doing things like housework. I'm learning more about Terry and Jade and what they had to do to cope. Jade has had to learn to dress herself, to plait her own hair. She doesn't even let me brush her hair, because she has always done it herself. She doesn't know any different."
Cannings also finds it hard to forget the press coverage at the time. When she received her life sentence, she was vilified by the newspapers as the worst of criminals. In prison, she received the kind of treatment reserved for paedophiles and child murderers.
"I was the lowest of the low in prison," she says, "because people who harm their babies are unthinkable. I was physically and verbally attacked. I found it strange: you are in a prison and still people judge you. It wasn't like you just get on with your sentence - it's all backchat and people judging what you are in for. The first couple of months were the worst because it was in the news, on all the front pages, with the heading 'Baby killer'. I had been labelled and there was nothing I could do. I just kept thinking, 'This isn't me.' But it's very hard to try and tell people: 'Actually, this isn't right.'"
Cannings admits that there are still days when she feels very depressed, but says it helps to know that other families have survived what her family has gone through. That knowledge has played a significant part in helping her to pick up her life again. She also thinks of the thousands of other families that have been affected by the theory that a high proportion of unexplained baby deaths are attributable to Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, in which parents harm their children in order to get sympathy and attention.
The theory - associated mainly with Sir Roy Meadow, a senior paediatrician whose testimony played a role in the convictions of Cannings, Clark and Patel - is now largely discredited. As a result, up to 258 criminal cases and possibly another 5,000 civil cases, which nearly always result in children being removed from their parents' care, are under review.
"We have been involved in campaigning with families up and down the country who have had their children taken away," says Cannings. "Obviously, the authorities do have to investigate any accusations of child abuse. But you have to look at these cases: if there is no clear-cut evidence, why ruin a family's life?
"It saddens me that it took four years for us - but as a family, we hope that in time the memory will fade. Our hope for the future is that we never, ever see a case like that again."
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