Doctors may soon stop appearing in court to defend abused children because of an increasingly organised campaign of violence and intimidation from accused parents, a conference heard.
David Southall, a consultant paediatrician at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, presented a catalogue of abuse suffered by experts in the field to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health conference last week. Some have likened the threats to animal-rights extremism.
Negative publicity about paediatricians has reached a peak following the recent acquittal of two mothers accused of infanticide.
Professor Southall's list - the result of new research by Lorna Bell at Kingston University - included one child abuse expert who was threatened with an axe, and another who was attacked with scissors and a knife.
One unnamed professional said: "[I was] attacked by the father of an emotionally abused child, knocked out and kept prisoner in the house for two hours." Another described an encounter with an aggrieved father: "The man had said that if his children were not returned to his care following the final hearing, he would visit my home and shoot me and my family."
Other examples included an expert witness in an abuse case who was stalked for three years.
Alan Craft, the president of the college, told The Times Higher that a group of accused parents and their supporters were responsible for much of the intimidation. He said: "The stories get around of what this orchestrated campaign has done to paediatricians and their families. Some have received letters saying 'we know where you live and which school your child goes to'. We are dealing with a driven group of people and we don't know what these people will do next."
He said paediatricians were still doing child protection work, but reluctantly.
Sir David Hall, professor of community paediatrics at Sheffield University, said the police had told one paediatrician that some members of this parent group were as dangerous as animal-rights extremists.
But Professor Southall stressed that complaints of professional misconduct made by parents to the General Medical Council were almost more serious than the risk of physical attack. He cited instructions for accused parents posted on the Mothers Against Munchausen Allegations website. This said that parents should enter a complaint of negligence and wrongful diagnosis against the paediatrician making the accusation.
Professor Southall has been the subject of lengthy investigations by his hospital and different police forces. None of the allegations of professional misconduct has been upheld, but he is facing a further inquiry by the GMC.
He is angry that cases against doctors are seized upon by the media, but when these are proved false they get little coverage. He said: "Junior people in the profession will see this and may decide not to speak out when they suspect abuse."
Professor Hall said that, as a result of such allegations, many paediatricians were being "plagued" by the media. "They are hoping for anything that could put the person in a bad light," he said.
But Penny Mellor, who campaigns on behalf of parents accused of having Munchausen syndrome by proxy, said: "There is not a campaign against paediatricians, there is a campaign against bad science - and this is bad science. What are parents supposed to do when no one is listening?"
She said descriptions of an orchestrated campaign were misleading. "I can say that no mother I am in touch with has done anything to harm a paediatrician, other than to report them for professional misconduct."
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