By JAN CORBETT
It was close to 2 am on a Monday in late August when the police cars cruised quietly through the deserted North Shore streets and down the long driveway, stopping below the concrete steps leading to the 50s-style bungalow.
The family were woken by the pounding on the door.
Something like a dozen people, police and social workers, pushed into the hall. Believing the mother was drugging one of the two children in the house, the social workers - having just learned the results of a urine test taken 26 days earlier - scooped them up and took them to the Starship children's hospital for further tests.
Their mother has not been allowed to see them again.
This same mother was separated from her first four children in Britain four years earlier after a court found she suffered from a rare and controversial disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP), believed to cause sufferers to induce or fabricate illnesses in their children to get attention.
She has since married a New Zealander, but the allegation that she suffers from MSBP has followed her from Britain, to Australia, where the younger child was born, and now here.
Her chief accuser in Britain was Professor David Southall, seen in this country on the controversial documentary screened by Assignment two years ago showing secretly filmed footage of alleged MSBP sufferers suffocating, poisoning or assaulting their defenceless babies.
Dr Southall is now himself the centre of controversy and is under investigation for the conduct of ventilator trials where he is alleged to have either not obtained or falsified parental consent. Some of the babies on the trial died or are brain damaged.
Not only has the mother been under strict court orders not to talk to journalists in this country, but because this became a custody case dealt with in the Family Court, its details are supposed to be kept secret.
Yet this mother is hooked up via the internet to a strident group of campaigners protesting against what they see as false allegations of child abuse, so versions of her story have a habit of turning up in cyberspace with calls to lobby the New Zealand Prime Minister over "Gestapo-type raids."
Visitors to the website can also read savage criticism generated from the other side of the world of the doctors and social workers involved in the case.
British authorities had notified our Department of Child, Youth and Family Services that this mother carried an MSBP tag, almost as soon as her next child was born here.
When the second child was born in Australia, where her husband was working temporarily, the paediatrician, knowing her history, was required to report her run of visits to the hospital with the child.
By the time she arrived back in New Zealand in late 1999, CYFS had enough evidence to get a care and protection order. Nevertheless, it decided to leave the children with the parents and maintain supervision.
But when social workers visited the home the atmosphere was invariably fraught. Before long they found themselves being openly videotaped.
By the time the case hit court last October, the judge was asked to decide whether the allegation of MSBP upheld by the British courts was indeed correct, whether the mother had given an adult hypno-sedative drug, Zopiclone, to her 18-month-old son whose development is considered severely delayed, and whether leaving the children in the care of their parents was an unacceptable risk.
In an unprecedented move on Thursday, Judge Lawrence Ryan, responding to applications by the Herald and TV3, and noting that Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy and the conduct of medical professionals and social workers were matters of legitimate public interest, approved publication of his findings. It provides a rare insight into the otherwise shrouded proceedings of the Family Court.
In the end, Judge Ryan decided that he was neither able, nor needed to decide whether this mother suffered from MSBP. But he did note that since her children had been removed from her in Britain they "have not been subjected to the number of medical referrals and hospital admissions that they experienced while in their mother's care," and that the health of two of the children had improved.
He nevertheless found insufficient evidence to support the allegations that after the boy, her sixth child, was born in Australia, she took him to hospital unnecessarily or either induced or fabricated his subsequent bowel problems.
Although doctors called to give evidence disagreed about the significance of a brain abnormality in the child, Judge Ryan was "drawn to the conclusion that the cause of [the boy's] developmental delay is a combination of the brain abnormality identified by the MRI scan and possibly some psycho-social deprivation factors contributing."
Judge Ryan found principally that the mother had a dysfunctional personality, most likely "created by the abuse she endured as a child and young person."
She has little contact with her mother or brothers in England.
However psychologist Dr Louise Smith told the court that before there was any hope of treating the mother's personality disorder, "she would have to have some degree of insight and willingness to engage in that type of therapeutic relationship. At this point it is unclear that she is able to do that."
Not only did Dr Smith give evidence that the mother rejected any suggestion of a personality defect, but the judge also added that, "the father has not been prepared to even contemplate the possibility that his wife was responsible for the removal of her children in the United Kingdom or that she was more likely than not to have been responsible for the administration of Zopiclone to [the child.]"
In court, considerable emphasis was placed on whether the methods used to detect the drug were indeed reliable.
The family hired forensic scientist and cot death campaigner Dr Jim Sprott to challenge the methodology of Auckland Hospital toxicologist Dr Ronald Couch. But Dr Sprott's misgivings were rejected by the judge, relying in part on the fact that the hospital laboratory was accredited by International Accreditation New Zealand.
(Although anonymous sources last week attempted to link the suspension of the new hospital laboratory's accreditation with an apparent injustice in this case, it was clearly accredited at the time the boy's urine was tested.)
The family also alleged that the urine sample had been tampered with at the hospital - a possibility the judge ruled out.
The judge not only accepted that the mother had indeed given the child Zopiclone - a sedative she had been prescribed a month earlier - but also reached the view that the mother, and "to a lesser extent the father," were not available to meet the children's daily demands.
He accused the mother particularly of focusing all her energies on challenging the earlier removal of her four children, "her obsession with Professor Southall and of course the proceedings in New Zealand," not to mention spending "a great deal of time on the internet."
Until the father "accepts that his children are likely to be at risk of abuse from their mother and that he has a serious protective role to play, he will be unable to provide a safe environment for [them.]"
Her history of having children removed in Britain and the subsequent improvement in their health, plus his belief that she drugged the boy, were enough to convince Judge Ryan that the children "will be subject to an unacceptably high level of risk should they be returned into the care of their mother."
They now live with extended family members outside Auckland. However, the parents are appealing against Judge Ryan's decision.
In the time she has been under suspicion here, the mother has laid complaints against no fewer than 39 people in the case. This, too, was considered a symptom of her personality disorder.
But Judge Ryan largely praises the doctors and social workers, with two exceptions.
He criticises CYFS for not telling the family that a "minder" they had employed to be in the home was in fact a psychiatric nurse.
And he considered removing the children in the early hours "questionable." He said the social worker should have refused the paediatrician's demand to bring the children in for testing immediately after a late-night review of the medical notes, alerted him to the earlier report that Zopiclone had been detected in the infant.
Says the judge: "His demand that the children be brought to Starship children's hospital in the early hours of the morning was unreasonable and ill-advised.
"I have a sense, from the evidence that I have heard, that this was an overreaction based on the fact that he failed to pick up the positive finding of Zopiclone nearly a month before and he was obviously very concerned that something serious may have happened in the intervening time because of his failure to observe the results. Fortunately for him that had not happened."
By JAN CORBETT