Published on 11 Jun 2014

The parents waiting two years to find out why their babies died

A Channel 4 News investigation has found that parents whose babies die at birth, or shortly after, are in some cases being denied inquests to find out what happened.

Any death where something appears to have gone unexpectedly wrong during the labour or delivery and where the baby would have been expected to live is meant to be reported by the hospital to the coroner.

And any death described as ‘unnatural’ is meant to be investigated by the coroner who will decide if an inquest needs to be he held.

But this is not always happening.  Our research shows that hospitals are not reporting deaths when they should and coroners are not investigating when they would be expected to.

Mislabelling

There is also evidence that some hospitals are mislabelling neo-natal deaths as stillbirths because these do not, by law, have to be looked at by a coroner.

And despite the Chief Coroner and the Ministry of Justice ordering coroners to speed up the length of time it is taking to complete inquests, we have spoken to a number of parents who have waited more than two years to find out why their babies died.

10_nhs2_r_w

Presented with our evidence, the Justice Minister Simon Hughes has now said he will hold a meeting with health officials and the chief coroner to discuss the issues raised.

Mr Hughes has also said he will meet with the bereaved families, whose cases we brought to his attention.

Solicitor Sarah Harman, who is representing some of the families, said that she had begin to notice a troubling pattern emerging.

“More and more times  I am instructed by a bereaved family and my first question is whether there is going to be an inquest and they haven’t even heard of an inquest,” Ms Harman said.

“So then I report the death to the coroner and very often the coroner will immediately say there should be an inquest.  The question I have to ask is why hasn’t the hospital followed its own procedures and why haven’t they followed the law?”

Chanell Miller gave birth to a twin boy and girl early at 28 weeks at Newham Hospital in East London in May 2012.  But her baby girl Ka’Leah died at just nine days old.  Her son, Kaleem survived.

A postmortem later revealed that a long line, inserted into Ka’Leah to help her feed, had pierced her heart cavity.

Inquest ordered

Yet the death was not reported to the coroner and it was only when Ms Harman became involved that an inquest was ordered.

Ms Miller, who has five boys, said the inquest could not bring back her daughter but it could provide answers and prevent something similar happening again.

“She was my only daughter,” she said.  “I could never get her back so the most I can do is at least try and fight for her.  I can’t buy her pretty dresses or do her hair so what I have to do is to try and fight for her name and try and save other babies.”

Archna and Shilane Patel are still, though, fighting for an inquest for their son Rohan.  He died 24 hours after he was born, his parents having to make the heart rending decision to switch off his life support and, as they said, let him go in peace.

The medical notes reveal a catalogue of missed opportunities before and during the birth.  Yet the hospital did not report the death and when the parents approached the coroner, he refused an inquest.

They have now commissioned their own expert medical report which supports the need for an inquest and they are now planning to submit that.

“I just want to know whether or not it could have been averted and I think that is partly the purpose of an inquest,” Mrs Patel said.

Ms Harman said that she was finding coroners were setting the bar too high and saying baby deaths are natural.  “Even when the circumstances leading to the deaths might be very questionable indeed,” she said.

‘Unsafe practices’

Although sympathetic to the enormous workload coroners are facing, Ms Harman said it mattered that the system worked.  “If the coroner won’t investigate deaths that should be investigated and if hospitals don’t report deaths that they should, then it follows that we are going to have unsafe practices in hospitals that will continue to the detriment of us all.”

Holding an inquest can, however, result in some hard questions being asked of hospitals.  And we have evidence that to avoid this some hospitals are labelling deaths as stillbirths so there will not be an inquest.

A letter from one coroner which has been passed to Channel 4 News reveals that he has become so concerned he has asked all stillbirths to be referred to him.

The letter said:  “If there is evidence that the baby had a heart beat or was breathing then I consider whether or not an inquest should be held.

“The procedure is not always popular but I believe it is necessary to ensure that hospitals do not seek to avoid the coroner by classifying the death as stillbirth.”

But even when parents do manage to secure an inquest, it can take years.  Following the Government request to speed up the process the average time to completion is now 28 weeks.

But we spoke to one mother who was still waiting two-and-a-half years after the death of her son.

Joanne Noad’s baby Reece became stuck in her pelvis during the birth, a condition called shoulder dystocia.   Ms Noad had previously had this problem with her second child and it was in her notes.

‘You should have known’

“One of the midwives did say to me she was really sorry and that if they had known I had previously had these problems they would have done things differently,”Ms Noad said.

“I remember saying to her ‘well, you should have known.  It was in my notes.”

Ms Noad is now pregnant again and is increasingly anxious that the inquest is held so she can have some answers before she gives birth again.

But it was not until we contacted the coroner to ask why she was still waiting that Ms Noad was given a date.  Indeed, just over two hours after we wrote to the coroner, she received an abject apology and a few days later she was give a date in August.

The inquest into the death of Chanell Miller’s daughter Ka’Leah is also expected to be heard this week – two years after her death.

Bart’s Health NHS Trust, which is now responsible for Newham, said in a statement to Channel 4 News that it was extremely sorry for the distress caused.  They added that the clinicians involved in Ka’Leah’s care were in early contact with the coroner and had co-operated at every stage with the inquest proceedings.

They said that they had made changes and improved staff training for the insertion of the lines used to help feeding.

But the fact is that the only reason the inquest is being held at all is because Ms Miller and her family and their solicitor fought for it.  The system did not work as it should have done and there is clear evidence that they are not the only family who have had to fight to find out the answers they desperately need.

UPDATE: And some two years after the death of Chanell Miller’s daughter Ka’Leah, the inquest finally took place on 11 July.  The coroner recorded a narrative verdict, saying her death was due to the incorrect insertion of the long line to help her feed and the failure of senior doctor to review it.

Follow @vsmacdonald on Twitter

 

Tweets by @vsmacdonald

3 reader comments

  1. Parminder says:

    My baby daughter passed away at 18 weeks old on the Neo natal ward. She was our first child. She was born without a swallow due to severe HIE suffered as a result of her very difficult birth. She was born unexpectedly at home in the breech position and was born very very small. She was born at 38 weeks. The hospital had failed in my ante natal care and had not spotted that my daughter was massively underweight nor that she was breech. She was stuck for 40 minutes without oxygen, whilst my husband and the ambulance crew tried to deliver her. Luckily, she survived the horrific deal of her birth and gave us (the hardest but) the best 18 weeks of our lives. She was due to come home (and would require 24 hour care), but unfortunately she had some bad spells and then passed away in hospital – I was by her side. At first the coroner said no post mortem or inquest would be held, and we were pleased as the idea of our baby having to go through that was awful. But, then the corner changed her mind and is now fully investigating everything, including my ante natal care, which we are now glad about. The hospital had had various opportunities to pick up my baby’s size but they missed them. We hope that the coroner will rebuke the hospital and insist they change their ante natal care. We hope she does this so that no other family has to go through this – no one deserves this, least of all an innocent baby. Not all deaths are preventable but should be investigated. I hope all coroners do the same as ours and investigate all baby deaths on the Neo natal wards not just those that pass away during labour and shortly after birth. By doing so, hospitals can hopefully learn and improve their care and prevent the unnecessary deaths of babies.

  2. vickie says:

    One of my twins died aged 3 days eighteen years ago at full term. There were no birth difficulties at all,but he was delivered not breathing but resuscitated. We were allowed a postmortem but the results were inconclusive and the cause was given as birth asphyxia. We were invited to take part in a medical trial during his brief life and 2 years later found out that the treatment he received was not considered either helpful or harmful – basically we allowed him to be a guinea pig when we were traumatized. There was no suggestion of a post mortem, it was suggested by the consultant that it was just one of those things. Everything about the birth, delivery and afterwards left so many unanswered questions and a feeling that things definitely went wrong and were covered up. But we were just told that twin births are complicated and shown a memorial book in the hospital that showed sometimes both twins died so that we were lucky. I think the medical staff close ranks in these situations but it has always left a very bitter taste. I never even thought of pressing for an inquest and I wonder about how many inquests the coroner will have to deal with. Babies do die on a regular basis in hospital. Will inquests improve standards of care or is it really just one of those things?

    1. chanell miller says:

      Hi just read about your experience. And I also have the same question will things really change. My daughter’s death could have Been prevented, but due to the bad care and and lack of experience from doctors, consultants, and nurses ka’Leah died. The inquest was on Wednesday, and it was so shocking to see that so that my daughter basically died because more then 3 doctors didn’t recognize the problem they caused two being senior members of staff…… they say they have made major changes since ka’Leah died, and I hope this to be the case. Just ashame my daughter had to lose her life for theses changes to happen.

Comments are closed.