My work with stillbirth and neonatal death – an interview with Claire Stoneman
To bring our Sands Awareness Month coverage to a close, Enable Law team member Nick Jones sat down with Claire Stoneman, a partner in our Taunton medical negligence team. Claire has specialised in stillbirth and neonatal death claims for much of her career, an area which many lawyers would find both challenging and emotionally taxing. Here Claire gives insight into how she came to specialise in stillbirth claims, talks about the firm’s work with Sands, and discusses the many ways in which people deal with this kind of grief.
Claire, thank you for finding time to answer these questions. The first is something I have often wondered, although I know a few pieces of the background – what was it that led you to specialise in stillbirth and neonatal death claims?
At the beginning of my career I was involved in the Bristol Royal Infirmary Public Inquiry into Children’s Heart Surgery (1984-1995). Tragically, many babies died following heart surgery. My role was to pursue individual clinical negligence claims for those families, take statements for the Inquiry from families whose babies had died and support the families throughout the Public Inquiry which took place between 1998 and 2001.
Unfortunately, at the Inquiry the news broke that organs were being retained (without knowledge or consent in many cases) from babies at Post Mortem. This led to the Chief Medical Officer’s Summit into Organ Retention in 2001. Again I took statements from affected families all across the country. Following the Summit a Nationwide Group Litigation was commenced and I led a team of lawyers who represented families in their claims.
So, from the very start of my career I have worked with bereaved families. I have been very privileged to learn so much from them about the grief cycle and the bereavement support that is needed. I will never truly understand what they have been through but this work has given me an appreciation of how difficult it is and what a life changing event baby loss is.
I first came across Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity) at the Inquiry and could see the assistance and support the charity provide to families. Helping people find the answers to their questions felt extremely worthwhile, finding out what had happened to their care, obtaining apologies where appropriate and ensuring changes were made going forward to ensure this didn’t happen to anyone else. Through the work I did at the start of my career I had become an expert in dealing with bereaved families and in particular with baby loss. It felt right to use this knowledge and to continue to represent parents and so I specialised in stillbirth and neonatal death claims.
The death of any family member is a very difficult subject for many people, and even more so when it is a child – is it often difficult for the families you meet to open up to you?
Every family is different. Every family member is different. Some people are so relieved to tell their story to someone who is prepared to really listen, who really wants to know everything that happened and who has made it clear they will be there to support them every step of the way. Other people find it extremely distressing to speak about what happened and that is understandable. We can take the details from them in many different ways – face to face, email, letter, lots of short calls etc. The important thing to remember is that this is their story and I have to earn their trust to hear it.
So, is it hard to find a delicate way to make your enquiries?
I do not find it difficult to talk to families. I feel honoured when they are ready to share their story with me. There are so many people in this world who will cross the road to avoid talking with a neighbour whose baby has died. They don’t know what to say and that’s not their fault. However, for the bereaved parent that is such a hard moment. They want to talk about their child and in time want to celebrate their life, however brief. I think that because I have been exposed to bereavement from the start of my career I am not afraid of it. It is a journey and I am rewarded when I see my clients move forward in that journey.
I wondered if you have encountered any coping strategies which you think would be useful to parents in a similar situation?
Talking about what has happened does help. I know it sounds really cliché but a problem shared really does make a difference. Seeking support from a charity like Sands has had a huge impact on many of my clients. I know that support groups aren’t for everyone but Sands is a lot more than that. There are so many different ways that people can get involved from fundraising, to volunteering, to campaigning or getting involved in research studies to name but a few. I think every baby’s life can make a difference and that is worth so much. With every client my team ensures we look at not only financial compensation but also ensuring that lessons are learned with changes to protocols, guidelines, introduction of training for staff. I am a firm believer that litigation can be an aid to change and I have practised this throughout my career.
Enable Law as a firm, and your team in particular, have a close relationship with Sands, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity – do you think Sands receive enough recognition for the work they do?
Sands are an amazing charity. I have been a member and active supporter for many years. The people I have met over the years are incredible and I have formed some lifelong friendships. It breaks your heart to hear what they have been through and how they find the strength to commit the time they do to the charity is truly humbling.
Sands has grown enormously over the past 10 years and it has a strong national profile. Recently it was involved in the Coronation Street news story about a stillbirth which took place within the show. As well as awareness, Sands is a strong campaigning voice and leads the way with other baby loss charities. There is always more to be done (and this is borne out by the statistics into stillbirth and neonatal death in the UK) but with the appointment of their new Chief Executive, Clea Harmer, they are going from strength to strength.
This month is Sands Awareness Month, as they fight to raise awareness of the fact that around 15 babies a day are stillborn in England. How do you feel about that statistic, and what changes to the medical establishment would you like to see to improve those figures?
15 babies a day is too many, particularly when many of those stillbirths and neonatal deaths could have been avoided. I was involved with the Sands Why 17? Campaign from 2009-2014, and at that time, as the name of the campaign suggests, 17 babies died every day in the UK. It is good to see that number fall. However, the UK lags behind many other countries and still a baby is stillborn or dies shortly after birth every 96 minutes. That is a shocking number.
Shocking is the word you feel describes it best?
It is more shocking when you deal with these cases day in and day out. My team specialises in dealing with baby loss cases. Once I had worked on a few of these cases I identified common trends across the country (Common Trends in Stillbirth Cases Study and Report November 2008). Time and again I would take a call from a Mum and I would hear almost identical stories to other cases I was working on. All too often our cases involve reduced fetal movements not being acted on, lack of fetal heart rate monitoring overnight or at the weekend, failure to interpret monitoring correctly, failure to identify growth restricted babies and failure to refer for obstetric review. All too often, procedures and practices aren’t changed and don’t seem to be shared with other Trusts such that lessons aren’t learned and the baby’s life hasn’t made a difference. This is also shocking.
Sands statistics indicate that improvement is coming then, but slowly?
I am encouraged by the commitment that has been made by the Government to change this situation through the long-term quality improvement programme, Each Baby Counts. I truly hope that the number of babies who die or are left severely disabled due to preventable incidents is halved by 2020, which is the aim of the programme. I realise we will never live in a perfect utopia but if some families could be spared the pain of a baby death that would be an incredible moment.
Claire, thank you again for finding the time to speak to me.