How have approaches to baby loss changed over time?
I spent some time reflecting, in the approach to Baby Loss Awareness Week, about my experiences since starting work in this area of law many years ago.
I first became involved in the world of baby loss in 1997 when I was a trainee solicitor and part of the team who represented parents at the Bristol Royal Infirmary Inquiry into the death of babies following paediatric cardiac surgery. I had no experience of grief at that age and certainly no experience of baby loss. When I think back now, I do hope I was sensitive to those families and what they were going through. I learnt so much from them for which I will be eternally grateful. It struck me at the time how much they just wanted someone to really listen to their story, to be able to talk about their baby, to find out what had happened and to make a difference for the future. That really hasn’t changed over the years and I thank those families for giving me a solid foundation to help others during my career.
Representing clients who have suffered the tragedy of baby loss is an honour. Over the years I have been trusted with so many precious stories; so much heartache has been shared with me from so many families. Whilst it is extremely sad every time I speak with a family, helping in any way, even if it feels small, is so fulfilling.
That said, litigation isn’t easy. The process can be stressful and psychologically it is often difficult to move forward whilst litigation is taking place.
How has the medical approach to baby loss changed?
Over the years I have seen a change in the way that some Trusts deal with baby loss. The aim is to move towards a culture which is open and transparent when things go wrong, where practices are shared, improvements made and lessons learnt across the UK. There have been various initiatives and campaigns to reduce the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths by applying best practice across the country in a consistent way. More recently, Each Baby Counts collects information from maternity units following a local hospital review when a baby dies or is brain injured. The Perinatal Mortality Review Tool is a review process using a framework of questions that takes place in each hospital when a baby dies. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch undertakes safety investigations following stillbirth, early neonatal death and severe brain injury to enable the NHS to learn lessons and to share that learning. The Government’s target is to halve the rate of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths and brain injuries occurring during or soon after birth by 2025.
Our experience is that some hospital Trusts have embraced these initiatives when something goes wrong, learning from mistakes, undertaking thorough internal investigations which involve the family and sharing their findings. The difference that this approach makes to the family cannot be under-estimated. No-one becomes pregnant anticipating that their baby will die. Unless you have experienced baby loss, you cannot begin to imagine how it must feel to have something so precious taken away from you. To then have to fight for answers about what happened and an admission that things went wrong must be totally and utterly unbearable. It is so refreshing when I work on cases with families where hospitals exercise their duty of candour and work alongside families to find ways to improve the care received by future patients. For many of the families I have worked with, the entire aim of making a claim is to leave a legacy from their child for the future by finding answers to what went wrong, and using that information to change practices and protocols, saving the lives of others by improving safety for all patients. In this way, no matter how long they are with us, every baby’s life makes a difference.
How has society’s approach to baby loss changed?
While as a society I think we have seen positive steps towards encouraging people to talk about baby loss, on an individual level some people still avoid friends or family members who have lost a baby. That isn’t their fault, they just don’t know what to say when faced with this tragedy. There is still work to be done around normalising speaking about baby loss on a day to day basis. Sadly, I also still hear of mums following a stillbirth or neonatal death being asked to go back to the same department, using the same car park, the same entrance and the same corridor to go and get results of hospital investigations. This is a trigger for them reliving what happened and can so easily be avoided by a bit of forward planning and organisation. Families also tell me that when they go to a meeting, quite often the doctor conducting the meeting is ill-prepared and doesn’t have their medical notes in front of them. Going to a meeting following the death of your child to hear about the results of an internal investigation is a massive event in a family’s life. It should be treated as such and I don’t think there is any excuse for failing to prepare for that discussion.
How has the support available to bereaved parents changed?
In terms of support, now there is a lot more support available online and via social media than there was all those years ago when I first started working in this area of law. In fact, I didn’t even have a computer then, let alone a mobile phone! There are so many amazing families out there who have set up online charities in their child’s name and so many incredible employees and volunteers who work tirelessly to run the various charities and groups and provide support to those in need. It’s also great that the charities in the baby loss world join together to share their experiences and common goals to make a difference. This is never more apparent than during Baby Loss Awareness Week (9-15 October) when buildings and social media are turned pink and blue across the UK, ending in the global wave of light on 15 October. That week sends such a powerful message in remembrance of all the babies across the world who were born sleeping, or died shortly after birth.
I feel very honoured to have helped so many families over the years but also very sad that they have needed my help. What is immensely satisfying is to see those families move through their journey and onto the next stage of their life, their child still firmly in their heart.
Claire Stoneman is a Partner at Enable Law and heads the team who specialise in stillbirth, neonatal death and birth injury claims. You can contact Claire on 03303 116850 or firstname.lastname@example.org .