Baby denied milk for 18 hours ‘not starved’ says head of the UK’s Detention Services, UK Border Agency
On Wednesday 2 July 2008 at about 11pm, I was visiting an online Yahoo! group for breastfeeding supporters. An urgent request had just been posted by Morgan Gallagher, Chair of Nursing Matters, an advocacy organisation for mothers and babies. I could hardly believe what I was reading.
Morgan’s main concerns were as follows.
Baby C (born 27th March) had been removed to Yarl's Wood Detention Centre in Bedford at the age of eight weeks, with her mother and two siblings aged four and six. Her mother, who had successfully breastfed the older two, had been advised for medical reasons to feed Baby C with formula.
The Department of Health states that infant formula milk should be made up with freshly-boiled water at 70ºC, cooled and given immediately. Any left-over milk should be discarded. (See NHS Direct website). In Yarl’s Wood, powdered formula is locked in an office, and mothers must queue up and sign for it. Making up fresh batches each time is therefore extremely difficult for them. The formula has to be made up before 11pm, and then used from that bottle all night long. No refrigeration is available, and mothers are given bottle-warmers to warm the nighttime feeds made several hours earlier. This poses further health risks.
Baby C suffered repeated bouts of gastro-enteritis after arriving at Yarl's Wood, initially with projectile vomiting. Her mother took her care very seriously, and after being given leaflets by Morgan on safe formula preparation, refused to give the baby feeds which were not freshly prepared. She used anti-bacterial soap given by Morgan to scrub everything that the baby’s bottles came into contact with. The projectile vomiting stopped, but the diarrhoea persisted. This resulted in faltering growth. When C was first detained, her weight had been charted at just under the 98th percentile. Four weeks later, no growth had occurred, and her weight line was now just above the 75th percentile – actually a loss of weight from what was expected.
On Monday June 30th, C was taken to Bedford Hospital with a suspected
chest infection. She was seen by a paediatrician, who prescribed an elemental,
hypo-allergenic formula to address the feeding problems. She returned to Yarl's
Wood that evening, with one 500g tin of elemental formula from Bedford
Hospital, and a note from the hospital that more would be required.
By the afternoon of Wednesday July 2nd, the tin of formula was nearly empty. The mother was assured that more would be obtained. At 7.30pm, Morgan received an urgent phone call from a volunteer from Medical Justice, stating that no elemental formula was available at Yarl's Wood. Morgan rang the centre, and was told by the night manager the following:
· there was no elemental formula in the compound
· Yarl's Wood medical team knew it was needed, but had not prescribed it in advance
· the mother had been told by a qualified nurse that the doctor on duty, who was contacted by telephone but who did not examine the baby, had said that the baby should have boiled water with sugar, or Dioralyte rehydration fluid
· no other action would be taken overnight, other than to offer the mother sugar, or Dioralyte.
At 8.15pm, Morgan told the night staff that she could collect a prescription from Yarl's Wood, obtain formula from an all-night chemist, and return it immediately. This offer was rejected. The reason given was that formula had to be processed through ‘the system’. Instead, the mother was given two boxes of Dioralyte to feed to Baby C through the night.
Morgan’s request on the chat group was for help in protesting about this baby’s treatment. I was appalled by this account, and resolved to do what I could to help.
On the morning of Thursday 3 July I spent two hours on the telephone in an attempt to help address this situation. The responses I had from Yarl’s Wood and Social Services was extremely worrying. I was assured by a Yarl’s Wood manager and social workers that food was not withheld from detainees, yet the baby had still not been fed by late morning. At 1pm, I heard from Morgan that Baby C had at last been given some formula, some 18 hours after her last milk feed.
A few days later, I sent an email to Brian Pollett, Head of Detention Services, asking for an explanation and assurances that such a situation would never be allowed in future.
Dear Mr Pollett
I am writing to express my outrage at the treatment of a 3-month old baby, C, currently detained with her mother at Yarl's Wood, overnight on Wednesday 2nd July 2008.
Baby C needed a specialist formula milk, but none was made available from about 7pm on 2nd July to 1pm on 3rd July. Instead, her mother was advised to give rehydration fluids, or water. A letter was sent to a Yarl's Wood visitor by Gillian Foley, Area Manager, Detention Services, to explain how the situation had arisen and been managed. I quote:
'On the advice of the centre doctor, (the baby's mother) was recommended to feed C overnight with boiled water and Dioralyte until the prescription could be filled.'
A 3-month old baby requires milk every few hours, including overnight. A 6 kg bottle-fed baby should have access to around 900 ml of formula in 24 hours. Giving plain water can be dangerous. If a baby needs rehydration fluids, these should not be given in place of milk when the baby is able to take a milk feed. Withholding food from a young baby is extremely distressing to both child and mother, and especially dangerous to one already showing signs of malnutrition; baby C had gained no weight in four weeks of detention.
I am also very concerned that when I was first made aware of these concerns, I was unable to contact anyone at Yarl's Wood directly through the telephone system at 9.45 am on Thursday 3rd. The automated system kept being repeated, so I had to leave messages on various answerphones, unrelated to my query, in the hope of talking with someone. Eventually my call was returned by Mr X, residential Manager, at about 10.30. He told me: 'We do not refuse food to detainees', and claimed that formula was available for baby C. (I omitted to tell Mr Pollett that this manager gave me the name of the mother and child, which I did not know until then, in a blatant breach of confidentiality.) However, the baby was not fed for another 2½ hours after this.
I also rang Bedford Social Services, who told me that they could do nothing about child protection unless the Yarl's Wood staff contacted them first. I was then put in touch with Ms Y, social worker at Yarl's Wood, and she passed me on to her colleague Ms Z. They said they were unaware of this situation, and stated that they would investigate, but claimed that babies were not put at risk in this way at Yarl's Wood. In two hours of telephone calls, I felt I had come up against a brick wall of indifference.
I am writing to various agencies including the NSPCC and the Children's Society about this situation. Baby C's life was put at risk by deliberate starvation. In the UK, we expect that children who are mistreated will be removed to a place of safety. Even domestic animals are protected from negligent owners. It appears that babies under the care of our Government in Yarl's Wood enjoy no such protection.
I believe that you are aware of this situation. I would like to know what is being done to ensure that this appalling treatment is not repeated. I would also like assurances that the current dangerous and criminal neglect of young babies and their mothers at Yarl's Wood, which has been reported by many people and from which this particular incident arose, will be immediately addressed.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Mrs Alison Blenkinsop RM DipHe IBCLC
Media Liaison, Lactation Consultants of Great Britain
On 28th July, I received a reply from Mr Pollett, in which he stated the following:
‘Your assertions of mistreatment of Baby C are without foundation…. I simply cannot agree with the concluding statement of your letter that the care of young babies and their mothers at Yarl's Wood is dangerous and constitutes criminal neglect…. I absolutely reject your allegation that Baby C was deliberately starved.’
There are many extremely worrying aspects of detainees’ treatment by the UK Borders Agency. This is just one of them. If you disagree with Mr Pollett’s view of this treatment of Baby C, and wish me to tell him what you think, please contact me with your name, and any professional qualifications you hold, and I will pass on your message.
NB I have permission from Baby C’s mother to discuss her case as appropriate.
Alison Blenkinsop IBCLC, DipHE
International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and midwife
aliblenk AT hotmail.com
(Nursing Matters has facillitated this web page on Ms Blenkinsop’s
request. She does not speak for Nursing
Matters and her work on this baby’s welfare is being done under her own
professional brief. Nursing Matters is
more than happy to offer this facility to her in her campaign for justice for
Baby C, and her pressing for an undertaking by
For more information, see :