When homebirth becomes a crime

When homebirth becomes a crime

CLICK HERE for story info.

PJ MADAM: Why did the police turn up to your door?

JANET: I don't know.

PJ: What alerted them?

JANET: I don't know.

PJ: Or who alerted them?

JANET: I don't know. I've never, ever heard of the police turning up at the same time as the ambulance.

PJ: Soon after Janet Fraser's baby daughter was born, her home became a crime scene.

JANET: They took our video, they took our stills camera. And they took a lot of video and photographs of their own. I was allowed to hold her for a while. And then I was told that she had to be taken.

PJ: Why?

JANET: Because she was evidence.

PJ: It's a scenario being repeated around the country when homebirths turn deadly. It's not illegal to have a homebirth. But...

ANNIE: No. It's illegal when you lose a child.

PJ: Giving birth is one of life's gifts. And while most Australian women choose to do it in hospital, more than 1,300 a year, give birth at home. Which brings us to Annie and Chris Palmer. Chris is a nurse, Annie is a journalist. They're home birth converts
but at first they were sceptics.

ANNIE: I thought it was for hippies. I thought there's so much risk with homebirth.

PJ: What was it that changed your mind?

ANNIE: A homebirth is a natural birth. There's no drugs. No induction. Everything went well. Very healing. I don't know how to explain that but it was very healing. Very empowering.

PJ: 2.5 years after Lily was born, Annie and Chris were overjoyed to discover they were pregnant again. Finally, their dream of having a big family would be coming true. But it wasn't until six months later that they found out they would be having twins.

ANNIE: I was almost there, so big. But there was a problem.

PJ: Your meeting with the obstetrician. What did they advise you?

ANNIE: They advised us to have an elective C-section because Max was breach.

PJ: Chris, as a nurse, how did you feel?

CHRIS: Nerves with that. But the chances were still... were pretty good.

PJ: But then there was another warning. At 37 weeks, their midwife quit because she too was worried about complications. So Annie and Chris, turned to this woman.

LISA: Hello. I'm a birth worker. My name is Lisa Barrett and I'm from South Australia.

PJ: For legal reasons, Lisa Barrett no longer calls herself a midwife. She doesn't give interviews. This is rare public appearance.

LISA: But I am saying as a care provider, you have to be very thick skinned. You have to be able to put up with the headline that says, "Baby slaughterer".

PJ: When Annie and Chris hired Lisa, she'd already been present at the deaths of two babies. A South Australian coroner later found those deaths could have been prevented if the births had happened in hospital. Did you know of her history at the time?

Um, I knew. I knew of her, yeah, of her history.

PJ: It didn't deter you?


PJ: On 3 July, 2011, Annie went into labour. Her daughter, Lily, was there. Lisa Barrett is to the right, wearing glasses. There was also a registered midwife present. Max arrives without complications but minutes later, joy turns to panic - his brother has problems.
Lisa Barrett tells Annie to push. She suffers what's known as a full placental abruption.

ANNIE: He was lifeless. He was white. And...his umbilical cord was not pulsing. I could see that. And I took him in my arms...and I named him right away. I just... His name came out of me, Sam. Sam. My beautiful boy. And somebody took me out of the water,
put me on the sofa and....and that's it.

PJ: But that wasn't it. In the early hours of that morning, Annie was cradling her surviving son, Max, while grieving the loss of his twin brother, Sam. Then suddenly out of nowhere, police arrived at the hospital to question her. The family had become the target of a criminal investigation. Detectives searched their home, seized their birthing pool and went through their rubbish, looking for evidence that would be presented to the Coroner. Do you feel that you killed your baby?

ANNIE: No. There are risks in hospital...and there's risks at home and you have to choose your... What you can live with. And, as horrible as it is, I can live with that. (SIGHS) It doesn't make it easier.

PJ: The West Australian Coroner has ordered an inquest into Sam's death. Annie will be called to give evidence and so will Lisa Barrett. Three months after Sam died, Barrett attended another home birth which also ended in a placental abruption and the death of another twin. It was her fourth homebirth tragedy and it wouldn't be her last.

LISA: You have to close your ears and people are saying it's because you are dangerous or because you're negligent.

SARAH: For me, it was probably more about trying to take control of the situation and of the birth.

LUKE: I felt as though it was a selfish decision for Sarah to make because I, you know, I feel as though the baby's well-being should be put ahead of the mother's.

PJ: 3-year-old Amelie De Piazza is the love of her parents' life. But there's no love lost between mum and dad after Amelie narrowly survived a home birth that went very wrong.

LUKE: I felt like my fears and my concerns weren't respected during the pregnancy and it turns out I was right.

PJ: Luke didn't want a homebirth. His wife, Sarah did.

LUKE: Yeah, I sort of felt like I had no say in it.

PJ: On February 2, 2010, with a midwife present, Sarah went into labour at home. Baby Amelie was bottom first, in breach position. Panic set in.

LUKE: I knew from the midwife's tone of voice and her language to the ambulance that it was really serious.

PJ: Can you remember what she said down the phone line?

LUKE: Can you (BLEEP) get here now? We've got a breach baby. You need to (BLEEP) get her now.

SARAH: Luke lifted me up and kind of grabbed me and pushed me and just like hurled me down twice and then Amelie came out. A lot I don't really remember 'cause it was absolute shock. I just thought I have to accept that this baby may die.

PJ: Amelie survived but the breach birth left her tiny hip badly injured and she'd spend months in a brace. Would you consider a homebirth again?

SARAH: Absolutely not.

PJ: Too traumatic?

SARAH: I believe that I was very much focussed on the rights of the woman and the woman's pregnancy and labour. And now I'm focussed on the rights of the child and their right to life. I personally believe if there is a 1% chance that a baby will survive from being in hospital care, then that's the chance that you don't risk having a home birth if there's that chance that they could die.

PJ: What about you, Luke?

LUKE: Even if she wanted to have a homebirth, I would not have another child if that was the case. I'm not really here to tell other women what they should do with their pregnancies but it's dangerous and all my fears really were - they come true.

JANET: The only person whose opinion matters in the birth of a child is that of the mother. The mother is the person who wears the consequences of that birth for the rest of her life.

PJ: Janet Fraser's baby, Rosin, died during what is called a free birth. It's a homebirth without a midwife to offer help if something goes wrong. Janet passionately believed her home was a safer, more nurturing environment than hospital. And where was it? Was it in the lounge, did you set up a space?

JANET: I had given birth in my study twice now.

PJ: Did you have any drugs on hand or any...?

JANET: No, no, that would be completely unsafe and inappropriate or me to do that because I'm not trained in their use.

PJ: OK. What about resuscitation equipment or...?

JANET: You don't carry things like that at a home birth. Not at a free birth.

PJ: OK, what about a stethoscope, even?

JANET: What would I do with that?

PJ: To monitor the baby's heartbeat.

JANET: Once a baby is earth side, it's pretty easy to see whether their heart is beating or not.

PJ: OK. Did you have a plan in place, if anything went wrong?

JANET: We always have a plan in place in life, let alone in birth if something goes wrong.

PJ: What was it?

JANET: Well, if something happens to anyone in my home that is bad, I call an ambulance.

PJ: They were rushed to hospital but all attempts to resuscitate Rosin failed. Janet's home became a crime scene. Her baby daughter became evidence. Janet and her de facto husband were both grieving parents and suspects.

JANET: We weren't allowed to be alone with our baby because she was now evidence. And I couldn't work out what she was evidence of. And she had tubes and things on her which they wouldn't let us remove because that was more of this evidence. She wore it very briefly in the hospital before the police took her.

PJ: After the police had finished their work, Janet and her partner went to the morgue to see Rosin one last time. Soon after, the relationship broke up.

JANET: It takes more than legs to hold you up when you hold your dead baby. So, I sat there and held her and he held her and we cried.

PJ: So, you know the accusations that if you have gone to hospital, that things would have been different.

JANET: Yes. Yes, I know. But none of the women who birth in hospital whose babies die are ever told that if they had been at home, it would have been different. I got hit with bad luck on that occasion. That's it. It happens. It happened to my own sister whose baby was born still in a hospital.

PJ: In your case, would that bad luck have been prevented if you were in hospital?


PJ: The New South Wales Deputy Coroner disagreed, finding that everyone at the birth of Rosin was completely unprepared.

JANET: There's no crime here. There is a still birth. It's no crime.

PJ: You're saying still birth.


PJ: The Coroner doesn't agree.

JANET: That's OK.

PJ: The Coroner believes that there were signs of life.

JANET: The Coroner has to believe that or there couldn't be an inquiry.

LISA: If your baby were to die at the hospital and they said "Did you ever have an afternoon nap?" you can't say yes!

PJ: Lisa Barrett continues to advise mothers-to-be.

LISA: Because they'll say, "That's why your baby died."

PJ: Last December, she attended another home birth, another fatality - the fifth under her watch. South Australian police are investigating that death - a 1-day-old baby born in the breach position.

DR MOUNTAIN: Her figures are catastrophic. Her rate of death during delivery would be completely unacceptable to any obstetrician practising in Australia or any Western country.

PJ: At Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital in Perth... Dr David Mountain has seen too many babies rushed to emergency because of complications during homebirths. He wants all high-risk home births banned.

DR MOUNTAIN: We know that babies that are born at home, certainly in the Australian environment, there's about a three times higher death rate for those babies who are born at home.

JANET: We keep talking and talking about the risk of home birth and focussing on the risk of homebirth when so many risks in hospital as well.

PJ: It's very obvious this has completely changed your life. If you were to meet someone and you wanted to expand your family, would you consider a free birth or a homebirth?

JANET: I have no idea. The odds of that happening are very slim. I am a 44-year-old single woman with two children and a frightening media profile. There aren't really men lining up.

PJ: As for Annie, she is counting the days until she will find out whether her homebirth was a crime.

ANNIE: Right or wrong, guilty or not, the loss won't ever go away. I would like just to grieve, just to...just to grieve.