Britain’s worst mums: What makes some women capable of harming their own children?

What makes some women capable of crimes that defy natural instincts?

Britain's worst mums
(Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

What makes some women capable of crimes that defy natural instincts to harm their own children?

Clutching her little girl’s teddy, sobbing, Karen Matthews, then 33, begged on TV for her nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, to be returned. Everyone felt her anguish: a missing child is every parent’s worst nightmare.

And yet, as we discovered, that natural impulse to love and protect your child sometimes fails to kick in – when it transpired Karen was jointly behind the abduction.

The infamous kidnapping has been immortalised in dramas, books and documentaries, and, 12 years later, Matthews’ every move creates more headlines, including her engagement to a man convicted of engaging in sexual activity with a child.

The world’s obsession is borne from our inability to comprehend how a mother could commit such crimes against her own child, and while cases are – thankfully – rare, they’re unforgivable. Woman’s Own looks at crimes perpetrated by Britain’s worst mums…

What happened to Shannon Matthews?

Within 24-hours of her disappearance, posters featuring Shannon Matthews, nine, were plastered on lamp posts across Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Her mum, Karen, had reported her missing after she failed to arrive home from school on 19 February 2008, and police had launched a massive search.

After Karen’s appeal, the search got bigger and a £50,000 reward was offered.

‘Whoever has got Shannon, just please let her go,’ Karen begged on day 10, as police warned that Shannon may have ‘fallen into the wrong hands’.

After 24 days, a tip-off led police to the flat of Michael Donovan, then 39, the uncle of Craig Meehan, Karen’s then-boyfriend. There, they found Shannon, drugged and tethered, inside a divan bed.

Police believed Donovan and Karen Matthews had orchestrated Shannon’s kidnap, inspired by donations to the ‘find Madeleine McCann’ fund. The court heard the idea was that Donovan would ‘find’ Shannon, hand her to police and claim the cash to split with Karen.

In December 2008, Karen Matthews, then 33, and Michael Donovan, 40, were found guilty of kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice, with each sentenced to eight years in prison.

During a police interview after her arrest, Karen reportedly said: ‘People will hate me for what I’ve done.’ And, despite being released in 2012, after serving half her sentence, the shocking stunt remains very much in the minds of the public.

Shannon, who turns 21 this year, was taken into care and given a new identity.

16 children were killed by a parent in the UK between March 2017 and March 2018.*

Unimaginable cruelty

Tracey Connelly

It’s an image implanted into the minds of the country, even 13 years later: a sweet blond, blue-eyed boy, flashing a toothy grin. It was a photo that would come to represent one of the most upsetting child abuse cases of recent times.

The boy was Baby P, revealed to be toddler Peter Connelly, who was found dead in his blood-stained cot on August 2007 at 17-months-old, after suffering months of sustained abuse at the hands of his mother, Tracey Connelly, then 27, her boyfriend, Steven Barker, then 31, and his brother, Jason Owen, then 35.

The court was told that, despite more than 60 visits from social workers and police, baby Peter was living in squalor, had his head shaved, was covered in bruises and often left to starve in a cot with no bedding while his mother drank, watched porn and had sex with Barker.

When Peter died, he had more than 50 injuries, including a fingernail and toenail ripped off, and a torn earlobe. His spine had been fractured and a postmortem found he had swallowed a tooth.

In May 2009, Connelly – a mum of four – was jailed for a minimum of five years after admitting causing or allowing her son’s death. The judge described her as selfish, calculating and manipulative. Barker was handed a 12-year term while Owen was handed a six-year sentence – for the same conviction.

Connelly remains in prison and has continually been deemed a ‘danger to the public’ and denied parole.

Crushed at his mother’s feet

When the death of three-year-old Alfie Lamb made news in February 2018, the nation was appalled. Not only because of the violent way he died – squashed in the footwell of his mother’s boyfriend’s car because he was crying – but because of the role his mother, Adrian Hoare, then 24, had in his death.

The toddler was between her feet in the rear footwell after a shopping trip, when her boyfriend, Stephen Waterson, then 25, slammed his seat back.

The court heard how Alfie screamed for his mummy but Hoare just slapped him and told him to ‘shut up’. By the time they arrived home, Alfie had stopped breathing. He died in hospital three days later.

The couple tried to lie their way out of trouble, but Hoare confessed to her half sister and was arrested. She was jailed for two years and nine months for child cruelty and assaulting a witness.

Waterson, described by police as ‘arrogant, selfish and deeply unpleasant’, was sentenced to seven years and six months for manslaughter.

‘It’s a cycle of abuse’

Forensic psychologist Dr Keri Nixon says: ‘As a mother myself, these crimes are evil acts committed against innocent children and unforgivable. However, as a psychologist, I can see similar patterns emerging. In the majority of cases, the mother has experienced abuse, neglect and trauma throughout their childhood themselves. Tracey Connelly had the most awful life, and although what she did was unforgivable, she lived a very similar existence to baby Peter.

Adults mistreated like this simply don’t have the same tools as other parents, in fact research shows their brains don’t develop in the same way.

This is no excuse – they know their behaviour is wrong. But we need to understand this cycle of abuse if we’re going to stop it. These children need help before it’s too late, because by eight or nine they’re displaying abusive and destructive behaviours. Many people experience abuse as children and don’t go on to commit horrible crimes – but usually, at some point, someone has taught them about healthy attachment.

Frances Leate
Senior Real Life Writer

Frances has been a journalist for 18 years. Starting out on her local newspaper, she has always had a passion for human interest stories. In recent years she has been devoted to writing the gripping, sometimes heartbreaking, but often life-affirming stories of real people for women's magazines, including Woman's Own, Woman and Chat. She also writes about health, beauty, crime, parenting and all the many issues affecting women in today's everchanging and complex world. Frances has also spent time working on newspapers abroad, including Spain and the Middle East where she was a passionate advocate for animal rights and giving a voice to those who didn't have one.