The story broke when police visited several parents, including Hannah Cheevers, to tell them that their children’s organs had been discovered at Southampton General Hospital. Cheever’s two-day-old son Rhys had died from a heart defect in 1998. “When he died they offered us a post mortem to find out what had happened and we agreed because we wanted to know,” Cheever said. Thirteen years later, she said, police told her that “tissues … had been retained.” “I thought they meant a sliver of tissue on a slide. Then they said it was his whole brain. I was shocked. … They wouldn’t tell me why it had been kept.” Cheever immediately thought back to the early 1990s, when Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool secretly harvested and kept the organs of 3,000 children. “I remember the Alder Hey scandal, and I said to my mum at the time that I was glad it wasn’t Southampton,” Cheever reflected. “There really needs to be an inquiry into this.” In 1999, the Alder Hey scandal prompted Natasha Luke to contact Southampton General inquiring if any organs had been kept from her brother Kevin, who had died four years earlier at age 15. “The hospital looked into it and sent a letter saying they had kept my son’s brain for six weeks — then it was disposed of,” Natasha’s mother Maria said. “We were disgusted.” Although Maria Luke used to visit her son’s grave every day, she has not been back in years. “It doesn’t feel like it’s really him there, it feels like a shell,” she said.
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Police Inquiry In spite of Natasha Luke’s 1999 inquiry, it would be 13 more years before Southampton’s organ storing practices became public. In 2006, a new law required hospitals for the first time to get consent from next-of-kin before storing a deceased person’s organs. Previously, police had regularly instructed hospitals to store organs for extended periods in case of future investigations. Because Southampton is a regional autopsy center, it became a repository for many of these organs. Recently, two police forces independently released information on their tissue retention practices. West Mercia Police stored 44 organ samples over 20 years, while the Avon and Somerset department kept more than 100 for more than 25 years. These findings prompted the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to order a nationwide audit, which turned up the repository at Southampton. A final report will be published in March. Southampton denies any wrongdoing, claiming it acted on the orders of police. Meanwhile, the ACPO has acknowledged the “sensitivity” of the issue, while stopping short of accepting fault. “It is down to individual forces to decide … whether the material (sic) is needed or not,” a spokesperson said. “In some cases the retention period may have been longer than necessary.” For some, the news reopened old wounds — such as for Cathy Franklin, whose two-year-old son was beaten to death by his abusive father in 2002, only to have his brain, eyes and spinal cord secretly removed and stored for a decade. Perhaps most outrageous is the case of Sean and Sara Luff, whose three-day-old son was killed when Southampton staff injected him with 100 times the proper does of painkillers. Now the Luffs have learned that the same hospital kept their son’s brain in a jar for 12 years. “How many times can one family, and one little baby, be betrayed by the authorities?” Sean asked. “How much more heartache can they inflict on us?”