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September 20th, 2020

Society

A Bruise Is Not Always Abuse

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Feb. 14, 2020

A Bruise Is Not Always Abuse
"Taking her to our own hospital was the single most harmful decision that we made for our baby."

So said a dad who worried he'd accidentally injured his newly adopted infant by rolling into her when they both dozed off. He took her to the hospital just to make sure she was fine. Turns out she had suffered a minor fracture that is common in babies and heals on its own. That was in May. Two weeks later, child protective services declared him a child abuser and took the baby from him and his wife.

The child has been in foster care now for eight months. She is 9 months old.

What happened? NBC's Mike Hixenbaugh did a remarkable investigative story on how easy it seems to be for the authorities to see almost any bump or bruise as evidence of evil.

That fateful May night, the dad, John Cox (himself a pediatric emergency doctor at Children's Wisconsin, the hospital he took his baby to) thought that the way the girl was moving her arm could indicate something was wrong. So, Hixenbaugh writes:

"Cox called his wife, Dr. Sadie Dobrozsi, who was out of town with their two older children, and cried as he explained what had happened. Dobrozsi, a pediatric oncologist at the same hospital, said she told him to calm down and asked to video chat. The baby appeared fine to her, but to be safe, Dobrozsi suggested that Cox take her to see her pediatrician.

"'That's what normal parents who aren't doctors would do,' she told him.

"What followed, according to more than 15 medical experts who later reviewed Cox's case, was a series of medical mistakes and misstatements by hospital staff members that has devastated Cox's family and derailed his career."

In addition to mistaking birthmarks for bruises and misinterpreting the results of a blood test, some staffers seemed so eager to find abuse that they hallucinated it. How come?

Children's Wisconsin, like many hospitals, has bought into the theory of "sentinel injuries" — the idea that minor bruises can be warning signs of future abuse, so each bruise must be treated as suspicious.

Surely, violence against kids can escalate over time. But it is also true that many kids get bumps and bruises not because their parents are evil but because, well, kids get bumps and bruises — even fractures. "Several emergency room doctors described an 'out of control' child abuse team that is too quick to report minor injuries to authorities and that is too closely aligned with state child welfare investigators," Hixenbaugh writes.

In fact, five of the doctors at that hospital not involved with this case told him they'd be afraid to take their own kids there with an injury — for fear of tripwiring an abuse investigation.

In part, the problem can be traced to the advent of the "child abuse pediatrician" — a new specialty that claims to be able to tell adult-inflicted injuries from innocent ones. It's not just that to a hammer everything is a nail; it's also the fact that these specialists are not plain old doctors working for the good of the patient.

As Diane Redleaf, the legal consultant at Let Grow, explains, "Child abuse pediatricians very often operate under secret contracts with police, child protection and prosecution offices (never disclosed to the parents bringing their children in for emergency treatment). These individuals have been billed as having special superhuman powers to tell abuse from accidents and rare diseases, superior to the powers of other doctors because they 'know child abuse when they see it.'"

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, as well as the hospital staffers involved in the case, declined to comment to NBC.

Cox could afford to get outside doctors to review the records, and many were shaken by what they saw. For instance, a hospital staffer concluded that a bruise on the baby's foot indicated abuse ... when actually it was caused by the hospital itself drawing blood from the baby's heel.

At this point, the baby is still in foster care.

We all agree children should be kept safe from abuse — including when it comes swaddled in "protective services."

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