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Free-Range Kids

'Taking Our Baby to the Hospital Was the Single Most Harmful Decision We Made'

Child services falsely labeled this dad an abuser and took his adopted newborn.

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Last May, John Cox was worried he had accidentally hurt his newly adopted infant by rolling into her when they both dozed off. Erring on the side of caution, he brought her to Children's Wisconsin hospital—where he worked, coincidentally, as a pediatric emergency doctor—just to make absolutely sure she was fine. It turned out she had suffered a minor fracture that is common in babies and heals on its own.

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 only nine months old.

What happened? According to a remarkable investigative story by NBC's Mike Hixenbaugh, it's possible for the authorities to interpret almost any bump or bruise as evidence of evil intent:

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. A nurse practitioner on the hospital's child abuse team confused the baby's birthmarks for bruises, according to seven dermatologists who have reviewed the case. A child abuse pediatrician misinterpreted a crucial blood test, four hematologists later said. Then, two weeks after the incident, armed with those disputed medical reports, Child Protective Services took the child.

Those misjudgments—and a deep suspicion of all parents with injured kids—led to the child being taken.

"In hindsight," Cox said in a recent interview, "taking her to our own hospital was the single most harmful decision that we made for our baby."

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. But as Hixenbaugh writes:

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. …

Five doctors told a reporter they're even afraid to bring their own children to their hospital after accidental injuries, fearing that a misdiagnosis or miscommunication might lead Child Protective Services to break their family apart.

"This is a disease in our hospital," one physician said. "The way John's case has been mishandled has opened all of our eyes to how big the problem is."

In part, the problem can be traced to the advent of the child abuse pediatrician, who claims to be able to tell adult-inflicted injuries from innocent ones.

"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," Diane Redleaf, the legal consultant at Let Grow, tells Reason. "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.'"

Added NBC, which joined The Houston Chronicle in an investigation of this new pediatric specialty:

Some of the doctors have at times overstated the certainty of their conclusions, the investigation found. Child welfare agencies and law enforcement officials often rely on their reports as the sole basis for removing children and filing criminal charges, sometimes in spite of contradictory opinions from other medical specialists.

In Cox's case, the family could afford to get outside doctors to review the records, and many were shaken by what they saw. They pointed out not just several stone-cold mistakes, but how eager the authorities seemed to be to find abuse.

A police detective who grilled both Cox and his wife—Sadie Dobrozsi, also a pediatric doctor—said he didn't understand how the hospital could have concluded they did something wrong. That didn't stop child protective services, though: The authorities insisted on a safety plan for the baby, involving supervised visits monitored by grandparents.

Eventually, child services removed the baby from the home, anyway:

As the caseworker was leaving with the child, Dobrozsi asked what was making them so certain that she and her husband were abusive? The caseworker mentioned a new bruise on the baby's foot.

Mom was completely baffled. She had no idea where that bruise came from, until she obtained her baby's medical records. It turned out the hospital itself had pricked the child's heel for a blood test. The mom didn't know this because she had not been allowed in the room when it happened.

At this point, the baby is still in foster care. The couple's other two kids are terrified that they may be taken, too. (One keeps his favorite toys in a backpack in case he's suddenly taken away). Now the father faces a possible six years in jail on felony charges of child abuse.

The prosecutor is bolstering his case with a report prepared by a yet another child abuse pediatrician, this one in nearby Minnesota, whom he hired to look over the files. "In summary," this child abuse pediatrician wrote, "there is no explanation for [the baby's] injuries other than trauma."

And yet the trauma of separating an infant baby from her loving parents for months does not seem to concern the authorities.