Government abuse

Child Welfare Systems Are Trapping Innocent Families

Georgia parents were accused of child abuse after they took their daughter to the doctor. Does the state's story add up?


It wasn't long before Jennifer Williams noticed there was something unusual about the two young girls she was fostering. Three-year-old Arya Hernandez was bright, outgoing, and without any of the behavioral issues Williams had become accustomed to over more than a decade as a foster parent in Georgia. But 4-month-old Emma seemed sickly. The baby's soft spot was too big for her age and in the wrong part of her head, and the whites of her eyes were discolored. She was also bowlegged and held her limbs in an unusual, awkward way.

Williams was only taking care of the girls for the weekend while their usual foster parent was out of town. She decided to call the girls' foster mom to ask why she wasn't told about Emma's medical problems.

"She texted me back pretty quickly and says, 'Well, did no one tell you Emma and Arya are in foster care because of abuse?'" Williams says. "'Emma was abused physically by her parents.'"

The response surprised Williams. If baby Emma was abused by her parents—resulting in fractures, as the foster parent told her—why did no one warn her?

When the girls left to go back to their usual foster home, Williams contacted the girls' caseworker about her concerns. The caseworker thanked her for her insight and told her that the child protection agency was looking into medical evaluations for Emma. Still unsettled, Williams decided to search for the girls' family on social media. What she found left her even more perturbed.

"My family is facing an emergency and are in dire need of your help," a July 10 Facebook post from Wilairat "Tuckey" Hernandez, the girls' mother, began. "On June 6, 2023, my husband and I had our two daughters Arya and Emma taken from us at the Children's Hospital by the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). We took Emma to The Hospital after noticing she had unexplained swelling on one of her legs….Images were taken of Emma's leg and rib cage and it was determined she had a fractured leg and cracked left ribs."

Tuckey's post went on to describe how DFCS had accused her of abuse within hours of arriving at the hospital, despite no other signs of abuse or dysfunction in the family. While Tuckey suspected an underlying medical condition could have caused her daughter's fractures, getting her tested would be difficult with the girls in DFCS custody, and possibly financially prohibitive. Making matters even worse, Tuckey—a Thai immigrant who had worked as an au pair when she first came to the United States—had now been charged with child abuse.

"This situation is tearing me and Matthew apart, and causing extreme stress for both of our children," she wrote. "Especially my baby Emma who was 100% breastfeeding prior to all this."

As she read Tuckey's post, Williams began to sense that something terribly wrong had happened to the Hernandez family.

"There was nothing in their post except asking for help, for concern, for their baby," she says. "That's what really got to me."

As Williams looked more into the family's situation, a terrible story emerged. The Hernandezes were trapped in a system from which escape is almost impossible. It wasn't unreasonable for DFCS to look into whether Emma's injuries could have been caused by abuse. Hundreds of children die from abuse or neglect each year, many of them infants like Emma. But once alternative explanations for Emma's injuries emerged, it became hard to interpret the state's insistence that she was abused as anything but self-protective, bureaucratic—and cruel.

The Hernandez family's story is one of an overly aggressive child welfare system and that system's reliance on a group of controversial physicians. But most of all, it's the story of a vicious cycle, one that makes it incredibly difficult for parents to prove their innocence after an accusation of abuse has been lodged.Unfortunately, the Hernandezes are far from alone.

"Our girls are our lives and we love them more than anything," Tuckey wrote. "I miss my daughters so much and pray every night for God to protect them, keep them safe and bring them back home to us soon."

'The State Never Let Up'

When Matt and Tuckey Hernandez took their baby to the doctor, they had no idea their lives were about to be upended.

In June 2023, the Hernandezes lived in Forsyth County, Georgia, with their two daughters. Matt worked at a nearby instrument store, and Tuckey was taking a break from her usual work in Thai restaurants after giving birth to Emma in March.

When Emma was born, it was immediately clear she was different from her older sister.In a transcript of a family court hearing obtained by Reason, Tuckey relayed how Emma had frequent colds and seemed to bruise easily, especially from where she had been buckled into her car seat. Emma's soft spot was also much larger than Arya's had been.

In late May, the Hernandezes saw an unusual bruise behind Emma's ear. Even though she didn't seem to be in any pain or discomfort, Matt took a photo of it.

Emma and Arya Hernandez with their aunt | Courtesy of the Hernandez family
(Courtesy of the Hernandez family)

On June 5, about two weeks later, Tuckey texted Matt a picture of some swelling on Emma's leg. Again, she didn't seem to be in any pain, but the swelling still concerned them both. Arya had a regular pediatrician appointment scheduled for the next day, so Matt and Tuckey decided to take Emma along to express their concerns about her unusual symptoms.

At the appointment, the family's pediatrician told the couple that Emma needed to be immediately taken to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), a nearby children's hospital. Unbeknownst to Matt and Tuckey as they rushed their infant to the hospital, their pediatrician was calling ahead and telling CHOA doctors that she suspected abuse.

Once they got to CHOA, Matt wasn't allowed inside the hospital. Emma and Tuckey went in alone.

"I was kind of stuck outside with Arya because they were only letting one parent in," he says. For more than an hour, he stood outside with his daughter, unaware of what was going on inside.

According to legal documents obtained by Reason, hospital employees took X-rays of Emma's entire body, as well as a C.T. scan of her skull. Radiologists found healing fractures on multiple ribs and fractures on her right leg. Later, Arya was also subjected to X-rays, but no injuries were found. Stephen Messner, a child abuse pediatrician, performed a physical exam on Emma and reviewed her many scans. In a family court hearing transcript, another doctor testified that Messner then concluded that the baby's injuries could not have been accidental.

Immediately after Messner's diagnosis, everything started to move at lightning speed.

"We were just very bluntly told by a nurse that [abuse] is what they thought was happening and that they had already contacted DFCS and law enforcement," Matt says. He stayed in the hospital with Tuckey for hours, unsure of what was going to happen. Eventually, he fell asleep. When he woke up around 11:00 p.m., his wife was gone.

"She was, I later found out, being interrogated by a DFCS investigator and two police officers," Matt says. "And then it was very quickly after that that a [DFCS worker] came into the room and told us that both the kids were being placed in state custody."

"We didn't really understand how they decided to do that, considering neither of us have any criminal history and we brought our child to them on our own." he adds. "From the very get-go, I thought that this was a little harsh and aggressive, but the state never let up."

Photo: Courtesy of Tony Schulz
(Photo: Courtesy of Tony Schulz)

A Family Separated

The girls were initially placed with their aunt and uncle, Tony and Tuk Schulz. It seemed like a natural and humane choice. The Schulzes were already very close with their young nieces; the two families spent a lot of time together, and Arya was already regularly sleeping over at her aunt and uncle's house.

But it wasn't long before the Schulzes also faced accusations of abuse. Just a few weeks after getting custody of the girls, Tony and Tuk took Emma to the doctor after they noticed an unusual, rashlike bruise on her leg and feet. The Schulzes then called DFCS, which told them to take Emma back to CHOA.

At CHOA, Emma was subjected to more X-rays, but no additional fractures were uncovered. Nonetheless, DFCS moved to remove the girls from their aunt and uncle. In a later hearing, DFCS administrator Ashley Smith theorized that the bruise must have appeared after Tony and Tuk either abused Emma themselves or had allowed Tuckey to do so.

Emma remained hospitalized for six days, separated from her alleged abusers, yet her condition rapidly worsened. She was placed on a feeding tube.

Making the situation worse, Tuckey had already been arrested on child abuse–related charges and jailed. While in jail, she pumped breast milk in the hope that it would be given to baby Emma.

As a condition of her bond, Tuckey was barred from visiting the girls, even while supervised. She was also banned from seeing or talking to her husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law—her entire family in the United States.

Still, Tuckey continued pumping breast milk for her daughter and delivering it to the DFCS building. It's unclear if any of it made it to Emma. When Williams had the girls for the weekend, she says she was only given formula.

Within the span of a few weeks, Matt's entire family had been taken from him. His once-full house sat quiet. He was allowed supervised visits with his daughters, but it wasn't the same.

"We've missed so much, it's hard to even keep track." he told Reason in February, listing a litany of events and holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, his wedding anniversary, Arya's birthday—that he was forced to spend alone. "We've missed so many milestones. Emma is now basically walking."

"They've taken so much away from us," he added. "And my poor wife just has to stay at a friend's house. I can't even imagine."

A Shaky Diagnosis

In 2022, child protective services (CPS) agencies received more than 4 million allegations of child abuse and neglect in the United States. Of these cases, more than 500,000 children were determined to have been victims of abuse or neglect. Of those, 19.6 percent ended up in foster care.

The lifetime risk of being investigated by CPS is surprisingly large. A 2021 study of the largest American counties estimated that as many as one in three U.S. children will be the subject of a child welfare investigation by the time they turn 18.

While millions of families interact with CPS each year, the Hernandez family's case is relatively unusual. Of the kids determined to be victims in 2022, only 17 percent were victims of physical abuse and just 17.5 percent of these cases were reported by a medical professional.

The Hernandezes had the misfortune to encounter a very specific kind of medical professional. The allegations against them weren't lodged by just any nurse or doctor: They came from a child abuse pediatrician—a member of a young, increasingly powerful medical subspecialty that has already become mired in several major controversies.

Tuckey and Matt Hernandez with their children | Courtesy of the Hernandez family
(Courtesy of the Hernandez family)

Interest in child abuse as a medical diagnosis began in the early 1960s, most notably with the publication of a 1962 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled "The Battered-Child Syndrome."The paper argued that child abuse should be suspected for a wide range of injuries including bruising or bone fractures. The paper was incredibly influential, and it helped inspire Congress to pass the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act—the law that helped create the modern system of government-funded CPS agencies.

In 2009, the American Board of Pediatrics officially recognized child abuse pediatrics. By then, the field's greatest contribution—the "discovery" of shaken baby syndrome (SBS)—had come under fire.

SBS first appeared in the medical literature in 1971, in a paper that theorized that in cases where a child presents with subdural hematoma—a buildup of blood on the surface of the brain—yet does not have external head injuries, the baby could have been shaken violently by their caregiver.

The diagnosis took off, with many child abuse–focused pediatricians scrambling to label any child presenting with a "triad" of subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling as having been shaken. As a result, scores of parents and caregivers faced aggravated battery, abuse, and even murder charges—and child abuse–focused doctors lined up to testify against them in court.

One such doctor was Messner, the child abuse pediatrician who first diagnosed Emma's fractures as having come from abuse. In 2014, he testified against Jamal Rashad Thomas, a young father who was charged with fatally shaking his 9-week-old son. Messner insisted that the baby's death was due to shaking—even though the premature infant didn't have a neck injury or retinal hemorrhaging, one of the "triad" symptoms of SBS. The charges against Thomas were dropped after prosecutors determined a jury would be unlikely to convict him.

As it turns out, the scientific basis behind many shaken baby diagnoses is incredibly weak. Experiments using test dummies have found no evidence that vigorous shaking causes the kind of brain damage observed in alleged SBS cases. There are also documented cases where children exhibited SBS symptoms after short falls from furniture. While many child abuse pediatricians still strenuously defend the diagnosis, in 2022 a New Jersey appeals court labeled the syndrome as "akin to junk science."

While the Hernandezes were not accused of violently shaking Emma, there is a common thread between her case and the discredited SBS cases of previous years. In case after case of alleged abuse, many child abuse pediatricians insist that violence was the only possible source of a child's injuries, even when there are medically plausible alternative explanations and the parents have every outward appearance of being loving caregivers. It doesn't help that many child abuse pediatricians are paid directly by child welfare agencies, creating incentives for them to make findings that support the government's case.

And when doctors make an accusation, it's difficult to dispute their findings. After all, they're experts.

"They're latching on to these parents who are coming in because we're cooperative," says Holly Simonton, board member* at Fractured Families, a group advocating for parents who say they were falsely accused of child abuse. "Innocent parents are going to say, 'Well, I don't know how this happened,' because they really don't….But they don't like it when you don't know the answer."

A Medical Explanation

After months in limbo, the Hernandezes' dependency hearing started on October 4. It would be a crucial opportunity for Matt to argue that his daughters should be returned to his custody. The hearing—of which Reason obtained a transcript—would also allow him to counter the narrative, pushed by DFCS, that Emma's injuries were a straightforward case of child abuse.

"To anybody with any common sense or any heart it went very strongly in our favor," Matt argues, adding that in addition to a bevy of character witnesses, he had two doctors—one the former chief medical examiner of Georgia—testifying on his behalf.

The state's theory—articulated by Emmanuel Pena, a CHOA child abuse pediatrician who performed Emma's follow-up examination—was that only physical abuse could have caused the injuries.

CHOA identified three fractures on Emma's ribs, three on her right leg, and suspicion of a fracture on her right foot. She also had swelling in her right leg, the symptom that originally prompted her parents to seek medical care. The Hernandezes also told investigators that Emma had a history of bruising, a symptom that would persist even after she was separated from her parents.

Ironically, when Emma's day care center later reported marks on her arm similar to those reported by her parents and aunt, Smith argued in a hearing that these weren't bruises, calling them blue "discoloration."

"So the chest injuries combined with the bruising immediately sets us on high alert for some mishandling of the child. But then when we get to the lower extremities…now we have a total of four highly specific injuries for abuse of handling," Pena testified, adding that Emma's rib fractures "would have to be generated by a very forceful, rapid, and compressive force to the chest," similar to CPR compressions.

Pena also noted that CHOA ran several medical tests to rule out several common medical conditions that could cause Emma's injuries, which came back negative. When asked by DFCS attorney Danielle Benefield whether the discovery of any other medical conditions in Emma could change his mind, he answered with a firm "no."

Two doctors testifying for the Hernandez family disagreed.

Kris Sperry, a forensic pathologist, argued that Pena's certainty about the source of Emma's injuries wasn't backed by evidence. Sperry said that there's no scientific proof that abusive handling is required for the kind of fractures that CHOA claimed Emma had.

Instead, Sperry theorized that Emma's fractures could have been caused by bone weakness resulting from low vitamin D. After arriving at CHOA, a blood test found that Emma had vitamin D levels of just 15.6. According to Pena himself, normal vitamin D is anything above 30, with deficiency starting below 15 or 20.

It isn't surprising that Emma had low vitamin D. At the hearing, Tuckey testified that she never gave Emma a vitamin D supplement, though supplementation is typically recommended for newborns. Further, since Emma was exclusively breastfed, that put her at greater risk for vitamin D deficiency.

Another expert witness, Anthony Perszyk, a geneticist with extensive experience reading X-rays, testified that Emma had neonatal rickets—again, a result of low vitamin D.

Pena dismissed this theory, arguing that Emma was too old to be diagnosed with neonatal rickets, which typically, though not exclusively, presents in premature infants.

Matt was frustrated by the way Pena seemed to be taken more seriously than the other two doctors.

Perszyk "showed all the X-rays circled and pointed out that clearly Emma has neonatal rickets. He pointed out the cupping in the ribs and the bones. He showed how her skull had continued to open up after she was taken out of our custody," Matt says, adding that Pena "got up there with no visual aid. He just gave a speech."

'I've Never Seen Them Behave This Way'

Sperry and Persyck weren't the only ones skeptical of DFCS' theories. At the dependency hearing, a series of witnesses volunteered on the Hernandezes' behalf, including Williams, a forensic interview specialist, Matt's visitation supervisor, and multiple friends and family members. Each either reported that the Hernandezes were loving and concerned parents or expressed surprise at how DFCS was treating them.

What's more, later that month, two more major figures would come out in support of reunification. According to legal documents obtained by Reason, both the court-appointed special advocate and the guardian ad litem—a court-appointed community member and a lawyer, respectively, each designated to advocate for the Hernandez children's best interests—would support reunifying the family rather than separation and adoption.

Matt "is a very, very gentle parent, very nurturing parent," Erin Wallace, the visitation supervisor, testified during the hearing. "Very docile man."

Another witness testified that DFCS had made a particularly galling attempt to create supporting evidence of mistreatment. The agency had ordered a forensic interview for 3-year-old Arya, which involved a specialist interviewing Arya about her sister's possible abuse. Experts typically stress the need for caution when conducting forensic interviews on very young children.

The report produced by DFCS made a dramatic revelation, claiming that Arya told the interviewers that "Mama hurt Emma." But Danielle Levy, a clinical psychologist with extensive experience conducting forensic interviews in Georgia, argued that DFCS was extremely misleading.

"When I saw the interview, I was shocked, because that wasn't what happened," she testified, describing how Arya simply didn't provide any useful information—having been distracted and extremely difficult to understand throughout. "This summary made it look like Arya walked in and made a really clear disclosure."

Both Matt and Tuckey testified at the hearing too, each insisting that Emma was not abused.

It soon became clear that DFCS perceived Matt's refusal to blame Tuckey as a sign he was unfit to care for his daughters.

"The father has taken the mother's defense and does not believe that the mother could have caused these [injuries]," DFCS administrator Smith testified, "which causes concern for his parental capacity to be protective."

"In my 13 years of being a foster parent, I've never seen [DFCS] behave this way," says Williams. During a break in court, Williams says she overheard Smith tell an intern that the case "is basically a done deal" and that the agency had "already started to draw up" paperwork to terminate the Hernandezes' parental rights.

Why was DFCS so intent on separating this family? Mark Freeman, a lawyer specializing in defending parents accused of abuse, argues that the agency is simply not structured to handle parents like the Hernandezes who maintain their innocence. If parents admit guilt, agencies will sometimes still facilitate reunification. But when a family claims it was wrongly accused, he theorized, the state tends to assume the parents are not just guilty but unrepentant.

That means "one of these parents is a perpetrator by commission, but the other one is a perpetrator by omission because they must have known about it and failed to protect the child," Freeman says. "We can't assure the safety of this child by sending it back to the parents."

Smith's testimony reflects this perspective. "We have no admission that anything wrong happened, which means we can't prevent something from happening again," she said, explaining why DFCS didn't want to return the children. "If there's no understanding of what went wrong, there's no way to correct that behavior going forward."

Judge Heather Dunn ultimately ruled that Matt should not get custody of his daughters. Despite a plausible medical explanation for her injuries and a battery of adults willing to testify to the Hernandezes' good parenting—and to DFCS meddling—it seemed like nothing could dislodge the idea that it was near-certain that Tuckey and Matt had abused their daughter. Matt felt trapped. It seemed like no matter what he did, he couldn't convince the state to give him back his children.

As the months wore on, Arya grew depressed and detached. Emma seemed as sick as ever, with no medical explanation in sight.

"Everybody there thought this is very clear, this baby was born with a medical condition, send them home with the parents and end this nightmare," Matt says. "You're just here to torture my family."

'I Just Don't Understand How That's The System'

Over the next few months, every victory seemed to be coupled with a setback.

In December, the terms of Tuckey's bond were adjusted, allowing her to visit her daughters for the first time in more than six months. Video from that first visit shows an emotional reunion, as a clearly ecstatic Arya embraces her mother, jumping up and down in excitement.

But then, just a few days later, Matt was indicted on child abuse charges. The family struggled to make sense of these new accusations. The state had always insisted that it was Tuckey—Emma's primary caregiver—who abused Emma, but now they were shifting to Matt.

Despite Matt's charges, a judge ruled in January that DFCS had to create a reunification plan for the Hernandez family, meaning that DFCS had to set the goal of eventually returning the girls to their parents rather than having them adopted.

"In the judge's ruling, comments were made showing that Emma's continued medical needs were not being handled nor being addressed," reads a January 19 post from You Are The Power, a nonprofit founded by libertarian entrepreneur Spike Cohen. "Now Emma can get the testing and treatment she needs to be happy and healthy again."

The ramifications of this ruling were swift. Emma and Arya were removed from their foster-to-adopt home and placed in the care of a family friend.

More importantly, this meant the family would also be able to get Emma more thorough genetic testing in order to try to confirm their suspicions about the real cause of Emma's bruising and fractures—at least in theory.

Unsure if DFCS would ever approve formal testing, the family took its own cheek swab from Emma earlier that month and sent it off to a private full-genome company for testing.

When the results came back, it showed multiple defects on one of her collagen genes, possibly causing Bethlem myopathy or Ullrich muscular dystrophy 2. These conditions often lead to joint issues or muscle weakness, though it's unclear whether they have a distinct connection to increased fracture risk. One 2023 review of studies looking at 244 patients (most of them infants) with a range of myopathies found that 37 percent had decreased bone quality and 26 percent had congenital fractures in the long bones of their legs or arms.

But DFCS won't accept the results. According to Tony, it wants a new, official test done so it can confirm that the swab was accurate.

It's been a difficult road. Matt suspects that DFCS is dragging its feet on reunification. While Matt hoped the girls could return to their aunt and uncle, DFCS has successfully blocked these efforts—even though a March report from the guardian ad litem strongly called for sending the girls back to Tony and Tuk. The report flatly dismissed the agency's insistence that Emma's unusual bruises were a sign of abuse, noting that they continued popping up with every new placement. The report also castigated DFCS for failing to look into Emma's medical issues thoroughly.

"Emma appears to have some medical issues that remain unanswered," the report stressed. "She has things going on with her that not even CHOA can answer. She has required hospitalization requiring a feeding tube. She has a history of constant regurgitation as well as constipation and chronic congestion. She continues to have these bouts of discoloration in her extremities that have persisted through each and every foster placement."

But even this hasn't been enough to get the girls placed with their aunt and uncle—much less their own parents.

"We've given them so much evidence to prove this little girl was born with so many problems," Matt says. "I just don't understand how that's the system."

An Unending Nightmare

Even if Matt and Tuckey get their daughters back, the damage to their family may be irreparable.

In child welfare, the stakes are incredibly high. No social worker or judge or doctor wants to be the person who sent a child back to parents who ended up horrifically abusing them. Neither does anyone want to shatter an innocent family. It's an equilibrium that's nearly impossible to maintain. But bad practices—and a lack of common sense—make it even harder to get right.

When a baby comes to the hospital with bruises and fractures, it's natural to ask questions. What isn't natural is to ignore a mountain of evidence indicating that the baby was sick, not abused.

It's been more than a year since Arya and Emma were taken from their parents. In most of that time, they have been deprived of even supervised visits with their mother. That's a huge portion of their young lives.

"I pray that Arya comes out of it just as happy as she was before, because she was such a little ray of sunshine," Matt said in February. "But for me, how do I go back to feeling comfortable living in the state of Georgia? How do I go back to trusting any government agency?"

"I'm sure my wife is definitely stronger than me, but I don't know," he added, his voice breaking. "I haven't talked to her in so long."

UPDATE: After this story went to press, DFCS dropped its case against the Hernandezes. Emma and Arya are now living with relatives while their parents' criminal case continues.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated Holly Simonton's role at Fractured Families.