When Doctors Incorrectly Identify Abuse, Parents Risk Losing Their Kids

An NBC News/Houston Chronicle investigation found that specially trained pediatricians sometimes mistakenly conclude that a child’s injury resulted from abuse.

By Terri LangfordOctober 23, 2019 7:07 am, , ,

Child abuse investigators often turn to specially trained pediatricians to determine whether a child has been intentionally harmed. But a new series by the Houston Chronicle and NBC News reveals that sometimes, even doctors mistake an accident for abuse, and the consequences for parents and children can be devastating. 

Mike Hixenbaugh and his investigative team at NBC News spent nine months reporting the story. He says the state of Texas has spent $5 million to help pay physicians at children’s hospitals. In return, those doctors review cases for Texas’ Child Protective Services department. 

“Based on a constellation of injuries, in some cases they will declare not just that they are suspicious of abuse, but whether they believe abuse likely occurred,” Hixenbaugh says. “CPS [Child Protective Services] often uses that [information] as the basis for removals.”

Hixenbaugh says that in most cases, evidence of child abuse is clear. But they sometimes make mistakes. Hixenbaugh says the reporting team talked with families who were mistakenly suspected of abusing their children.

“We found several cases where later, new evidence emerged, or an additional doctor’s opinion, or [there was] reason to doubt the doctor’s opinion,” Hixenbaugh says. “But that was after the child had been removed, and this is traumatizing for families.”

Parents whose children have been removed by CPS often have difficulty making a case that they are not responsible for a child’s injuries, Hixenbaugh says. That’s because the state considers doctors as experts in the matter.

“The families, if they have resources, find a good lawyer and get [a second] opinion themselves,” Hixenbaugh says. “If they don’t, the system kind of swallows them up, and the best-case scenario is they’ll complete some services and regain custody of their kids after a year. In the worst- case scenario, they could face losing their children permanently.”


Written by Shelly Brisbin.