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Problems With Child-Abuse Pediatricians Revealed In New Article

Rostislav Sedlacek
For the past decade, child-abuse pediatricians have been working to identify children who are experiencing abuse, but that has led to an increase in false diagnoses.

Child abuse is far too prevalent in Wisconsin and across the country, but it’s not always easy to spot the maltreatment. Ideally, that’s where child-abuse pediatricians come in to help. But what happens when they get it wrong?

Reporter and novelist Stephanie Clifford wrote about the specialists in an article published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. The investigation focuses on two families who were accused of abusing their young children. Both families lost custody of their children based on reports from child-abuse pediatricians. Medical evidence later showed other reasons for what had been labeled as abuse.

“They catch a lot of cases that otherwise might not get caught. The danger is, they’re trained to find child abuse and therefore they may find child abuse where there are other explanations,” says Clifford.

Certification in child-abuse pediatrics began in 2009, and there are now hundreds of them across the United States. The problem: oversight of these doctors is very limited, according to Clifford, and their decisions can play a huge part in the process of investigating child abuse.

“They have so much more power than anyone else in the process that child-welfare, police, prosecutors, I just found were just repeating their words verbatim and there was virtually no way that any of those players understood what they were saying,” she says.

For one family Clifford talked to for her story, a parent was questioned for hours while their child was dying in the hospital and was told by an investigator that he should just admit he abused his child because of the diagnosis made by the child-abuse pediatrician.

While these specialists can be extremely helpful in recognizing signs of abuse in small children who can’t or won’t speak up about their abuse, these misdiagnoses are a real problem.

To combat this, some pediatricians want increased scrutiny on each diagnosis made. In Texas, they are considering a bill that would require a second opinion after a child-abuse pediatrician makes an assessment.

“There’s not much analysis of where did we get it right, where did we get it wrong? Where if you are doing a heart operation and something goes wrong, you are immediately delving into every bit,” says Clifford.

From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.