Investigation Misdiagnosis: When Pediatricians Fail Families

Parents in Michigan lost custody of their 6-week-old son after a doctor observed marks on the baby’s abdomen and reported them as “diagnostic of physical abuse.” A judge ordered the child and a sibling to be returned months later, however, after hearing evidence that the lesions were likely caused by the straps of a baby swing.

 In Wisconsin, a one-month old girl that had been adopted by two pediatricians was removed from their custody. Confusion between bruises and birthmarks, a misread laboratory report, and leaps of logic resulted in the girl’s adoptive father being charged with child abuse and derailing his career. Despite scores of physicians supplying evidence exonerating the two pediatricians, child welfare services ignored all the exculpatory reports. One doctor even said, “Honestly, this all seems quite preposterous.”

A special education teacher in Florida and her paramedic husband were separated from their 4-month-old son after a doctor told child welfare workers that bleeding in the boy’s brain must have been the result of violent shaking. But the doctor had overlooked an underlying medical cause.

And in Washington state, two children were taken from their mother after a doctor reported that she had been abusing them with unnecessary medical treatments. The children were returned 14 months later, when a judge ruled that most of the physician’s testimony was “without supporting factual basis.”

These stories are among those shared with NBC News and the Houston Chronicle by more than 300 families from 38 states, following a yearlong investigation highlighting the plight of parents accused of child abuse based on mistaken or overstated reports by doctors. The flood of responses demonstrates the nationwide reach of problems detailed in the series, which showed that child welfare workers in Texas removed children from homes after receiving reports from doctors that were later called into question.

One story that did not get included in the investigation was that of Lorina Troy. Shortly after moving from California to Texas, she had her second son, JJ. They had no idea that just a few months afterwards, they would lose custody of both their children. 

When JJ was born, they had no idea there was any potential problem with their child. They did not know that an ultrasound near the end of the pregnancy had shown JJ’s head to be two weeks larger than normal. No doctor mentioned there being any abnormalities when JJ was born, even though his head was still bigger than usual. Even after his birth no medical personnel said anything about JJ’s head continuing to grow. Lorina was concerned but not alarmed. 

However, when JJ started vomiting a lot, Lorina took him to their pediatrician where he was diagnosed as having a stomach virus. They were simply sent home with instructions to keep him hydrated. But the vomiting didn’t stop. Lorina took JJ to an urgent care facility and eventually a children’s hospital. All agreed it was just a stomach bug even though JJ’s head had continued to swell along with the stomach upset.

Eventually, Lorina managed to get the doctors to do an MRI. They discovered there was a build-up of fluid in her son’s brain. This can be a sign of head trauma and they immediately assumed the worst and accused Lorina’s family of child abuse. She asked for a second opinion but was denied. She said, “I told him, my son has never been hurt in any way, could this be anything else? And he told me, yes, but since he’s a baby and can’t talk, we are just going to go with abuse and walked away.” So Lorina’s children were taken from her and placed in foster care.

Soon after, her spouse was charged with two felony counts of child abuse, which carry a sentence between five and 99 years. These charges caused him to immediately lose his well-paying job. The couple searched for a lawyer who would take the case. They were forced to sell their home to pay for attorney expenses. The Troy family ultimately ended up losing over $80,000 in fees, medical expenses, and lost wages.

Over the following two years, JJ was seen by numerous doctors but continued to be misdiagnosed. Eventually, a doctor in Maryland discovered JJ had Benign External Hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus is a condition where cerebrospinal fluid builds up in the cranium, causing an enlarged head among other symptoms like vomiting, seizures, and breathing difficulties. It can be present at birth and is the result of genetic abnormalities, problems with fetal development, or complications at birth. With the new diagnosis, the charges against Jason were dropped.

The Troy children were only in foster care for about 5 months. But in many of the cases investigated by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle, parents are still separated from their children; some due to the case working its way through the system and some due to a termination of parental rights. In all the cases, the outcome was due to a misdiagnosis of child abuse.Lorina has now written a book, titled “Miracles of Faith,” that goes into the details of her family’s journey through the medical and legal systems and how their faith saw them through it all. She’s currently writing a second book, a continuation of the first, which will consist of her journey towards healing and advocating for legislative changes. Her first book is available directly through the publishing company, Westbow Press, A Division of Thomas Nelson & Zondervan.

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