Protecting Innocent Families: Full Petition Text

The full text of the petition, as it will be submitted

We are calling for a rigorous scientific evaluation of the evidence for medical diagnoses of child abuse, including shaken baby syndrome (now called abusive head trauma) and bony abnormalities (often misinterpreted as abusive fractures), to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel of impartial experts.

Many of us are calling for this review because false accusations happened to us, our family members, our friends, or members of our communities. Others have encountered parents and caretakers who were falsely accused or convicted in our professional capacities, as attorneys, doctors or psychologists, or through review of legal cases and medical literature.

We are concerned that, each year, doctors accuse hundreds to thousands of parents and caretakers, often with long histories of excellent childcare, of abusing children based on controversial interpretations of medical findings, ranging from tiny hemorrhages to abnormal bone formations. Other times they accuse parents of obtaining too much, too little, or inappropriate medical care. The penalties range from removal of the children to death row for the accused.

These diagnoses may be responsible for one of the largest groups of wrongful convictions to be addressed by the legal system: the conviction of hundreds to thousands of parents and caretakers for crimes that did not occur. No one is immune: the accused include doctors, nurses, psychologists, daycare providers, and others who have devoted their lives to children. Some of the children were sick; others collapsed suddenly. Some had strokes; others had falls or other accidents. Some died; others are fine. There is only one common theme: In each case, the caretaker and witness accounts were ignored in favor of unproven medical hypotheses.

The controversies surrounding these diagnoses have been apparent for decades, with misdiagnoses routinely reported in the media, including the New York Times, NPR, Frontline and ProPublica. In the reported cases, the findings attributed to abuse reflected natural or accidental causes, including prenatal or birth conditions, stroke, seizures, infection, sepsis, Vitamin D deficiency, coagulopathies, metabolic or genetic traits (including sickle cell disease, Ehlers-Danlos and osteogenesis imperfecta), venous malformations, prescription error, and/or household accidents. Some cases have illustrated that even when the findings result from abuse, common but unproven medical opinion about the timing of symptoms can point investigators to an innocent caretaker. The exonerations continue – but so do the accusations, with families remaining separated and hundreds of parents or caretakers in prison, convicted of crimes that did not occur.

Although the problems are systemic and the accusations closely resemble medico-legal travesties of the past, there has been little effort to examine the scientific basis for these claims or to hold accountable those who mislead the courts by presenting medical hypotheses as fact or who retaliate against those with opposing views. To address these issues, all voices must be heard.

False accusations undermine trust in doctors and our system of justice. Even when charges are dismissed, caretakers acquitted, or verdicts overturned, families are emotionally and financially devastated, with many unwilling to speak out because they are still traumatized or they fear stigma or retaliation. Doctors and other experts who question or criticize these diagnoses also suffer retaliation, including threats against their jobs and licenses.

We call upon the medical profession, courts, legislators and the innocence movement to evaluate the evidence base for medical diagnoses of child abuse and to prevent the destruction of families based on flawed diagnoses.

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