When my daughter and her husband were accused of child abuse, we felt lost in darkness. But light came on social media from other families who shared advice and encouragement, while the attorneys and medical professionals who helped were the brightest lights. Here, Seattle-based lawyer Heather Kirkwood, who represents parents pro bono in medical cases, suggests steps parents can take.
Q: What can parents do to prove they haven’t abused their child?
Kirkwood: Get the best lawyer you can as early as you can. Some parents spend their entire life savings for a private attorney – and sometimes it is worth it. But there are also benefits if you qualify for a public defender, because then the court will usually provide money for at least one medical expert who can give you a second opinion about what might be wrong with your child.
Educate yourself. There are many other causes of symptoms that may be diagnosed as abuse, including prenatal conditions, birth trauma, nutritional deficiencies, infection, childhood stroke, accidental injury, and congenital conditions. It’s your lawyer’s job to educate the court about these causes but you may need to educate your lawyer.
If your lawyer is not helping you find medical experts to testify on your behalf, go on the internet and Facebook and find other parents to advise you. In this area, it is often the parents who educate the lawyers, rather than the other way around.
Immediately gather all the records you can, including your child’s prenatal, birth, pediatric and any hospitalization records. Sometimes these contain clues to your child’s condition. Investigate your family history for clues as well. One mother whose child was diagnosed with multiple fractures said her family didn’t have any bone issues. But I urged her to call all her relatives, and she discovered a cousin who’d been diagnosed with severe rickets. As it turned out, her child also had rickets. Find out if there was anything like rickets, stroke, hypertension, early deaths in the family, or unexplained infant deaths.
Make a list of any people who can describe the good care you provide your child and any symptoms they may have noticed. Give your attorney a list with addresses, emails, telephone numbers, and a brief description of what these witnesses can contribute.
I recommend doing all the services asked of you, even if you think you don’t need them, to move your case forward. I also urge parents to get independent psychological evaluations of their parenting skills and of their relationship with their child. If you set up the evaluation yourself and you don’t like what it says, you don’t have to use it. On the other hand, if you pass with flying colors, having that evaluation may help the judge feel safe ruling in your favor.
Q: What can parents do to help bring attention to these types of cases?
Kirkwood: I don’t ask people to commit to speaking out after their case is over because reliving these events can be very hard. But we desperately do need parents–and their friends and families–to speak out. We need parents to come out of the closet and join groups that are organizing around this issue.