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Doctor removed from expert role in diagnosing child abuse amid questions about her credibility

An NBC News investigation raised questions about the truthfulness of a Seattle-area abuse expert. Now prosecutors are reviewing cases she worked on.
Image: Illustration shows a photo of Dr. Elizabeth Woods being erased.
Dr. Elizabeth Woods recently left her job as medical director of Mary Bridge Children's Hospital’s child abuse intervention team. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

This article was published in partnership with KING 5 (KING-TV), an NBC affiliate in Seattle.

TACOMA, Wash. — For more than three years, authorities in the state of Washington considered Dr. Elizabeth Woods one of their go-to experts in cases of suspected child abuse, often relying on her medical opinions to determine when to take children from parents or file criminal charges.

But this winter, Woods left her position as the director of the child abuse intervention program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, and last month she was removed from the small roster of doctors who provide expert medical reports to the state’s child welfare agency, hospital and state officials confirmed. Some area prosecutors have also been sending letters to defense lawyers disclosing that Woods’ credibility as an expert witness has been called into question.

These changes follow an NBC News and KING 5 (KING-TV) investigation from one year ago that revealed that Woods, 39, had provided false information while testifying under oath about why she never received key training to become certified as a child abuse medical expert. The investigation also examined four cases in which child welfare workers took children from parents based on Woods’ reports — including some in which Woods misstated key facts, according to a review of records — despite contradictory opinions from other medical experts who said they saw no evidence of abuse.

Mary Bridge officials initially defended Woods’ work in a statement to reporters last year, arguing that she had “significant experience in the field of child maltreatment.” But in an internal letter sent to hospital staff on the same day that the NBC News and KING 5 investigation was published, on Feb. 14, 2020, the president of the hospital’s parent company announced that Mary Bridge leaders had asked an outside expert to review the child abuse program under Woods’ leadership, according to a copy of the letter obtained by NBC News and KING 5 this month.

That expert review identified “suggestions to improve our structure and process” in the child abuse program, and led the hospital to initiate “changes to its physician staffing and leadership model,” Mary Bridge spokeswoman Marce Edwards Olson said in an email to reporters this month. In the midst of these ongoing changes, Edwards Olson wrote, Woods “left Mary Bridge to pursue other opportunities.”

Woods did not respond to messages seeking comment, and officials from Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital did not answer questions about the circumstances of her departure.

Her exit was celebrated by several parents — many of whom banded together in a Facebook group titled, “Families Wrongly Accused by ‘Dr.’ Elizabeth Woods” — who say mistaken reports by Woods led the state’s Child Protective Services to needlessly separate them from their children. And it raises questions about the future of any pending child abuse cases that hinge on her expert medical findings, legal experts said, possibly opening the door for parents or their lawyers to challenge the state’s case against them.

Among the doctors under contract to review child abuse cases for Child Protective Services in Washington, the NBC News and KING 5 report showed, Woods was the only one who both lacked decades of experience in examining cases of child abuse and also never completed training now required to become certified in child abuse pediatrics, a medical subspecialty dedicated to differentiating accidental childhood injuries from those that may have been inflicted.

Nancy Gutierrez, a spokeswoman for Washington state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families, said the decision to remove Woods from the list was made by Seattle Children’s Hospital, which manages the network of abuse experts under a contract with the state.

Kathryn Mueller, a Seattle Children’s spokeswoman, confirmed that the hospital pulled Woods from the list on Feb. 19, following her departure from Mary Bridge. But Mueller suggested that Woods could rejoin the program in the future, writing in an email that Woods “has temporarily been removed from the list while she establishes her employment as an independent contractor.”

But even if Woods resumed her work as a state child abuse consultant, questions remain about how her expert testimony would be received in courts across the Seattle region.

Two area prosecutors disclosed to reporters last week that they had added Woods to internal lists of law enforcement officials and other prosecution experts whose truthfulness has been challenged. Since June 25, the prosecutor’s office in Pierce County, where Mary Bridge is based, has been sending letters to defense lawyers in all pending criminal cases involving Woods, notifying them of “potential impeachment evidence” against her, along with a copy of the NBC News and KING 5 investigation.

Woods was invited to provide evidence to contest her inclusion on the list but did not do so, a prosecutor’s office spokesman said.

Prosecutors added Woods to a similar list in Thurston County last week, and officials in nearby King County, which includes Seattle, said they have begun a review to determine if they should do the same.

In Kitsap County, prosecutors said they began reviewing all of Woods’ expert reports following the news report last year and have since brought in additional medical experts in some criminal cases to verify the accuracy of Woods’ findings. Following news of Woods’ recent departure from Mary Bridge, the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office has reached out to the hospital for additional information and is studying whether it, too, should add her to its list of potentially discredited prosecution experts.

“Law enforcement agencies are required to provide us information on the credibility of their employees,” said Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright. “Mary Bridge is a private company and does not have the same obligation. So, we are seeking that information.”

Questions about the reliability and accuracy of Woods’ expert medical reports began to surface within months of her taking the job as medical director of Mary Bridge’s child abuse intervention team in 2018, according to a review of case documents and interviews with accused families. Among those who raised concerns: At least three other doctors, a superior court judge and a child welfare worker who reported that Woods urged her to take custody of a 9-year-old girl without first fully reviewing the child’s case file and medical records.

In one 2018 case, featured in the NBC News and KING 5 investigation, Child Protective Services took two children from their mother, Megan Carter, after Woods reported that Carter had been abusing her daughter with unnecessary medical treatments. The children were returned 14 months later, when Judge Susan Amini ruled that most of Woods’ testimony in the case was “without supporting factual basis.”

Carter said her two children, now 7 and 11, are still receiving therapy following their yearlong separation.

Image: The Carter Family in Covington, Wash.
Megan Carter with her daughter, Ellie, at their home in Covington, Wash.Jovelle Tamayo / for NBC News

“It just feels like we can breathe a little bit more now, and I feel like I worry a little bit less,” Carter said, reacting to news of Woods’ departure. “The worry that she has caused and the trauma that she has caused in our family is always going to be there. It's never going to completely go away.”

With Woods no longer working on behalf of the state, it’s not clear what will happen to the pending child welfare cases that she consulted on. A spokeswoman for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, which serves as legal counsel for the state’s child welfare agency in thousands of civil dependency cases, said it’s not possible to quickly tabulate how many pending CPS cases involve Woods.

“Our five division chiefs who oversee child abuse and neglect cases are aware of the concerns that have been publicized,” Brionna Aho, the spokeswoman, said. “They have and will follow up on any case of concern.”

In the meantime, Woods is still listed as a potential expert witness in at least 17 pending criminal cases in the Seattle region and provided expert reports or testified in at least 23 others, according to records provided by area prosecutors.

Prosecutors with ongoing cases involving Woods said it’s not immediately clear if her departure from Mary Bridge will have an impact on those cases, with some emphasizing that they would seek additional medical experts to corroborate her findings when necessary.

In one pending Kitsap County case, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Baylen Armendariz, now 21, was charged in 2019 with abusing her infant twins based on Woods’ report to authorities that the only plausible explanation for their fractured bones was “a motor vehicle collision” or abuse. Three outside medical experts reviewed the twins’ medical records on Armendariz’s behalf and concluded that the fractures were likely the result of a mineral deficiency that can lead to weak bones vulnerable to breaks.

Image: Baylen Armendariz.
Baylen Armendariz hopes her case will be reviewed in light of Woods' departure. Taylor Mirfendereski / KING 5

Armendariz pleaded not guilty to the abuse charges and accepted a deal this year with prosecutors that allows her to visit her now 2-year-old twins three times a week under the supervision of their grandmother. If she follows the agreement, all charges against her will be dropped and she’ll regain custody of the twins when the deal expires in February 2026.

While she was relieved to be able to see her kids again, she's heartbroken that she won't be able to take them home for another five years.

After learning about Woods' departure from Mary Bridge, she said she hopes authorities will take another look at the evidence.

“I would like the case reviewed by the court,” she said. “Take into consideration the possibility that there are medical issues. Not everything is child abuse.”

Taylor Mirfendereski reported from Tacoma, Washington, and Mike Hixenbaugh reported from Houston.