Parents call for reforms to protect families from mistaken child abuse allegations

Texas lawmakers pledge to “learn from past mistakes” as parents recall the pain of having children taken following disputed doctor reports.
Jason and Lorina Troy temporarily lost custody of their children based on a child abuse pediatrician's finding.
Jason and Lorina Troy temporarily lost custody of their children based on a child abuse pediatrician's finding. Julia Robinson / for the Houston Chronicle and NBC News

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By Mike Hixenbaugh and Keri Blakinger

This article was published in partnership with the Houston Chronicle.

AUSTIN, Texas — Lorina Troy’s voice trembled as she told lawmakers about the moment her baby and 4-year-old son were taken away by Child Protective Services.

“Are they going to hurt me, Mommy?” Troy said her 4-year-old asked as a worker loaded him into a car.

The mother’s emotional testimony came during a daylong hearing called by Texas lawmakers in response to an investigation by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle that highlighted the plight of parents who’d been accused of child abuse based on mistaken reports by doctors. The reporting showed that child welfare workers removed some children from homes after receiving reports from state-funded child abuse pediatricians that were later called into question, leading to traumatic family separations and monthslong legal fights.

Troy’s ordeal started in 2015 when her infant son suffered a small, unexplained brain bleed. A child abuse pediatrician at an Austin hospital overlooked an underlying medical condition and said the boy was a victim of shaken baby syndrome. That diagnosis led the state to take both of Troy’s children.

The children spent five months in foster care, and Troy’s husband, Jason, was charged criminally before another doctor reviewed the baby’s medical records and found that the excess fluid in the child’s head was actually the result of the undiagnosed neurological condition.

“How would you feel if this type of situation were to happen to you?” Troy said to members of the Texas House of Representatives committee that oversees the state’s child welfare system.

Rep. James Frank, the committee chairman, said the NBC News and Chronicle investigation exposed serious problems and that Tuesday’s hearing was the first step in coming up with solutions.

Texas Rep. James Frank listens to testimony during a hearing at the state capitol. Julia Robinson / for the Houston Chronicle and NBC News

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“We’re here to learn from past mistakes,” Frank said at the start of the hearing, which also featured testimony from child welfare officials, prosecutors and doctors.

Committee members peppered officials with broad questions about the enormous weight given to the opinions of child abuse doctors, and how to weigh child safety against the possibility of an unnecessary removal.

The elected officials zeroed in with more targeted questions about the appropriateness of the current legal standards for taking children, the agency’s wildly varying removal rates across the state, and concerns about whether child abuse specialists can accurately evaluate children they didn’t personally examine.

Dr. James Lukefahr, a child abuse pediatrician based in San Antonio, testified on behalf of the Texas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Lukefahr defended the work of child abuse pediatricians, a new and growing medical subspecialty of doctors who work closely with child welfare agencies to identify signs of abuse and protect children from additional harm. Lukefahr said child abuse pediatricians are also trained to find underlying conditions that can mimic abuse, so they can prevent needless removals.

But, he said, nobody is perfect.

“Working in this field I’ve seen terrible things, babies with a dozen broken bones, children maliciously burned, teenagers beaten to the edge of their lives,” Lukefahr said. “I’ve also seen mistakes, processes not followed, errors in judgment, and decisions that were based more on emotion than science.”

Parents whose stories were detailed in the NBC News and Chronicle series were among those who spoke.

Ann Marie Timmerman tears up as she listens to her husband, Tim, testify.Julia Robinson / for the Houston Chronicle and NBC News

Tim Timmerman described the moment when he awoke one night in 2016 and found his 4-month-old son limp in bed next to him. A day after rushing the child to a nearby emergency room, a neurosurgeon at Children’s Memorial Hermann in Houston told the family not to worry: The baby had suffered a minor brain bleed, possibly the result of trauma suffered during childbirth.

But soon after, a child abuse pediatrician entered the hospital room and said she disagreed. She believed the baby had been shaken, and her concerns led Child Protective Services to take custody. Later, the doctor reported that the child’s injuries were “certainly inflicted.”

Three outside medical experts reviewed the case and concluded the baby suffered from an underlying medical condition, but seven months passed before the Timmermans regained full custody. They spent more than $200,000 to defend themselves, Timmerman told lawmakers, who appeared shocked.

“I urge this committee to put yourselves in the shoes of my family or one of the many other families here today,” he said. “Think about how you would feel if your child or grandchild was taken out of your arms with no standard of proof other than the opinion of a single individual.”

Ajshay James testifies during a hearing at the capitol in Austin.Julia Robinson / for the Houston Chronicle and NBC News

Ajshay James lost custody of her 2-year-old daughter after doctors at Texas Children’s Hospital accused her of giving the child unneeded medical treatments in 2017. The NBC News and Chronicle investigation found evidence that doctors repeatedly overstated the evidence against her, though the hospital has defended its handling of the case.

James choked back tears as she described her ordeal. She told lawmakers that, as far as Child Protective Services was concerned, the opinion of the child abuse pediatricians were all that mattered.

“In this process,” James said, “you are guilty until [proven] innocent.”

Lukefahr said he and his colleagues are open to finding ways to improve the system, but he warned lawmakers against making changes that could hinder the state’s efforts to protect vulnerable children.

“We pediatricians pledge to work diligently to improve the things we can improve,” he said. “But we also ask everyone to remember what can happen when the pendulum swings too far in any one direction.”

Frank, the committee chairman, said he intended to call additional hearings in the coming months in order to develop ways to improve the system and protect parents. Some legislators have suggested creating a way for courts, child welfare workers or accused families to request a second medical opinion before the state removes a child from a home.

“The vast majority of the time, we’re talking about trying to make sure we prevent every child death,” Frank said. “We understand the tremendous impact of missing it on the other side, but it is a careful balance that we need to have.”