The story behind NBC News' 'Do No Harm' podcast: Investigating a system that can destroy innocent families

What happens when a parent’s mistake leads to a child's serious injuries? And what if doctors and social workers begin to suspect the worst?
Melissa and Dillon Bright with their children, Charlotte and Mason, in Tomball, Texas.
Melissa and Dillon Bright with their children, Charlotte and Mason, told the story of what happened to their family on the "Do No Harm" podcast. Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle

“Do No Harm” is a podcast based on NBC News’ reporting into a system that is designed to protect children, but sometimes tears innocent families apart. Listen to the series here.

I will never forget the first time I accidentally hurt one of my kids.

I’d been goofing around with my 2-year-old daughter, Eleanor, one weekend in 2015. At one point, I picked her up by her little hands and started swinging her gently back and forth. She giggled and begged me to do it again.

But then, when I swung her again, the giggling suddenly stopped. And by the time I set Eleanor down again, she was screaming. She was so small back then, she couldn’t tell us what hurt.

At an urgent care center that afternoon, my wife and I learned that I’d partially dislocated her elbow. It was a common injury for toddlers, the doctor said, before popping it back into place. She told me I shouldn’t beat myself up.

But that evening, as I looked down at my daughter in her crib — her little arm stabilized in a cloth wrap — I felt like I‘d failed her.

Eleanor Hixenbaugh after her elbow was partially dislocated.Mike Hixenbaugh / NBC News

Many parents have a similar story. In the moment it takes to answer a phone call, a baby can roll off the bed. A toddler can squirm out of a parent’s grasp and fall onto the pavement. Usually, kids recover quickly. But what happens when a parent’s mistake leads to more serious injuries? And — in a country where an estimated 1,700 children die of abuse each year — what if doctors and social workers who want nothing more than to keep all children safe begin to suspect the worst?

Those questions are at the center of my new investigative podcast, “Do No Harm,” a six-part narrative series by NBC News and Wondery. “Do No Harm” traces the intersecting paths of two families — the Brights and the Butlers — as they confront a legal and medical system that’s so committed to protecting vulnerable children from abuse that it sometimes destroys the lives of innocent parents.

Listen to ‘Do No Harm’ now on:

Apple Podcasts

Spotify

Google Podcasts

Stitcher

The series opens with Melissa and Dillon Bright, a Houston couple, who thought they were living every parent’s worst nightmare when their 5-month-old, Mason, tumbled from a lawn chair and hit his head on the driveway. But after they rushed him to the hospital, Mason’s injuries caught the attention of doctors and social workers, and a new nightmare began.

After an emotional confrontation with Child Protective Services turned into the hardest night of their lives, the Brights found a lawyer who could help them fight back. What they didn’t know was that their case was about to become intertwined with another family’s — the Butlers, whose son had an injury almost identical to Mason’s — with major consequences that rippled across Texas.

Lance and Sharde Butler with their son, Langston, in Houston.Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle

As I wrote and reported this story over the past two years, I thought a lot about my daughter’s hurt arm. As I interviewed more families who’d been swept up in the child welfare system after what they insisted was an accident, I started to imagine how things might have gone differently for me.

What if Eleanor’s injury had been more serious? What if the doctor had made different assumptions about me, based on my race? Or how much money I make?

What if the guilt I’d felt about hurting my child was the least of my problems?

The first four episodes of “Do No Harm” are available now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.