Child abuse allegations can cause instant public opprobrium against the accused. And it’s not just the public that rushes to judgment: police, prosecutors, and state agencies can also be swept up by these emotionally-charged cases, closing their eyes to the cases’ complexities.
In June of 2014, Jacksonville couple Brooke Bornhorst and Will Meade, after realizing their 7-week old daughter wasn’t moving her arm, took her to the hospital to have it checked. Within hours, the parents were in handcuffs and heading off to jail, while their three children were removed from their home and being processed for adoption.
What happened that caused Brooke and Will to go from loving parents to the targets of death threats after the story made the six o’clock news?
A hospital X-ray showed their daughter had a broken humerus, and because they couldn’t provide an explanation, they were informed the state would have to investigate.
What followed was a 15-month nightmare. Subsequent x-rays revealed over half-a-dozen more fractures the parents couldn’t explain. The state Department of Children and Families concluded the fractures were stand-alone evidence of physical child abuse, and the couple was charged with felony child abuse.
Within weeks these charges were dropped, but it would take the parents until September of this year to get custody of their children back and for their ordeal to finally end.
The turn in the case started after Bornhorst was released from jail and started searching for answers. Bornhorst discovered she suffered from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder linked to, among other things, bone fragility. Lab work for her daughter showed elevated parathyroid hormone and alkaline-phosphatase levels which, she learned, could signify vitamin D deficiency.
Michael Holick, director of the Bone Health Care Clinic at Boston Medical Center, has studied Ehlers-Danlos syndrome extensively. According to Holick, who testified at Bornhorst and Meade’s trial without charging a fee, the child’s fractures could easily be explained by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and vitamin D deficiency.
Nonetheless, the Florida DCF dismissed the science and fought the parents tooth and nail to take their children.
But the judge would not do that. In his order dismissing the case with prejudice, he wrote:
“The more credible evidence points to the fact that both mother and child likely suffer from a metabolic bone disease . . . and the evidence presented by the Department [of Children and Families] is consistent with that disease.”
According to Dr. Holick, Bornhorst and Meade’s experience isn’t unique. “The problem is the radiologists and even these child abuse experts, they do not have the expertise in metabolic bone disease . . . They just see lots of fractures, and they’ve been taught lots of fractures is obviously child abuse. End of story.”
Added attorney Lynn Salvatore, who represented Bornhorst in the custody case, “People would rather believe these [large] numbers of parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, caregivers are intentionally breaking infants bones . . . To me, it makes much more sense that there’s a medical condition that caused that, and that child abuse is the exception and not the rule in these kind of fracture cases.”
Aimée Sutton and I follow the science on medical conditions that can mimic child abuse. We also stay in touch with the physicians who, like Dr. Holick, have the courage to question another doctor’s diagnosis of child abuse. It has been our privilege to defend parents against such allegations emanating from Seattle Children’s Hospital, Mary Bridge Hospital in Tacoma, and elsewhere in Washington State.