Doctor Not Immune from Suit for Misdiagnosing Medical Child Abuse

A Boston doctor who concluded a child was a victim of child abuse is not immune from suit for medical malpractice and civil rights violations. That is a judge’s recent ruling, according to the law firm pressing the suit.

Other doctors had diagnosed teenager Justina Pelletier with mitochondrial disease, a rare genetic disorder that affects how cells produce energy. But, as the Boston Globe tells the story, when Justina’s parents took her to Children’s Hospital in Boston, Dr. Alice Newton there concluded Justina’s problems were psychological, not physical. Dr. Newton reported that Justina’s parents were seeking unnecessary medical care for her. This report of “medical child abuse,” as it is now often called, led to a court order removing Justina from her family. She spent 16 months in state care, much of it locked in a psychiatric ward, before a judge decided her parents were not a threat to her.

Aimée Sutton and I are now in the midst of defending a similar case in western Washington State. In our case, too, doctors at one medical facility diagnosed mitochondrial disease, and doctors at another— Seattle Children’s Hospital—rejected that diagnosis and accused the parents of medical child abuse.

While the term “medical child abuse” may be new, the concept is not. The term used to by “Munchausen-by-Proxy.” The notion is that a parent seeks for a child medical care that the parent knows to be unnecessary. The parent is motivated, according to the theory, by an unusual need for attention or some other psychological disorder.

As I have previously written, two doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital are nationally prominent in publicizing “medical child abuse.”