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Child Abuse Cases Are Not Always As They Seem

This week the Times-Union reported on a couple who were arrested for allegedly abusing their 7-week old daughter only to be later exonerated. The story is a great example of why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions when such allegations initially are made. Rather, we should wait for all the evidence to come out about the matter before drawing our final conclusions.

The facts are as follows. The young couple were preparing for an outing when they noticed their 7-week old daughter wasn’t moving her arm. They took her to the hospital where an x-ray showed it was broken. Because they couldn’t satisfactorily explain the cause of the injury, the state became involved. A whole-body x-ray ordered as part of that investigation revealed the infant had numerous broken bones. And, because the parents again couldn’t offer a plausible explanation for the child’s multiple fractures, they were arrested at the hospital, handcuffed, taken to jail and later charged with felony child abuse. As bad as this is, the story actually gets worse.

Due to the nature and extent of the infant’s injuries, the state then began proceedings permanently to remove all three of the couple’s children from their home.  The criminal charges were soon dropped against the couple. But, the state continued to try to remove the children from the home and place them on a fast track for adoption.

It was subsequently discovered the baby suffered from a rare metabolic bone disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and vitamin D deficiency. Symptoms include double-jointedness, easy bruising, and bone fragility. And it turns out, the mother has it too.

Dr. Michael Holick, a researcher at Boston University Medical Center, director of the Bone Health Care Clinic at Boston Medical Center, and an expert on Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and vitamin D deficiency, testified on behalf of the couple in the dependency proceedings. “For me, that case was pretty cut and dried,” he said. “The problem is the radiologists and even these child abuse experts, they do not have the expertise in metabolic bone disease, so they don’t appreciate the subtleties—what it can do to the skeleton, or vitamin D deficiency. They just see lots of fractures, and they’ve been taught lots of fractures is obviously child abuse, end of story.”

The state had its own expert witnesses who disputed the notion the infant’s injuries were due to a medical condition and not abuse. Indeed, Circuit Judge Mark Mahon characterized the case as “a battle of the experts.” Judge Mahon found the medical explanation more credible. His September 2015 order dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled. And he ordered the couple “immediately” to be reunited with their children, without any further supervision from the state. “The more credible evidence points to the fact that both mother and child likely suffer from a metabolic bone disease,” Mahon wrote, “and the evidence presented by the Department [of Children and Families] is consistent with that disease.”

While the case undoubtedly represents a victory for the young couple and their family, it came at a high cost. The couple’s mug shots appeared on local TV and they were lambasted on social media, with many commenters calling for them to be jailed, tortured and executed. Family members lost home equity and retirement money funding their defense and efforts to keep their children. And, even worse, they lost time with their three young children that they will never get back.

Child abuse is a serious offense and a highly politicized issue in Florida. The State Attorney zealously pursues child abuse charges in Duval, Nassau, Clay and surrounding counties. If you or someone you know has been charged with child abuse, aggravated child abuse, or child neglect, and would like the assistance of an experienced Jacksonville criminal defense attorney, please call or email me to discuss how I can help.