After first profiling the case of the Cradys, a local family who says they spent 693 days trying to prove their innocence after being accused of child abuse, we wanted to share two other stories we came across, all involving the same local doctor. One of those involves a Peoria mother who turned the allegations she once faced into a mission to help others.
“Our youngest son was born with a wide range of medical issues related to an undiagnosed rare genetic condition,” begins Peoria Mom Michelle Weidner.
Weidner says that led doctors at OSF St. Francis Medical Center to perform a CAT scan on the then-5 week old who she’s asked we not name. But, the outcome of that scan left Weidner and her husband in utter disbelief.
“When they did the CT scan he moved in the machine, which resulted in a blurred line, and that blurred line was misdiagnosed as a skull fracture,” Weidner explains.
Unfortunately, the Weidners wouldn’t learn there was a problem with the scan till much later. Instead, in that moment, they found themselves accused.
“And the child abuse pediatrician told investigators that there was no other explanation than blunt force trauma,” Weidner adds.
That child abuse pediatrician was Dr. Channing Petrak, M.D., the Medical Director for the Pediatric Resource Center (PRC,) and the same doctor involved in the Crady case (previously profiled in part one of our special report.)
The Weidners say following Petrak’s diagnosis they were unable to be alone with their newborn son or their two older children for two weeks. During that time they sought out a second opinion at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
“They were able to decide with 100% accuracy that there was no skull fracture,” Weidner reports.
But, it still took 3 months for DCFS to close the investigation, notifying the family the report of abuse was “unfounded.”
Today their youngest is 8 and is doing well, enjoying time with his two older brothers. And while he doesn’t remember that dark time, his parents still do.
However it’s prompted Weidner to fight for other families who are accused of abuse, now serving as the Executive Director of the newly created Family Justice Resource Center (FJRC.)
“Sometimes they get it wrong, and when they get it wrong there is no recourse for parents and families. And the Family Justice Resource Center wants to be the place to turn to when the state gets it wrong,” Weidner declares.”
Also on the FJRC Board, Diane Redleaf, an attorney out of Chicago with almost 40 years of experience. She’s written a just-published book on the subject, profiling six families, “They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families At Risk.”
“The stories are all cases of families where the child welfare system came in and literally took the kids one night,” Redleaf explains.
Redleaf estimates she’s worked on anywhere from 70 to 100 cases involving families whose children allegedly had medical conditions that were mistaken for abuse.
“I believe any family could be subject to something like this and people need to basically have a wake-up call that this is occurring,” she emphatically states.
Right now the FJRC says they are handling 11 open cases across the state. But, they say it’s difficult to track how many allegations of child abuse are proven false, partly because no one keeps track of that. Redleaf and Weidner also say many parents take plea deals or later say they were coerced into a confession.
A Springfield father, Richard Britts, says that’s what happened to him.
He recalls watching TV one night back in 2010 when his three month old daughter, Saniya, starting gasping for breath in her crib.
“I just didn’t know what to do, she was lifeless, she was still gasping, breathing very weird. I called her mother and I called 911 and they walked me through CPR which is probably the scariest thing ever did in my life,” Britts recalls.
The little girl was taken to a nearby hospital before being transported to OSF in Peoria, where doctors determined she had bleeding on the brain, and Britts says that prompted Dr. Petrak to conclude Saniya had been either shaken or hit.
Britts says he protested and told staff seizures ran in his family. Ultimately, though, he was arrested and taken to the Sangamon County Jail after he claims he was coerced into a confession without an attorney present.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I was 19 and they’re just telling me everything that I did was inaccurate. I couldn’t answer their questions,” Britts began, adding that in the end he felt worn down by the interrogations. He claims in an attempt to bring things to an end, he finally admitted if they thought he did something he must have, even though he didn’t know what that “something” was, not fully realizing that would be interpreted as a confession.
Britts spent more than 2 years in jail awaiting trial, where he was eventually found not guilty after a medical expert from out-of-state testified Saniya did, in fact, suffer from a seizure disorder. Since then he says he’s rebuilt his life,and enjoys time with Saniya, who made a full recovery, and her three sisters.
Still, he says nothing can replace the time that was taken from him.
“That’s 2 1/2 years I’ll never get back I had to reestablish the relationships with my children. Man, I lost a lot. I lost my home, I lost two jobs, I lost my marriage, my father passed when I was there,” he laments.
Hoping to spare other families that fate, the FJRC says they want to help connect parents to medical experts with insight into diseases and conditions that mimic abuse.
We asked one of the experts the FJRC uses, a radiologist out of Springfield, to weigh in on how this could be possible.
I think when you look at the specialty of child abuse pediatrics you are geared up to protect children in harm’s way. So one of the first things you see, in other words, if you’re a nail everything is a hammer or vice versa. And there’s a specialty bias that we all have,” explained Dr. David Ayoub, MD.
Dr. Ayoub says he’s studied metabolic bone disease, rickets, and vitamin D deficiencies extensively and believes those conditions can often mimic abuse. As a result, he testifies in cases all over the country.
As we’ve previously stated, we’ve tried reaching out to Dr. Petrak for response since she’s the designated Child Abuse Pediatrician in Central Illinois, but her employer, the University of Illinois College of Medicine said they couldn’t “comment on or provide patient information,” citing privacy concerns.
But, a fellow Child Abuse Pediatrician out of Minnesota who’s unaffiliated with any of the local cases we’ve profiled did speak to us.
“Many of the theories that are proposed for alternate explanations for injuries are not accepted by any of these major medical organizations,” shared Dr. Mark Hudson, MD.
Still, members of the FJRC say that’s part of the problem, claiming many child abuse pediatricians are quick to dismiss other theories, and have the final say if injuries are suspicious of abuse.
Dr. Hudson did agree that Child Abuse Pediatricians ultimately make that diagnosis, but he said they first consult with other specialists. However, he did admit doctors can sometimes get it wrong.
“Of course with any medical diagnosis there can be a misdiagnosis most commonly what we see in most cases is that abuse was missed,” Hudson said.
That’s a sentiment shared by the Medical Director for the Pediatric Emergency Department at OSF.
Dr. Teresa Riech points out that healthcare workers are considered “mandated reporters,” meaning they’re legally obligated to point out anything that is suspicious of abuse.
She says not doing so can lead to fatal consequences in some cases.
“Of the children who die from child abuse, 80% are related to abusive head trauma, and often they present multiple times to healthcare providers before abuse is identified,” Riech declares.
That’s why Riech say it’s so important to identify red flags early and then hand that over to a Child Abuse Pediatrician, DCFS, and law enforcement to review. Still, she admits these cases aren’t always black and white.
“Sometimes those injuries will present that are rarely mimics of abuse, and there are lots of medical conditions that masquerade as, so it’s very tricky,” she explains.
But Weidner and the FJRC say that’s why they are working to increase the accuracy of abuse investigations and ensure that parents are provided with due process.
“Wrongful allegations are often considered collateral damage in the fight against child abuse. And it’s often not taking into consideration the impact that wrongful allegations have on families,” weidner exclaims.
We asked what steps a parent can take if they believe they are being wrongfully accused.
The FJRC says immediately get an attorney and ask for your child’s records.
For more information on the FJRC call (309) 431-9127.
We also asked a representative with Illinois DCFS if there is a problem of families being wrongly accused, and if so, what they are doing about it.
Neil Skene, the Special Assistant to the Director of Illinois DCFS shared the following statement: