Doctor Faces Liability for Child-Abuse Suspicions

     (CN) – A child-abuse-suspecting doctor who tried to keep a baby hospitalized so that his parents couldn’t take him home must face civil claims, the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday.
     Ruling 2-1, the federal appeals court said Dr. Claudia Wang does not have immunity from claims that she seized the infant G.J. without reasonable cause to believe his parents were abusing him.
     At this juncture of the case, the court must view the allegations in a light most favorable to the parents. The judges recited the case background in this light, while also noting that, as a lawyer for Los Angeles County Social Services, the mother, Jill Jones, was aware that doctors would look for signs of abuse when she brought G.J. to the emergency room in February 2010.
     Jill told the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center that she had been holding her sleeping infant son in her arms, walking down stairs in their Santa Monica loft, when she tripped, and G.J. fell out of her arms, tumbled down several stairs and landed on his head on the hardwood floor.
     Doctors determined that G.J.’s injuries, including a fracture on the back of his skull, were consistent with that explanation of the accident, according to the ruling.
     Although the child also had rib fractures, they were not visible on the x-ray done on his chest that day.
     Wang reviewed the case in her capacity as the medical director of UCLA’s Suspected Child Abuse and Negligence (SCAN) team.
     Believing that the baby’s injuries were unusual and potentially inconsistent with the parents’ explanation, Wang had Jill bring G.J. back to the hospital about a week later for what she called routine tests.
     Jill and her husband Michael say Wang’s reading of the tests and her consultations with specialists brought her to the incorrect conclusion that G.J.’s rib fractures had occurred after the accident and that he potentially had a new skull fracture.
     Wang had the case reported to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the UCLA police department.
     She also recommended admitting G.J. into the hospital to determine whether the baby had a metabolic bone disorder that was causing the fractures. Wang later admitted that her primary purpose in making the recommendation was to prevent Jones from taking G.J. home.
     The Joneses say Wang knew that she could not formally take G.J. into custody but nevertheless coordinated behind the scenes to keep G.J. in the hospital.
     Worried that they could lose custody of G.J. by appearing resistant, the Joneses spent the weekend in the hospital with the baby, under the supervision of a sitter whom Wang had placed in the child’s room.
     Three days later, a social worker issued a hold on G.J. based on Wang’s suspicions. The Joneses lost physical custody of G.J. for months before a juvenile court found that the baby had not been abused and would not be at risk of abuse in the future.
     With the couple suing for violations of their federal and state constitutional rights, a federal judge denied Wang summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
     The divided circuit panel affirmed this decision Monday.
     “We offer no opinion on the ultimate question of whether the Joneses’ constitutional rights were violated,” Judge Mary Murguia wrote for the majority. “We decide only that a jury is needed to determine what a reasonable parent in the Joneses’ position would have believed and whether Dr. Wang’s conduct amounted to a seizure.”
     Based on the Joneses’ version of facts, a jury could likely find that reasonable parents in their position would believe that they were not allowed to take their child home, especially considering the sitter that was appointed to their room.
     “Short of a formal hold, there is no stronger message to parents that they are not free to make a decision for their child than that the state does not trust them to be alone with their infant son,” Murguia said.
     Exigent circumstances were not a factor in the case, the majority found.
     “There was no evidence that the Joneses neglected G.J., and there was no evidence pointing to either Jill or Michael as the potential abuser,” Murguia said.
     In a dissenting opinion, Judge Stephen McNamee said that Wang’s actions did not violate the Joneses’ constitutional rights.
     “I cannot join the majority in denying qualified immunity to Dr. Wang, a respected physician, professor, and 23-year veteran of the UCLA Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect team whose actions were anything but malicious or incompetent,” McNamee said.
     The majority “cobbles together multiple facts spanning over three days” to reach its conclusion that Wang seized G.J., even though a seizure is defined as a single act and not a continuous fact, McNamee said.
     “In my opinion, G.J.’s progressing, textbook injuries suffered while in the exclusive custody of his parents gave Dr. Wang adequate evidence of child abuse and imminent harm to meet even higher levels of suspicion than that required by our case law,” the dissent states. “We should not now expose Dr. Wang to liability simply because she recommended further testing.”
     Attorneys for the parties have not returned requests for comment.

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