Photo supplied by family 

by Allie Parker
Health Impact News

When a family welcomes their firstborn, no matter how difficult the labor, how long the labor, whether instrumentation had to be used to get the baby out, or whether an emergency cesarean is done to finally welcome their new bundle of joy, all of this is a distant past with the arrival a new baby. 

With ten fingers and ten toes, doctors and nurses unconcerned about the events that took place during birth, you assume you are blessed and have happy, healthy baby.  

Families are starting to realize these events that occur during labor can result in underlying conditions that can lead to false allegations of child abuse and tear families apart.  

A military family from North Carolina tells us about their almost one-year long ordeal that threatened to take their daughter away from them forever.

On December 7th, 2018, stay-at-home mother, Mrs. Stenberg, was home with her 8-week-old daughter Charlotte. Charlotte was acting her normal self throughout the day until it was time for her feeding. This is when the Stenberg’s lives would be forever changed.

Evan Stenberg recalls his daughter Charlotte was born October 2018 after a difficult labor. After 15 hours of labor, his wife wasn’t dilating, and their baby girl was stuck in the birth canal. Pitocin, a drug used to induce labor, was administered, which also failed, and after 18 hours of labor, an emergency c-section was done.   

One of the most commonly used drugs in childbirth, Pitocin, isn’t without its risks to both mother and fetus. Here is a list of known side effects:

  • Retinal hemorrhage
  • Cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding within the brain tissue or ventricles)
  • Neonatal jaundice
  • Brain damage, including Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy
  • Lower APGAR scores at 5 minutes
  • Neonatal seizures
  • Death

Most of the time, if ever, these side effects are never told to the family before being administered.

See:

Common Childbirth Practice Could Lead to Later False Diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome

The Stenbergs’ lives went on like all first-time parents with a newborn often do, until the afternoon of December 7th.  Mrs. Stenberg, who was born and raised in Germany, had only been in the U.S. a short time. She and Mr. Stenberg met while he was stationed in Germany. They became engaged, and she moved to the U.S. when the pair wed in 2017.

While feeding her 8-week-old daughter, the little girl began to choke and was unable to breath. Terrified for her new baby, and having never called the police or “911” since moving to the U.S., she ran to the neighbors, whose front door is literally right next to theirs, for help with both Charlotte, and to call emergency services. 

By the time EMS had arrived, Charlotte seemed to be back to normal, but was taken to the local emergency room to be evaluated. According to Evan Stenberg, the father, Charlotte was visually normal from the exterior, no bruises, scratches, and no other abnormal deformities.  

Evan told us the hospital, Cape Fear Valley Hospital, decided to do an MRI, where a radiologist noted a chronic subdural hematoma (brain bleed), with a dark mixed density of fluid collection in the frontal lobe.  

A subdural hematoma is a type of bleeding in which a collection of blood gathers between the inner layer of the dura mater and the arachnoid mater of the meninges surrounding the brain. It usually results from tears in bridging veins that cross the subdural space.

For years, child abuse pediatricians have claimed “the only way” a child would get a subdural hematoma was by some sort of blunt force trauma, or shaking.  

Several studies have been done countering this claim, including one study done by Dr. Steven Gabaeff, that concluded:

“Failure to consider the role of Subdural Hematoma in accidents or medical problems as a cause of prior bleeding, increased ICP, hygroma, acute bleeding and RH, can result in a misdiagnose of abuse by amalgamating nonspecific findings that are individually and collectively scientifically unreliable indicators of abuse; the so called ‘‘constellation’’ of findings.” [1]

Because subdural hematoma is just one of the “constellation of findings” to diagnose shaken baby syndrome, now known as abusive head trauma, the ER doctor concluded this brain bleed was “non-accidental.”

Because they were not able to provide an explanation to explain “how a minuscule amount of fluid collected on the inside of our child’s head, the nurse on duty called Child Protection Services and our lives changed forever,” recalls Evan.

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Children’s Hospital Beacon Team

Cape Fear Valley does not have a “child protection team” on staff, therefore the Stenbergs were told their daughter would need to be transferred to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Children’s Hospital, for further workup by the Beacon Team.  

Evan describes this is where his daughter was “treated for her non-accidental injuries.” This treatment, according to Mr. Stenberg, was conducted on the little girl for 4 to 5 days and included a CT scan, another MRI, eye exams and blood work. Multiple specialists were consulted to determine what happened to their daughter.  

Evan states,

“After all of this, the only thing we knew was that Charlotte had some type of ‘fluid’ inside her head, and she had retinal hemorrhages.”

Mr. Stenberg claims Charlotte did not require any surgical intervention, and she was set for release on or about December 11th, but she was not going home with her parents. According to Evan,

“a social worker supervisor called him and said, ‘you either find a friend or family member to take this baby, or she’s going to foster care.’” 

Their neighbors agreed to help the family and signed Charlotte out of the hospital.  

Within a week to ten days, Charlotte’s father recalls the neighbors running next door in a panic stating Charlotte was choking again. They called 911 and Charlotte was again taken to the local ER, where they again concluded she had a progressing chronic subdural hematoma, and was again transferred to the Beacon Team at Chapel Hill Children’s Hospital.  

Despite concluding, yet again, their little girl had a chronic subdural hematoma, UNC Chapel Hill subjected Charlotte to several more days of testing. Evan says the only thing that changed was this time the hospital consulted with a speech therapist who concluded both hospitalizations were due to feedings, and recommended Charlotte be fed sitting up.  

Charlotte was set for release from her second hospitalization in less than a month, December 21st, but again, not to her parents to celebrate her first Christmas, and now she was also not allowed to go with the neighbors who were caring for Charlotte since the first hospital visit. By this time, CPS acquired a removal order from a judge, which would remove the child from both family and friends, placing her into foster care.  

First Christmas – Separated from Breastfed Child

With their first court hearing set for December 27th, the Stenbergs were unable to celebrate the holidays together. The first Christmas as a family was spent apart, mom and dad alone at their home, while their daughter was with strangers, somewhere in foster care. 

At their first hearing, December 27th, 2018, only days after the holiday, the parents had not yet obtained an attorney, so, according to Mr. Stenberg, they were represented by a stand-in attorney, who was court appointed. According to Evan, the attorney, “stood in to allow the hearing to happen.” No visitation was granted to them for the remainder of the holidays, forcing them to wait for another hearing set for January 2, 2019.  

After three weeks of no contact with their daughter, who was breastfed prior to the removal, they were still not allowed to see Charlotte and had to wait, yet again, for another hearing to be held mid-January.  

By mid-January, they were finally granted visitation. Despite knowing Charlotte was being breastfed, the Stenbergs were only granted 1 hour per week visitation. This visitation was to be supervised at the CPS department building.  

Also in mid-January, around January 10th, Evan recalls, he and his wife learned of what is called a “Child Medical Evaluation.” This evaluation was conducted by the Beacon Team’s child abuse pediatrician, Molly Curtin Berkoff, at UNC Chapel Hill. Evan claims they never consented to this evaluation, and in fact were not even made aware of the evaluation until it was already completed.  

The consent obtained from UNC Medical’s website, clearly shows either a parent, legal guardian, DSS Director, or a judge, can authorize the exam.  Medical records provided by the family show this exam was done with “DSS consent not signed”.  

The consent also has a section for the provider to claim reimbursement in accordance with the “Purchase of Services Contract” for services provided. The consent is form DSS-5143, thus confirming UNC and DSS have a contract, a contract in which the child abuse pediatric team bills the state for any and all services they provide to children being investigated for abuse.   

This evaluation, according to the father, concluded Charlotte had “non-accidental injuries due to repetitive shaking or shaking with impact and otherwise known as abusive head trauma.” Evan states this conclusion was made by a child abuse pediatrician who has no neurological expertise, and confirmed by the North Carolina Medical Board. 

No sexual abuse was ever alleged, but Evan says,

“Also at this exam, that wasn’t consented for, a pelvic exam was done on Charlotte, then a 12-week-old baby.”  

Nothing was found at this exam.

Months had gone by with the family doing classes, courses, and participating in psychological exams, thus completing the case plan.  

Soliciting Help from Other Doctors

Evan says during this time he started researching the theory of shaken baby syndrome, now known as abusive head trauma, and was connected with a “laundry list” of doctors, with different areas of expertise, who wanted to help him and his wife figure out the true cause for Charlotte’s injuries.  

The first doctor who offered to help was a pathologist from Michigan. Evan said the doctor wanted all the medical records sent to him as soon as possible, and the family immediately complied. Evan recalls he, “sent him as many records as possible.”  

The pathologist provided a preliminary report, provided to us by the family, which concluded:

“At 8 weeks of age, Charlotte had a chronic subdural hematoma. This bleeding started at least 2 weeks prior to admission but was most likely older.

The ‘rim’ of more recent blood does not represent a more recent injury but is rather part of the natural evolution of a chronic SDH.

The origin of this subdural bleeding is most likely birth but could also be a cerebral sinus venous thrombosis, BESS, or spontaneous SDH of unknown cause.  There are other rarer possibilities.

Some of the retinal hemorrhages could have persisted since birth (particularly pre-retinal hemorrhages) but it is likely that some are more recent and related to increases in intracranial pressure cause by the chronic SDH.

She probably had a seizure prior to admission, since this is the most common way that chronic SDH come to medical attention.”

The family’s attorney also contacted a Child Neurologist and expert in Neuro-imaging, based in Maryland. He too submitted a report, provided by the family, and concluded: 

“Infants who are victim of abusive head trauma are often found to have brain injury, external injury, internal injury, broken ribs, broken bones, skull fractures, and neck injury. Charlotte had none of these.

Charlotte did have a complicated birth that caused an excess of fluid to collect between her brain and inner skull. This fluid caused her head circumference to jump from the 21st percentile at age 2 days, to the 54th percentile by age 1 month. The descriptive name for this chronic fluid collection is subdural hygroma. Subdural describes the location, and hygroma describes the thick fluid nature of the collection. Pediatric neurologist and neurosurgeons encounter these in practice when infants are referred for larger than expected head circumferences. Many develop due to excessive squeezing of the head at birth, others for no known reasons. Most subdural hygromas in infants are not related to accidental or abusive trauma.  Subdural hygromas can cause small subdural or subarachnoid hemorrhages for two reasons. First, small vessels that course from the inner skull to the brains surface are stretched by the accumulated fluid can tear and lead blood. Second, the body attempts to wall off the fluid collection by building a membrane to contain it.  This membrane is vascular and fragile and can bleed blood as well. This membrane is visible on her head CT scan of 12/7/18.

I am surprised that a head circumference was not recorded by the child abuse specialists on 12/8, 12/11 and 12/18. This would have alerted them to Charlotte’s chronic condition of subdural fluid accumulation.”

The neurologist goes on to describe everything going on with little Charlotte, but summarized she:

“Had both a chronic and an acute medical condition that led to her illness of December 2018. Fortunately, she suffered no brain compromise. Thus, she is expected to have normal childhood development.

This came as a relief to the family due to a CPS social worker, having no medical training, telling the Stenbergs Charlotte would “have a droopy eye due to the trauma she sustained,” recalls Evan. 

Photo supplied by family.

Evan claims under North Carolina law, an adjudication hearing should happen within 60 days of the removal of the child, but their hearing didn’t take place until October 7, 2019. This is over 9 months from the removal of Charlotte from her parents.  

According to Mr. Stenberg, having found out a hearing should have taken place within 60 days of removal he started to pressure his attorney to hold an adjudication hearing as soon as possible.  

Unfortunately, the State’s failure to follow protocol and procedure only led to another violation of the family’s right to due process a fair trial.  

Evan says the County CPS attorney then requested a “special setting date,” but they continued to have multiple hearings, once a month, “on hearsay and non-factual information to paint myself and my wife as terrible people.”  

Finally a hearing date was set to review the evidence, but this date was never collaborated with the defense attorney who needed to contact the family’s expert witnesses for availability. Despite being unable to have experts present to testify in their defense, the date remained leaving the family with no defense.  

According to court documents provided by the family, the state admitted 7 pieces of evidence against the family. Three of which were reports from doctors at UNC. A radiologist, who never met the Stenbergs, and never examined Charlotte, but testified against them in court, the child abuse pediatrician’s report, who also testified against them, and a report prepared by UNC Beacon’s team Nurse Practitioner, who was not present at the hearing and did not testify.  

The State was allowed to enter reports into evidence without the author present to testify, but the defense was not allowed to admit ANY expert reports because they were unable to get their experts to the court to testify. This is just another way families’ rights and due process are continuously violated when a child abuse pediatrician makes a claim of child abuse. The unquestionable power these physicians have over the CPS agencies and the courts is overwhelming.  

With no defense, the court found Charlotte “an abused juvenile within the meaning of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101.” With no perpetrator, other than the parents who were with Charlotte on a daily basis for her first 8 weeks of life, the court concluded the parents were responsible for Charlotte’s injuries. 

A disposition hearing was held immediately following the adjudication hearing. At this hearing the judge continued to find Charlotte “abused,” but dismissed both the neglect and dependency claims CPS had filed in their petition.  

Custody Regained after 305 Days

On October 7, 2019, 305 days since Charlotte’s initial choking episode that sent a frightened concerned mother to the neighbors, pleading for help, the Stenbergs finally regained custody of their daughter, now one year old. 

Photo supplied by family.

It is unclear why the judge found little Charlotte “abused” under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101, but immediately returned custody to the parents. Evan equates the decision to the information provided by the child abuse pediatrician, and the fact he and his wife were unable to provide medical expert testimony to dispute the child abuse pediatrician, due to their experts not being available to testify for the October 7th hearing date. He explains further

“if the judge had heard from their experts, she wouldn’t have found abuse.

Mr. Stenberg also noted, the NC Statute used by the judge wasn’t to find the parent’s guilty, it was to find that the child may have been abused, but they (the parents), allowed it to happen.

This is all too common in these types of cases, which is why I have to agree with Mr. Stenberg. The judge made her decision based on the evidence provided, which is understandable.  That being said, according to uscourts.gov, one of the duties of a judge:

“A judge should accord to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, and that person’s lawyer, the full right to be heard according to law.”

Based on this duty alone, it seems fair to say the judge presiding over this case should have done anything and everything in her power to assure the Stenbergs were heard, and also to allow them their right to defend themselves with the use of expert testimony that rebuked the prosecution’s evidence that was allowed to be heard.

Despite the final judgment, Mr. Stenberg credits their ability to overcome this accusation due to their resistance to CPS and their constant fight against the system. The agency told them they needed to consent to a psychological evaluation; they complied, but they sought out their own psychologist to do the evaluation, and not the doctor paid by CPS.  

Mr. Stenberg would like others to know this is an extremely serious situation. When a child abuse pediatrician introduces themselves, you need to take it seriously.  

The amount of “firsts” a child has in the first year of life is priceless. “Firsts” a loving family should be photographing and videoing. All of these firsts, including a first birthday, were all taken aware from a family due to a theory that continues to be questioned in the medical field and in the courts.  

Photo supplied by family.

Birth trauma has been proven to cause the “constellation of findings” used to diagnose abuse, but child abuse pediatricians continue to disregard the birth history, current medical laboratory tests and imaging to find only abuse.  

When physicians have a contract with the State that allows them to bill the State for services provided to children being investigated for abuse, on top of the already billed services to the family’s insurance company, the ability to be unbiased is lost.

According to the Innocence Project,

“Shaken baby syndrome (SBS), now more frequently known as abusive head trauma (AHT), is a medico-legal diagnosis that has served as the basis for thousands of cases in which children have been separated from their parents, and parents and caretakers have been sent to prison or even sentenced to death.  Until recently, no independent scientific agency had reviewed the evidence base for the diagnosis.  The first to do so published its results in 2016.  It found the evidence for SBS “insufficient” and unreliable.” [2]

The Innocence Project continues their statement by pointing out the many problems with the evidence base of SBS/AHT, and concluded with a list of recommendations made

“In order to identify and correct wrongful convictions, prevent the future conviction of innocent parents and caretakers and wrongful separation of families, and to improve the reliability of the legal process in these cases”. [1]

The Stenbergs fought for their daughter. They drove six hours a day to see their daughter for two hours. These are the actions that allowed them to get their daughter back in less than a year, according to Mr. Stenberg.  

“The system will ride you [the innocent family] harder than a guilty person”. – Evan Stenberg 

About the Author

allie parkerAllie Parker is a Family Advocate and mother. She is a surviving victim of a false Child Abuse Pediatrician’s accusation. Read her story here.

 

 

References 

  1. Gabaeff, Steven C., MD, “Investigating the possibility and probability of perinatal subdural hematoma progressing to chronic subdural hematoma, with and without complications, in neonates, and its potential relationship to the misdiagnosis of abusive head trauma”, Journal of Legal Medicine 15 (2013): 117-192
  1. The Innocence Network, (June 2019), Statement of the Innocence Network on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma, accessed November 2019, https://innocencenetwork.org/statementoftheinnocencenetworkonshakenbabysyndrome/

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