How I became interested in child abuse defense
by Paula Werme

When my daughter was approximately two, one morning, she woke, and started down the stairs, crying. This was very unusual for her, as she usually woke up in wonderful mood. On the way down, she fell OFF our staircase, almost a full flight straight to our wooden floor. She lay there terribly still for a moment, while I rushed straight over to her, and knelt over her to assess the damages. The first thing I noticed was that she was terribly hot. There was also a magazine on the floor next to her. My husband and I occasionally put magazines and other items on the staircase or the landing to take upstairs, so it was likely one of us that had put the magazine where she had walked. Not feeling well, she had apparently slipped on the magazine, and gone straight off the stair to the floor.

She did awaken, however, she was totally out of it, so I immediately dialed her pediatrician, and explained both the fall, and the fever. The emergency desk said to double-dose her with Tylenol, and bring her straight in. I managed to get the Tylenol down her, and we left almost immediately. She remained barely conscious for most of the 18 mile trip to Nashua, until we reached Exit 5 on the Everett Turnpike. Then she completely woke up, was smiling, happy, and herself. Her fever was down. She looked and acted for all the world like her usual bright, inquisitive, cheerful, self. Tylenol always did have a great effect on her. The doctor looked at her, declared it a virus and bad bump, and sent us home. Over the next week or so, she slept a tremendous amount under my worried supervision, had regressed on some physical skills, and had to relearn a few things, but eventually seemed okay.

I finally felt that she was recovered enough to do some socializing, so I sent her to her regular sitter at the time, Joy Wheeler, wife of NH ex-senator David Wheeler. When I picked her up at day's end, Joy looked at me and said, "Do you know your daughter has a "mushy spot" on her head where she fell?" I didn't, so she showed me the spot, which was very mushy indeed. I called her regular pediatrician, and took her directly from Joy back to the office. This time an x- ray was done, revealing an approximately four-inch fracture on the left side of her skull. I was horrified when I saw the Xray, and frankly grateful I didn't know the extent of her injury for the previous two weeks. By the time I saw the Xrays, I was confident that she was on the road to recovery.

My husband and I solved the safety issue by never again putting magazines on the stair - the obvious easy solution. We put slats in the staircase as soon as we could, and also a railing going down the basement stairs. Dave and Joy Wheeler were already interested in the issue of the powers of DCYF to interfere in family life. We had a couple of humorous discussions about DCYF moving into the home design business, but eventually the incident was almost forgotten.

Approximately six months later, I was starting law school. Joy Wheeler was not an obvious choice for a full time sitter, as she lived 11 miles in the opposite direction from the law school. Using her would have added 44 miles per day to an already long 75 mile round trip commute. I found a much younger local sitter, and nervously put my daughter with her. Friday morning, she was limping a little bit. Not knowing what was wrong, I took her to the sitter, and told her to watch the leg. That night, I arrived at the sitter, to have her tell me that my daughter's leg was worse. I looked at her leg, and to my horror, discovered that her ankle was swollen. She couldn't walk. I carried her out and took her home, all the while wondering about my choice of sitter, and what had gone on that first week. I was very careful to make no accusations, however, because of what I had learned from Dave and Joy Wheeler. By the time Ric got home that evening, we inspected her ankles to find BOTH were swollen, red, and she wasn't walking.

NOW I was scared. It looked to me like there was a good chance that someone had hurt her intentionally. She wasn't verbal enough to get a story from her. MY obvious guess was the new sitter, but I knew that wouldn't be the first guess of DCYF. I called Joy Wheeler, and asked her what I should do? I obviously needed to take my daughter for medical attention, but I was hoping Joy could come up with the name of an attorney to contact from the doctor's office, if possible. Both her regular pediatrician's and Milford Medical Center had the information about the skull fracture six months before. Joy didn't have a solid suggestion for an attorney, so she recommended that Ric and I both take her in, and not leave her alone with the hospital personnel to be examined. In a panic, I considered how my life could change in forever by taking my daughter for medical attention I knew she needed. Nevertheless, Ric and I DID take her to the emergency room that evening.

The Milford Medical Center physician on call examined her, and declared that it was an inflammatory process, unrelated to injury. He didn't even Xray her, but suggested we take her to her pediatrician the following week to determine if she had juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. While mulling over that possibility nearly ruined the rest of our weekend, it ended the immediate panic about DCYF taking our daughter. In the end, she was diagnosed with a common pediatric virus. Her regular pediatrician showed us some pictures from one of his medical books of bad cases to allay our fears about having a crippled daughter, and assured us that she would be fine in a couple of weeks, which she was.

Following that first harrowing week of law school, I started thinking much more seriously about Joy and Dave Wheeler's commitment to reducing the power of Child Protective Services. No parent should have that level of fear taking their child to the doctor for needed medical attention. Unfortunately it is all too common a fear in New Hampshire. It is common because the attitude of the Division is to take the child now, when there is a mere possibility of abuse, and investigate later. However, physicians assume that if the Division takes the child, that means there is outside evidence of abuse, so it colors their thinking as well. The Division claims to rely on the physicians to diagnose abuse, but if they are wrong (and they frequently are wrong), parents have no way of disproving a bad diagnosis.

Three years of law practice have convinced me that the child protection system in New Hampshire has widespread problems. It has constitutional problems with the law, problems with the level of professionalism in diagnosis and treatment of child abuse, system-wide problems with obtaining fair adjudications because of evidence laws, and a system that allows DCYF to almost exclusively control information available to the courts for their decisions once a child is in the system. They take the children in virtually all of the Court cases, and treat broken bones the same as dirt and diaper rash. In other states, taking the children from the home frequently does NOT happen automatically when a petition is filed. That encourages the parents to be more cooperative with the courts. It will take years to fix the problems and the attitudes toward child protection in New Hampshire. I don't want my daughter, or anyone in New Hampshire, ever to be afraid to take their children to the doctor for their needs. DCYF should take children only that are truly in immediate danger.

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Last updated 1999 August 29.