The hospital’s guidance advised doctors to notify the Child Protection Program of even small bruises found on infants who are not yet “cruising,” or pulling themselves up on furniture. Such bruises, the guidance warned, are “sentinel” injuries that can signal possible child abuse. Knox helped to write the policy, basing it on “national guidelines and practice,” Russell said.
The Siebolds offered several innocent explanations for Leo’s bruises. Perhaps they came from Leo’s “Army crawling” over toys on the wooden floor of the family home — or from Leo’s struggle with Brenna Siebold and ER staff during the examination a day earlier. Knox and physician assistant Amanda Palm rejected those theories. The hospital reported the bruises to authorities as “unexplained.”
Mount Horeb Police officers Susan Zander and Jenn Schaaf interviewed the Siebolds at the hospital; one officer knew Brenna Siebold personally. They quickly discounted the allegations, writing in a one-paragraph police report that the bruises were “caused by medical staff.”
After a two-month investigation, the Dane County Department of Human Services also concluded there was no evidence of abuse.
Minor bruises could spark even more investigations under a bill introduced in 2019 by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin. It would create a $10 million demonstration program on how to use “sentinel injuries” in children 7 months and younger, including minor bruises, to detect — and prevent — child abuse and fatalities.
Child abuse is terrible and everyone (almost) wants to see it discovered, reported, prosecuted, and prevented. This creates a huge incentive for people – especially medical professionals – to report even their smallest suspicions to law enforcement. And because child abuse is so horrendous, even the accusation can ruin the lives of parents and pull apart families.
The problem is that some kids get hurt is weird ways, some kids bruise easily, and some kids lie. Even if the authorities never prove that there was child abuse or actually conclude that there was no child abuse, the accusation will still linger. People will doubt. Employers will wonder. Family members will question. Nobody wants to be the person who did not report suspected child abuse if there actually is child abuse. And nobody wants to let their kids go to little Timmy’s house when his dad is an accused child abuser.
I don’t have any good answers. The amount of scrutiny for child abuse is appropriate given our collective concern for the welfare of children. But once that accusation is made, it can’t be retracted even if it is disproven. Be very careful before you accuse.