MassKids is urging the Governor to create oversight and accountability at the Medical Examiner’s Office so that decisions about the causes of suspicious Infant deaths, currently being made unilaterally by individual M.E.s, can be appropriately reviewed, and any changes in the official cause of death can be properly evaluated. This call is in response to three cases involving infants whose deaths were initially ruled homicides and caused by Abusive Head Trauma and were later independently changed to cause of death “undetermined.” See MassKids Press Release and the Boston Globe’s reporting on these cases.
Governor Baker Urged to Improve Oversight at the Medical Examiner’s Office to Better Address Child Deaths
August 26, 2016, BOSTON, MA – Child advocates today are publicly urging Governor Baker to appoint an independent panel of forensic experts to review current practices at the State’s Medical Examiner’s Office, and recommend how oversight and accountability can be improved as it relates to determining the official causes of suspicious child deaths. The call by MassKids, a statewide child advocacy organization, is in response to three cases of infants whose deaths were investigated by the Boston Globe and reported on earlier this week. Abusive Head Trauma or Shaken Baby Syndrome was ruled by the Medical Examiner’s Office to be the cause of injuries that led to the deaths. During an 18- month period, however, those initial determinations of homicide, were later revised to “undetermined.” These judgements have now been called into question because the three Medical Examiners who made those decisions in each of their respective cases, appear to have been heavily influenced by defense lawyers committed to debunking Abusive Head Trauma as a credible syndrome in order to defend their clients charged with the homicides. The impartiality of at least two of the M.E.s has also been raised because each of them has or is now benefitting financially by testifying in court in favor of the defense in such cases.
Jetta Bernier who directs MassKids, describes why the lack of oversight and accountability for these decisions is unacceptable. “When agencies that are a part of our state’s child protection system including DCF, medical providers, police, and district attorneys, are involved in child death cases, multiple players in each of those systems participate in the investigation and decision making about circumstances surrounding those deaths. In Boston hospitals, for example, when a seriously injured child is seen, a multidisciplinary group of experts including pediatricians, radiologists, ophthalmologists, and other specialist share their combined knowledge to make a differential diagnosis about the cause of those injuries. While no system is fail safe, this team approach provides the best possible chance that the diagnosis will be accurate. How is it then that in the Medical Examiner’s Office, also a critical member of the child protection system, a single M.E, without consultation with and formal review by the Chief Medical Examiner or other forensic experts, can make a unilateral decision on the cause of death of a child, and even change their mind later, without ever having to account to anyone? This is untenable.”
The Secretary of Public Safety, Daniel Bennett, indicated earlier this week that he has no concerns about individual Medical Examiners having total authority and autonomy to determine or revise causes of death without ever having to consult with or defend their decisions with the Chief Medical Examiner.
“It has been well known that for decades the Medical Examiners’ Office has been underfunded and understaffed,” noted Bernier. “As a result, its policies and practices have only garnered it a “partial accreditation” with the National Association of Medical Examiners. Other states have policies that require the Chief Medical Examiner or a second M.E. to review and sign off on decisions involving any homicide, the death of a child under age 2, and any case in which the cause of death is ruled “undetermined. Massachusetts is clearly out-of-step with these best practices.”
MassKids believes an independent panel of forensic pathologists could recommend to the Governor how to build checks and balances into the system and finally bring the M.E.’s Office into full accreditation. According to Bernier, “We applaud the Governor for his commitment to improving our state’s child protection system and for the strides that are being made at DCF. But the M.E.’s Office is also a critical part of child protection and his commitment should extend to that agency, as well. If decisions about the causes of child deaths are made unilaterally and without any oversight and review, errors will be made. As a result, justice for those children will be lost, those who commit crimes against them will not be held accountable, and our ability to prevent other children from similar deaths will be undermined.”
We Need Your Support
Since its formation in 1959, MassKids has continued to tackle the complex and sometimes controversial issues facing vulnerable children.
- In the 60s, MassKids worked successfully to remove mentally ill children from adult psychiatric wards.
- In the 70’s our data alerted the state to the growing problem of drug-addicted newborns, and to the links between teen suicides and sexual identify issues.
- In the 80’s we worked to protect homeless and runaway youth from HIV, filed a class action against the state for its inadequate child protection system, and conducted the first media campaign in the country on child sexual abuse prevention.
- In the 90’s MassKids was the first group to work to prevent infant deaths and disabilities from Shaken Baby Syndrome, and to successfully challenge the withholding of necessary medical care for seriously ill children by their faith-healing parents.
- Since 2002 our work to address child sexual abuse has resulted in the engagement of numerous communities and thousands of citizens across the state through our Enough Abuse Campaign which the CDC has called “a trailblazing effort.”
MassKids latest concern is for young girls who reside in our state whose families support the practice of FGM – female genital mutilation. The long-term physical and psychological trauma resulting from this practice have been documented internationally by the United Nations and locally by physicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. MassKids is working with the Women’s Bar Association to develop strategies to combat this practice. We want to find ways to engage, rather than alienate, members of communities whose traditional beliefs have supported the practice as necessary to ensure the future marriageability of their daughters. MassKids seeks to speak out for these girls because their voices – and quite literally their screams – are not being heard by those on whom they most depend upon for their safety and health.
In 2015, when you consider supporting an organization that is working tirelessly and effectively for the most vulnerable children of our state, please choose MassKids. Your donation is critical to our ongoing work, since, as we have learned, foundations are often reluctant to support issues they haven’t already included in their wheelhouse or issues they believe might be too difficult or controversial. These are precisely the issues that MassKids has been drawn to over its 55-year history. Our mission is to speak out for the most vulnerable children of our state and to amplify their tiny voices. Please add your voice to make ours and theirs stronger by making a generous contribution to MassKids today.
What your gift would help us to achieve:
- Expand the Enough Abuse Campaign on child sexual abuse prevention to new Massachusetts communities;
- Train and deploy cadres of new trainers on child sexual abuse prevention through our 2-day "Training of Trainers" in new Campaign communities;
- Provide consultation to schools and youth organizations around improving screening practices for new employees and volunteers, reporting cases of sexual abuse, and establishing codes of conduct to identify inappropriate behaviors before they can escalate to illegal acts of sexual abuse;
- Print and distribute our teaching tools: "Straight Talk about Child Sexual Abuse: A Prevention Guide for Parents" and our "Sexual Abuse Safe-Child Standards" for Youth-Serving Organizations;
- Continue enriching our websites with the latest information on all aspects of child abuse and ways to prevent it;
- Continue to educate parents of newborns, family-serving professionals, health care providers and hospitals about Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma through dissemination of our highly regarded teaching DVDs, booklets and trainings.
Your gift would enable us to persue our current Legislative Agenda:
- MassKids supports mandating comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention education for staff and volunteers in schools and youth-serving organizations. Bill language drafted by MassKids stresses that reporting cases after the fact or trying to identify victims – features of legislation in other states – does not constitute a comprehensive prevention strategy. MassKids supports also training to spot behaviors that might indicate an adult poses a sexual risk to children; understand and respond to child-on-child sexual abuse; and, institute codes of conduct in schools and youth-serving organizations that can identify early-on the physical and psychological boundary violations that, if left unchecked, could develop into reportable sexual offenses.
- MassKids proposes a bill to address educator sexual misconduct and abuse – a problem the U.S. Department of Education reports is affecting 10%, or 4.5 million, American school children K-12. The bill would require public and private schools to complete extensive and specifically detailed reviews of applicants who would be directly involved with children. It would prohibit schools from knowingly transferring or facilitating the transfer of any school employee if the school knows or has reason to believe the employee engaged in sexual misconduct with an elementary or high school student.
- MassKids supports legislation to make it a criminal offense for any school employee having supervisory responsibility of a student - irrespective of the student's age - to engage in any sexual behavior with that child or youth. Currently, educators who sexually abuse a student who has reached the age of consent (16) will most often escape any criminal charges.
- MassKids seeks to add five new categories of professionals mandated to report suspected child abuse under the state's 51a child abuse reporting law. These include: coaches, tutors, domestic violence workers, animal control and humane officers, and commercial film or photo processors.
- In 2000 the African Women's Health center at Brigham and Women's Hospital estimated that 227,887 women and girls were at risk for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Girls at risk currently reside in Massachusetts, including Boston, Lawrence, and Worcester. FGM is recognized internationally as a human rights violation, torture, and an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. MassKids supports legislation drafted by the Massachusetts Women's Bar Association that would strengthen our state's current child abuse laws to make sure that the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is understood as being illegal and unacceptable.
Massachusetts Citizens for Children (MassKids) is the oldest state-based child advocacy organization in the country. Our mission is to improve the lives of the state's most vulnerable children through advocacy by concerned citizens. It was founded in 1959 by pediatrician Martha May Eliot, MD, who served as Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and held influential positions in both the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). With active support from Governor Foster Furculo, they established MCC as a permanent, independent citizens’ voice for Massachusetts’ most vulnerable children.
Throughout its 55-year history, our organization’s work has been grounded in the belief that all Massachusetts children have the inherent right -
- To be safe from abuse, neglect, and violence;
- To be economically secure and free from poverty;
- To receive quality medical and preventive care;
- To learn in quality child care and school settings; and
- To live in caring families and healthy communities.
Since 1986 MassKids has served as the Massachusetts Chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America. MassKids currently works to prevent child abuse through the work of the Shaken Baby Syndrome Prevention Center and the soon to be launched "Choose Your Partner Carefully" project. It leads the Enough Abuse Campaign - a multi-state initiative working to educate and mobilize parents, professionals and communities to prevent child sexual abuse. Click here for highlights of MassKids' work and accomplishments for children.