NBC News and the Houston Chronicle did a yearlong investigation in Texas into misdiagnoses leading to Child Protective Services (CPS) removing children from their homes. In the follow-up reporting, NBC and the Chronicle heard from more than 300 families from 38 states, highlighting the plight of parents accused of child abuse based on mistaken or overstated reports by doctors. The flood of responses shows the nationwide reach of problems detailed in the investigative series.
One family identified in the reporting was Lorina and Jason Troy, and their two sons, JJ and Kainoa. On New Year’s Eve 2014, JJ was born. When the Troys took JJ home, Lorina noticed that his head appeared to be swelling. He also started vomiting. She took him to their pediatrician who diagnosed JJ with a stomach flu. But the vomiting didn’t stop, and JJ’s head kept getting bigger.
The Troys took JJ to urgent care clinics and eventually a children’s hospital. It was at the hospital that Lorina managed to get a doctor to do an MRI on JJ’s head. The scan found fluid built up in his brain. While this can be indicative of head trauma, it can also be caused by certain medical conditions. However, the doctor immediately assumed it was due to child abuse.
Lorina asked for a second opinion but was denied. She said, “I told him, my son has never been hurt in any way, could this be anything else? And he told me, yes, but since he’s a baby and can’t talk, we are just going to go with abuse and walked away.” So soon after, both of Lorina’s children were taken away and placed in foster care.
Not long after that, Jason Troy was charged with two counts of felony child abuse. This caused him to lose his job as a government contractor. Through the process of hiring attorneys, paying for JJ’s medical expenses, and the loss of wages, the Troys had to sell their house and still lost an additional $80,000. This is not unusual in cases such as theirs. Some families go into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
It took a total of two and a half years before JJ received an accurate diagnosis. He had Benign External Hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus can be present at birth and is the result of genetic abnormalities, problems with fetal development, or complications at birth. Hydrocephalus affects about 1 in every 500 babies in the U.S. Unfortunately, a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the head can also be a symptom of a traumatic brain injury, most often caused in babies by blows to the head or being severely shaken. This can be interpreted as physical abuse if other symptoms are not considered, as in the Troy family’s case.
Once JJ was diagnosed, the charge against Jason were dropped and the whole family was reunited. But the damage had been done. The trauma of being falsely accused and the children being in foster care had taken a toll on both parents and children. Kainoa lost 20 pounds in foster care and JJ cried all the time. Research has shown that time spent in foster care can cause long lasting problems for children.
Every year, 2 million children encounter the child welfare system due to investigations of parental abuse or neglect. Many of these children are removed from their homes and placed into the foster care system. Foster care is known to produce poor social outcomes, such as high delinquency rates, high teen birth rates, and lower earnings. Foster care is meant to be a temporary solution, but children stay in foster care for an average of two years. In addition, the average foster child is moved from one home to another at least once, with 25 percent moving three or more times.
Although an abusive family would undoubtedly be harmful to children, removing a child from his or her family can be just as traumatic. For example, placement instability in foster care could be a potentially serious problem for child development. Everyone would agree that children should not be exposed to abuse or neglect. However, the process of being removed from one’s home and placed in foster care has consequences as well and can have negative effects that last a lifetime.
Such children are affected by a variety of factors, including the psychological and neurobiological effects associated with disrupted attachment to biological parents, the specific traumatic experiences that necessitated placement, the emotional disruption of placement, and the need to adjust to the foster care environment. The loss of a parent is arguably one of the most distressing experiences that a child can undergo. Losing a parent through state intervention can be especially harmful as it creates a scenario in which children are removed from their family, friends, and environments with no sense of closure. This can lead to an irreparable sense of loss that can stunt development and lead to behavioral problems.
The Troy family is trying to heal from the trauma of separation, legal battles, and financial loss. Lorina has become an advocate for families like hers that have experienced devastating results from a child’s misdiagnosis. She lobbies lawmakers in Texas, California, and Washington D.C. to change laws on getting second medical opinions and the role of the child welfare system in instances like these. She also talks to the press to raise awareness of Hydrocephalus and stories of misdiagnosis like hers and many other families across the country.
Lorina says, “Our strength came from our faith, our prayer, and the love and support of family and friends. But we went through the most challenging events of our lives, and it has strengthened us.” She has now written a book, titled “Miracles of Faith,” that goes into the details of her family’s journey through the medical and legal systems and how their faith saw them through it all.