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Couple fights back after they say misdiagnosis led to child abuse allegations

By Katie Ussin

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    Ohio (WEWS) — There are few things more disturbing and shocking than infants being deliberately harmed.

But what happens when the child’s parents become suspects?

I’ve been looking into this and found that even though police closed their investigation and new evidence came to light, one Hudson family is still fighting to get out what they believe is the absolute truth.

A busy life with three kids is what Chad Stertzbach calls a “beautiful chaos.”

Chad and Valerie Linzey say their world turned upside down earlier this year when they took their baby, Lux, to the emergency room.

“I think the worst thing besides going to the ER wondering if something is wrong with my child is having a complete stranger come into your home and tell you they’re filing for emergency custody over your children,” said Valerie. “I mean, we dropped to our knees. It was absolutely the worst feeling that you could ever imagine.”

In February, they took 8-week-old Lux to the ER for a lump on his head that Valerie, a nurse practitioner, said wasn’t typical.

“It was on the side of his head, but it moved around,” she recalled.

She was told a CT scan of Lux’s head showed he had bilateral skull fractures with scalp hematomas.

Valerie shared Lux’s medical records with News 5, as well as images and a video of Lux in the hospital that night. The photos show the swelling, but Valerie said the baby had no other visible signs of injury.

“Then, it’s just like everyone’s blinders went on, and everyone treated us like we harmed our child when we knew in our hearts that that wasn’t the case,” said Valerie.

She felt no one would listen to her or Chad or consider other possibilities or differentials.

“I was worried we may be missing something,” she said.

Within hours, they became suspects

Child Protective Services launched an investigation. So did the police. 

As a result, Valerie and Chad were no longer able to be alone with their children. Her parents moved in to supervise.

Valerie launched her own investigation.

An eye exam ruled out injuries associated with head trauma. She said the swelling on Lux’s head resolved within 24 hours, and she got a second opinion from a pediatric neurosurgery specialist.

“Right away, they said, ‘This is not a skull fracture. These are not skull fractures. These are called accessory sutures. This is something that your child was born with and just so happened to have a spontaneous fluid collection around those sutures,’ and said this happens around 8 weeks, and he was 8 weeks to the day when we took him in,” said Valerie.

While the neurosurgeon writing the review said this can sometimes be difficult to distinguish, the neurosurgeon told them:

“It would be very unusual to have bilateral traumatic skull fractures without a considerable amount of force that would be quite evident on the exam.”

The neurosurgeon added that it was likely a coincidental but incidental finding in the setting of being worked up for the spontaneous scalp fluid collection that is unrelated.

“And we thought great, let’s take this back to the CARE team and child abuse team and let’s update them and be able to carry on with our life,” recalled Valerie. “We understand the workup that they had to do. We understand that child abuse is devastating, and someone does need to protect children who are in need, but nothing changed.”

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Chad.

Hudson police closed their investigation, saying in a report they found no evidence of child abuse, even concluding that Lux has “concerned parents.”

How often does this happen? 

It is difficult to say because the data is not publicly available under Ohio law, and we found it’s not tracked statewide.

“It’s a great question,” said Andrew Zashin, founding partner of Zashin Law, LLC. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to answer.”

Zashin has more than 30 years of experience in family law. He teaches at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law and has no connection to this case.

He said, on balance, it’s probably not very common, but said families can get hurt in the process.

“When they’re confronted by situations that are simply so baffling, so frightening, they don’t know where to turn,” said Zashin.

Mandated reporters must report suspected abuse or face legal consequences, and once Child Protective Services is notified, an investigation must happen.

“Sometimes the system works, and we hope it works quite well for the majority of the people, but people do get left behind and hurt by the bureaucracy,” Zashin said.

The numbers nationwide on child abuse and neglect are alarming. In 2022, there were about 3 million referrals, about 550,000 confirmed victims, and nearly 2,000 deaths.

While doctors have been working for years to help identify possible signs of child maltreatment, the American Board of Pediatrics officially recognized the sub-specialty of child abuse pediatricians in 2009 to assist in this public health problem. To date, there are about 400 nationwide and 17 in Ohio, according to the board’s website.

I reached out to the American Academy of Pediatrics to learn more. The organization helped connect me with Dr. Natalie Kissoon in Texas.

“As a child abuse pediatrician, my job is to do medical evaluations when anyone has a concern for child maltreatment,” said Kissoon via a Zoom interview.

Kissoon is based in San Antonio and is a member of the executive committee of the AAP’s Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.

“Our job is important because not every physician, every pediatrician, is able to make an assessment in regard to abuse or neglect,” she said.

Child abuse pediatricians complete three years of additional training. They are part of a multidisciplinary team and provide a diagnosis, not a decision on the removal of a child. 

“Our role is to make sure that the folks who can do that understand the medical information so then they can make accurate decisions,” said Kissoon.

I asked Kissoon if she gets to see how cases end. Kissoon said sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

She said the feedback in every case differs, and alternative theories are considered.

The AAP said often, child abuse pediatricians rule out child abuse. 

“I think as a child abuse pediatrician, I want people to know that we care about families,” said Kissoon. “We care about children, and we work very diligently to ensure that when we’re making a diagnosis, it is based on the best possible information and the medical literature. We understand the ramifications of our diagnosis, and we do not take that lightly.” 

Kissoon said about 48%, almost half of the 3,000 cases her team reviews a year, are deemed no concern for abuse or neglect. She says about 48% are deemed a concern, and the remaining undetermined. 

“I just don’t want parents to feel ashamed,” said Valerie.

Why they’re speaking up

The couple said they wanted to share their story, not to make parents hesitant to seek important, emergency medical care for their children, but to help parents who may be in similar situations. 

Valerie said she felt alone and isolated but decided to share what she and Chad were going through on Facebook to find support. She was surprised by the people reaching out and some saying they, too, had a similar experience.

“I realize that they’re just trying to protect children, and I do think they play a vital role in the community, it’s just the heavy-handed policies and bureaucracies really hindered us in this situation and I’m sure it hinders a lot of families going through the same things,” said Chad. “I think the goal here would be to bring that to their attention and hopefully get their policies to change.”

Child protective services ended the supervision for Chad and Valerie, but the couple plans to keep fighting.

They want the initial diagnosis, which they believe to be a misdiagnosis, overturned and removed from their child’s record. 

“I’m just thankful that our boys are healthy and my family is still intact because this could’ve ended a lot differently,” said Chad.

“I’m going to be haunted by this forever,” said Valerie. “This is something that crushed me as a mom.”

A hospital review that Valerie requested found an overwhelming consensus by the chair of radiology and involved stakeholders that there was no bilateral skull fracture and that this was a bilateral congenital suture. The letter she received from the hospital stated that the initial radiologist would amend their original report.

What does the county say? News 5 also contacted Summit County Children Services and exchanged several emails and phone calls to get more background and as much information as possible.

SCCS said it is not permitted to share information about assessments/investigations of abuse or neglect. Nor can it confirm whether the agency is involved in an investigation. The department said it works closely with medical providers regarding cases involving severe injuries to a child, and the partnership between SCCS and medical professionals is essential to keeping children safe.

The statement continued:

“However, this is only part of the case analysis. SCCS applies well-established procedures and social work practice to support the children and families we serve. While SCCS does make the final decision to determine whether a report is substantiated abuse or neglect, the opinion of the medical professional is important, and we rely on their expertise. We consider all the evidence available through our investigation, and that would include any second opinions. If a client disagrees with the final decision in a case, there is an appeal process involving our Clients Rights Officer, who has the ability to review all aspects of the case, including meeting with the client and overturning the final disposition where appropriate.”

Chad and Valerie are going through the appeal process.

But again, the couple doesn’t question the role of CPS in investigating. Rather, they say the agency’s reluctance to clear them once police and a second and third review have done so.

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