Judge rules racial bias present in misdiagnosed Seattle child abuse case

A couple dealt with terror triggered by a doctor at Seattle Children's, whose wrongful diagnosis of child abuse took their baby away from them.

Sam and Grace Wilkinson lived any parent’s worst nightmare. The young married couple lost custody of their baby girl by being good parents.

In late February, Sam and Grace heard their seven-month-old baby, Sequoia, crying around midnight.

Like any other normal night, Grace said she went to check on her daughter, feed her, and get her back to sleep. However, Grace she noticed something that worried her.

"Went to shift her and saw she wasn’t moving her arm," said Grace.

Despite how late it was, the parents decided to act fast.

The couple rushed Sequoia, to an urgent care, when they saw she was holding her arm funny.

Doctors ordered an X-ray, and it showed Sequoia had a fracture. Staff told the Wilkinsons to go to Seattle Children’s because Sequoia needed surgery.

However, the family says at Seattle Children's the tone of the night changed drastically.

"We felt like criminals from the get go," said Grace.

The injury, because it was uncommon, was treated as evidence that one or both parents were responsible. It was a medical certainty according Seattle Children’s Safe Child and Adolescent Network (SCAN) team.

"That's really what it is, is that it was a diagnosis of child abuse. Not just an accusation, they diagnosed our daughter with child abuse," said Sam.

SCAN is a team of pediatricians under contract with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) who have special training to decide whether a child’s injury is from abuse or neglect. 

Dr. Elana Feldman handled Sequoia’s case. In her diagnosis, the X-rays showed at least three more broken bones, besides Sequoia’s elbow.

"The doctor on the SCAN team, Elana Feldman, stated that these injuries were better understood as child abuse injuries," said Sam.

Sam will always remember how he felt when he saw his daughter for the first time, after growing up adopted.

"That was such a surreal moment for me, because that was the very first moment, that I laid eyes on my own blood," he said.

And he says he will never forget the moment she was taken away from him and his wife.

"I'm a person that believes that, through most circumstances, life goes on. But the thought of not having my daughter doesn't really feel like life would go on," said Sam.

The situation felt hopeless for the Wilkinsons, but they were not helpless.

"When we heard Elana Feldman, the name for the doctor, they decided they wanted to look her up," said Grace."It was there that we found your story on Kasey," said Sam. 

In February, we brought you the story of Kasey Sigman and her baby boy Kane. Like the Wilkinsons, Kasey had brought her son to Seattle Children’s.

And like the Wilkinsons, she was blindsided by the SCAN team’s determination that Kane had a sure sign of abuse. 

Even the doctor who made the diagnosis was the same. Dr. Elana Feldman.

In Sigman’s case, the judge ruled that Dr. Feldman had made a mistake, "there were no signs of abuse or neglect," and Kasey and Kane were reunited. 


Misdiagnosis in child abuse case kept mom from her baby for months; judge says DCYF delayed second opinion

A baby boy is rushed to the hospital with multiple broken bones. Pediatricians say it's child abuse, but his mother insists they are wrong. State law says she was entitled to a second opinion, but state officials took custody of her baby without one: "I missed all the milestones."

Buoyed by Kasey’s story, Sam and Grace reached out to her for any advice she could give to turn their situation around.

"The next day, my mom got a message back, and Kasey was like, ‘you guys need to hire a lawyer,’" said Grace.

Attorney Elena Trebaol was fresh from winning a child custody battle against DCYF when Sam and Grace hired her.  

"I wanted to ensure that we had a second opinion, time to figure out what exactly happened to Sequoia,’ said Trebaol.

Trebaol contacted Dr. Niran Al-Agba.

"You have a child abuse team. So, you need a child abuse defense team," said Al-Agba.

Dr. Al-Agba is a practicing pediatrician with more than two decades of experience. 

She is also an instructor on staff at Seattle Children’s, and for the past several years, she has been brought in to consult on alleged child abuse cases. 

After reviewing Sequoia’s case, three things became clear: 

Number one, neither Sam nor Grace hurt Sequoia.

"We shared what we had found, which was that we believe Sequoia has marks of poor bone formation, which is a relatively common condition for newborn babies, especially in the northwest, they’re vitamin D deficient when they're born," said Trebaol. 

Number two, Dr. Feldman’s diagnosis was done sight unseen.

"We've learned, not only through testimony, but also through, I mean, the SCAN team's own records that they do not believe it is medically necessary to personally examine the patient prior to making their diagnoses," said Trebaol.

Number three, the social workers back at the hospital had already decided who was to blame.

"They asked me how Sam was in the house and his behavior and how he treated Sequoia," said Grace. "So I could connect the dots of like, okay, now they're trying to pin this on Sam," she added.

At the Wilkinson’s custody hearing, Judge Nicole Gaines-Phelps reached the same conclusions. 

From her ruling, she faulted the SCAN team for failing, "to stand by their findings," and their refusal to, "look at new information as it came to light."

And determined the SCAN team made its decisions "based on conscious and unconscious bias towards people from minority communities. Particularly black and brown communities." 

They had no problem diagnosing child abuse. But then, when it came time to explain why they made those that diagnosis they couldn't show up," said Sam.

"For a judge to use their position to call out what it was that he and our family experienced, and just name that it was racial bias. I was sitting next to him. And we both just took a deep breath in that moment and just cried," said Grace.

The Wilkinsons created a GoFundMe to raise money to deal with the cost of legal expenses, medical expenses and missed work due to the case.

FOX 13 News reached out officials from both Seattle Children’s and DCYF for on-camera interviews regarding this story.

DCYF provided this statement:

"We cannot comment on cases.  We can say that medical personnel are mandatory reporters.  The Department receives intakes involving concerns about abuse or neglect from mandatory reporters and others in the community, and we then complete investigations and assess the situation.  We do not have legal authority to independently place children into care, and rely on either the court or law enforcement to do so."

Seattle Children’s did not answer our request for an interview.