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Lawsuits claim South Carolina kids underwent unnecessary genital exams during abuse investigations

Lauren Sausser, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

South Carolina’s Child Abuse Response Protocol indicates these exams should be conducted during investigations if children have witnessed violence or been exposed to an environment where drugs are used. An overt allegation or disclosure of child sexual abuse isn’t considered a prerequisite for a forensic medical exam, said Thomas Knapp, executive director of the South Carolina Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers.

“Children are often poly-victimized, so the head-to-toe exam is intended to ensure general well-being and pick up on evidence of any form of abuse,” Knapp explained. “There are also some children where there may be no disclosure, but we have digital images of their abuse. So, disclosure is not the only precipitating reason to request an exam.”

Like Huizar, he agreed that forensic medical exams are under-utilized. In South Carolina, specifically, more than 4,500 children passed through a children’s advocacy center with a report of sexual abuse in 2023. Only about half as many had received a forensic medical exam through mid-October, Knapp said.

State rules allow the Department of Social Services to request a forensic medical evaluation without consent from a child’s parent or legal guardian. But the rules don’t address the issue of obtaining the child’s permission before proceeding with an exam. Knapp explained that children’s advocacy centers allow patients to refuse. Federal Justice Department recommendations published in 2016 explicitly advise that children should be allowed to refuse participation in all or part of the process.

“If a patient refuses, we don’t do it,” said Anne-Marie Amies Oelschlager, a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist in Seattle. Genital exams for girls should be conducted only externally, in most cases, she said, even when sexual abuse is suspected. Internal exams and Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer aren’t recommended until age 21, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“You really want to teach kids to say no,” Oelschlager said. “This is an area that’s private and if they say no, I’ve got to respect that.”

One South Carolina lawsuit contends a 16-year-old girl was visibly “terrified and emotionally upset concerning the forensic medical exam” and that she told the medical examiner to stop. The medical examiner allegedly ignored the request.

Antoinette Laskey, a Utah pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, had no knowledge of the South Carolina cases but explained that a child’s wishes must be respected in the exam room, where the “inherent power differential” between a doctor and patient should be recognized.

“I would never force the issue,” she said.

In 2022, Laskey co-authored a policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledging that children are “especially vulnerable” to being exploited in health care settings because of their age, development level, any disability, race, ethnicity, or English language proficiency. The paper cited flagrant examples of abuse inflicted by doctors like Larry Nassar, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to sexually abusing child gymnasts under the guise of legitimate medical care.

The policy statement explained that pediatricians are responsible for assessing children’s health, including their genital health, from birth through puberty. To that end, the academy advises doctors to use sensitivity and care during anogenital exams. Children should be afforded privacy when disrobing, providers should wear gloves, and doctors should obtain permission from the child by discussing the need for the examination and what it will entail.

These exams “should never be traumatic,” said Megan Lechner, formerly the chief operating officer of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, a group that trains nurses to conduct sexual assault exams on adults and children. More than anything else, they are designed “to tell the child they’re OK,” she said. “If they’re traumatic, you’re doing it wrong.”

 

‘A Needle in a Haystack’

And yet courts have recognized the potentially traumatic impact of these exams before. In 2019, an Alabama judge rejected a motion that would have required child victims who were raped and abused by adults to undergo court-ordered vaginal examinations. One of the prosecutors successfully argued that the exams would “victimize the children all over again,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

Like many victims, the children in that case had delayed reporting the abuse. Shame and fear often prevent child victims from reporting sexual abuse right away. Some wait years before disclosing they were abused — if they ever disclose the abuse at all.

Children’s advocacy centers across the U.S. investigated nearly 250,000 cases involving child sexual abuse allegations in 2022, the National Children’s Alliance reported, but historical data shows that physical evidence is present in fewer than 5% of all reported cases.

Finding proof “is a needle in the haystack,” Laskey said.

Attorney Robert Butcher said the federal lawsuits in South Carolina may eventually be consolidated for the sake of efficiency. He doubted they would be resolved this year, but said cases already decided in favor of children and their parents in other parts of the country bolster his clients’ arguments.

In 1994, for example, a federal judge in New York found that a kindergartner who had been separated from her parents during a child abuse investigation “almost certainly did, in fact, experience psychological injury” during a forensic medical exam, when she was “subjected to intrusive bodily examinations by two strangers, in a strange location, in the absence of a parent or other reassuring figure.”

More recently, a panel of federal appeals court judges in California ruled in 2018 that the County of San Diego violated the constitutional rights of a family by failing to inform the parents that their children would undergo “significantly intrusive” and “potentially painful” forensic medical exams.

“This is as traumatic for the parents as it is for the children,” said Cox, the California attorney who represented the family in that case.

Jane Doe, who filed the first of the three South Carolina lawsuits, doesn’t know what the outcome of her case will be, and she doesn’t talk about it at middle school.

“I have a couple of close friends,” she said. “I don’t tell anybody about what happened. I just want this to be an example so that never happens to another person.”


©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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