x-ray of a fracture

Genetic disorders, including osteogenesis imperfecta, rarely mimic child abuse

x-rays of fractures

In suspected child abuse cases, pediatric specialists are often called for clinical consultations or subpoenaed to courtrooms to discuss unexplained fractures and hemorrhage. During routine clinical practice, Children’s National Hospital (CNH) geneticists, child abuse pediatricians, orthopedists and radiologists use a multidisciplinary, stepwise approach that differentiates genetic disorders from cases of suspected child abuse. These teams provide a clear process for when clinical and radiological review suffices versus cases when judicious use of genetic testing and biochemical testing should be considered.

Every year, approximately 675,000 children suffer abuse or neglect, and at least 1,700 die from abuse — one of the leading causes of childhood morbidity and mortality nationwide.

Ill-intended arguments regarding genetic disorders often reach the court. Out of the 7,000 known rare diseases, rare bone diseases constitute about 5% of the cases. When there are true genetic disorders like osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), a group of genetic disorders that cause fractures, orthopedic specialists help tremendously with diagnosis and treatment.  The Children’s National Bone Health Program specializes in caring for healthy children, children with genetic bone conditions, and children whose bones have been damaged from illness or poor nutrition. Their team of experts enhances treatment to meet the needs of each child help us provide the best possible care for children with a broad range of bone health conditions  When a rare condition that causes bone fragility is suspected, these teams work together to provide proper diagnosis and management.

“OI is a diagnosis that can be made clinically with the help of geneticists, radiologists and orthopedists,” said Tanya Hinds, M.D., a child abuse pediatrician at Children’s National. “Outside of the newborn period, multiple unexplained fractures in infants with radiologically normal bones is suspicious for child physical abuse, not OI.”

When these regional cases reach the courtroom, Children’s National pediatricians often serve as clinician-educators and expert witnesses. According to Children’s National experts, clinicians must share the best available medical practices in both the hospital and courtroom.  Unfortunately, in some cases around the country, a handful of expert medical witnesses provide unique and unsubstantiated opinions, sometimes claiming the presence of a rare genetic disorder as a cause of fracture or hemorrhage, when this has not been diagnosed by mainstream genetics specialists.

“On the part of expert witnesses, scientifically sound explanations versus unfounded hypotheses can influence outcomes in civil proceedings, which determine a child’s placement and criminal proceedings, which determine judgment on the perpetrators,” said Natasha Shur, M.D., medical geneticist at Children’s National, and Nathaniel Robin, M.D., professor and clinical genetics director at the University of Alabama in an editorial published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics.

Dr. Hinds works on behalf of children to provide the best and most comprehensive work-up in cases of unexplained fractures or hemorrhage. As a board-certified child abuse pediatrician, she is responsible for implementing the evidence-based practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other similar societies.  Dr. Hinds mentioned that it is possible to use medical history, physical examination and diagnostic testing to differentiate traumatic causes of fractures and subdural hematomas from genetic causes, a belief she states is held by the vast majority of child serving clinicians.

“In cases of suspected child abuse, a multidisciplinary group of clinicians at Children’s National routinely provide comprehensive and top-rate care and consider alternative explanations for fractures,” said Eglal Shalaby-Rana, M.D., a radiologist at Children’s National who has partnered with the hospital’s Child and Adolescent Protection Center team on these challenging cases since 1991. “A multidisciplinary team is crucial to the evaluation and often includes additional specialists such as pediatric radiology, trauma surgery, hematology and in some cases genetics.”

Further, these clinician-educators and researchers at Children’s National call for increased publication and use of consensus guidelines such as the consensus statement on abusive head trauma published in Pediatric Radiology in 2018.  “Consensus guidelines synthesize the best available medical evidence and should be the basis for both clinical practice and education offered in the courtroom,” said Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana.

 Distinguishing child abuse from genetic disorders

Drs. Hinds, Shalaby-Rana and Shur have served as expert witnesses and in turn wanted to come together to help develop frameworks that share scientifically sound information with peers who might encounter spurious arguments in courtrooms regarding genetic disorders as an explanation for physical abuse and inflicted fractures. Their 2021 literature review, published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics, addresses some of these issues.

To help distinguish child physical abuse from a genetic disorder, Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana  worked as a multidisciplinary team to highlight best practices in six instances when genetic disorders were raised as explanations for inflicted fractures or hemorrhage, including Elhers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), Menkes Disease and Glutaric Acidemia type I. In some cases, these explanations could be reasonable but should be diagnosed using routine clinical and radiological review, and when indicated, genetic and biochemical testing.

For instance, EDS is a diagnosis that is sometimes erroneously used to explain multiple fractures in cases of suspected physical abuse and can be misused in courtrooms. The most common EDS type is hypermobile EDS, often found in late adolescence or early adulthood. In some cases, babies erroneously receive hypermobility exams, or clinicians perform hypermobility assessments on parents of children with unexplained fractures — neither practice is indicated. Instead, the Children’s National team points out that children should receive a medical evaluation using the standard guidelines set by the American Academic of Pediatrics, American College of Radiology and other professional societies.

Dr. Shur also collaborated with radiologists at Boston Children’s Hospital in a related review published in Pediatric Radiology. There, George et al. addressed the clinical and molecular diagnosis criteria for EDS to help radiologists prevent misdiagnosis and support clinicians when seeing patients with multiple fractures.

“It is disturbing that the unsubstantiated EDS infant bone fragility hypothesis continues to be advanced in civil and criminal child abuse proceedings when fractures are not part of the diagnosis criteria for EDS,” said George et al.

The clinicians noted that the Beighton score, which helps diagnose hypermobile EDS, is not intended for children younger than 8 years old. Additionally, since the score provides insufficient data, other EDS features must be present, such as skin findings and connective tissue abnormalities.

OI, known as ‘‘brittle bone disease,’’ is a group of disorders that rarely present only with unexplained fractures. The researchers emphasize that infants and children with mild OI do not present exclusively with multiple fractures, which are specific to physical abuse such as multiple, bilateral rib fractures and classic metaphyseal lesions. Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana share that pediatric specialists could overcome the diagnostic challenges between OI and child abuse through the inclusion of a genetic team in some cases, during the medical evaluation while also considering various criteria, such as family history, physical examination and laboratory findings. Molecular testing may be required in some instances, but it cannot substitute traditional clinical and radiology evaluations, according to these clinician-researchers.

Similarly, while Menkes disease can present with intracranial hemorrhage and fractures like child physical abuse, there are other distinguishing characteristics unique to Menkes disease, such as hair and facial dysmorphism. In a third related case-review published in Pediatric Radiology, Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana et al. emphasize that diagnostic difficulties may arises when a multidisciplinary evaluation is omitted. They call upon all clinicians to provide ethical testimony in civil or criminal proceedings and to continue to utilize a multidisciplinary approach during daily clinical practice.

Irresponsible testimony and predatory journals

According to George et al., in collaboration with Dr. Shur, there are flawed publications on EDS associated with infant bone fragility that do not follow the gold standard of the scientific community. They believe this hypothesis must be rejected by experts in the field of pediatric imaging to safeguard the scientific integrity of the discipline. The lack of scientific design, peer review process and transparency causes negative consequences in the courtroom and threatens the proper adjudication of cases of suspected child physical abuse.

“Irresponsible testimony increasingly enters medico-legal proceedings dealing with allegations of child abuse, and so-called expert witnesses regularly cite these deeply flawed publications — in addition to misquoting the medical literature, loosely interpreting medical findings, presenting fictitious findings, and excluding salient and widely accepted facts from consideration,” said George et al.

In these pieces of literature, our Children’s National multidisciplinary team members reviewed the best available evidence and their collective decades of patient experience to highlight standard processes, which differentiate child physical abuse as a cause of fractures and hemorrhage from rare disorders.  Rare does not mean mysterious, and with education and a multidisciplinary approach, every child can receive the best possible medical work-up and care, according to Drs. Shur, Hinds and Shalaby-Rana. They urge all physicians to share only mainstream clinical medicine in the courtroom to help ensure the best possible social outcomes for children and their families.

red flags for irresponsible testimony


Advancing cures for pediatric cancer: Highlights from leading Children’s National experts at SIOP 2017

In mid-October 2017, nearly 2,000 clinicians, scientists, nurses, health care professionals and cancer patients and survivors gathered in Washington, D.C., for SIOP 2017, the Annual Congress of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology. For four days, attendees heard from world-renowned experts while exchanging ideas and information, all in the name of advancing cures for childhood cancer.

Hosted in the hometown of Children’s National Health System and chaired by Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and Chief of Oncology at Children’s National Health System, more than 20 doctors and nurses from Children’s National made an impact on participants through a series of widely attended sessions and addresses, including:

  • Symposium lecture on the latest approaches in anti-viral T-cell therapy to improve patient outcomes, given by Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B.
  • Keynote lecture on DICER1 mutations in pediatric cancer, given by Ashley Hill, M.D., whose study of a rare childhood lung cancer and gene mutations set the stage for a better understanding of microRNA processing gene mutations in the development of pediatric cancer.
  • Education session on new therapies for sarcomas, led by AeRang Kim, M.D., Ph.D., and Karun Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., sharing research on new approaches for local control of sarcomas, such as surgery, radiation and other ablative measures.
  • Education session on new therapies for gliomas, led by Roger J. Packer, M.D., with presentations on immunotherapy from Eugene Hwang, M.D., and targeted therapy by Lindsay Kilburn, M.D.
  • Podium paper presentation on a new method to measure cancer treatment toxicities as reported by the child by Pamela Hinds, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, as well as an education session on advanced care planning, led by Hinds with a presentation from Maureen E. Lyon, Ph.D.

“These sessions and lectures provided a glimpse into the groundbreaking work by SIOP attendees from around the world,” says Dr. Dome. “Children’s National is proud to play an active role in the development of life-saving treatments for children with cancer and our clinicians look forward to another year of revolutionary developments.”

For more on this year’s SIOP, see the Children’s National press release.

  • Jeffrey Dome, M.D., Ph.D., addresses a group of international colleagues at a reception at Children’s National.

    Jeffrey Dome SIOP
  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., addresses a group of international colleagues at a reception at Children’s National.

  • Lindsay Kilburn, M.D., engages with peers from around the world at a reception at Children’s National.


Pamela Hinds

Giving children a voice in clinical trials

Pamela Hinds

“When experimental cancer drugs are studied, researchers collect details about how these promising therapies affect children’s organs, but rarely do they ask the children themselves about symptoms they feel or the side effects they experience,” says Pamela S. Hinds, Ph.D., R.N.

Children as young as 8 years old with incurable cancer can reliably characterize the impact an experimental therapy has on their symptoms and quality of life – even at the earliest stages of drug development – making self-reported patient outcomes a potential new clinical trial endpoint, according to a longitudinal validity study led by Children’s National Health System researchers.

Cancer is the No. 1 disease-related cause of death in U.S. children aged 1 to 19, and roughly 25 percent of the 12,400 children newly diagnosed with cancer will die of their disease, the study authors write.

“When experimental cancer drugs are studied, researchers collect details about how these promising therapies affect children’s organs, but rarely do they ask the children themselves about symptoms they feel or the side effects they experience,” says Pamela S. Hinds, Ph.D., R.N., director of Nursing Research and Quality Outcomes at Children’s National and lead author of study published June 5, 2017 in the journal Cancer. “Without this crucial information, the full impact of the experimental treatment on the pediatric patient is likely underreported and clinicians are hobbled in their ability to effectively manage side effects.”

To demonstrate the feasibility of children self-reporting outcomes, Hinds and colleagues recruited children and adolescents aged 8 to 18 with incurable or refractory cancers who were enrolled in Phase 1 safety trials or Phase 2 efficacy trials at four cancer settings: Children’s National, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Boston Children’s Hospital. Using a validated instrument to measure symptoms, function and other aspects of quality of life reported by patients, as well as four open-ended interview questions, researchers were able to better understand what aspects of symptoms and quality of life were most important to patients at this point in their lives and cancer treatment.

Of the 20 study participants, most were male (60 percent), adolescents (65 percent) and white (70 percent). Thirteen (65 percent) had solid tumors. Patients could describe “a good day” as having fewer side effects from the experimental therapy and fewer interruptions to their lives. “Bad days” were marked by interruptions to their usual activities and missing out on spending time with family and friends due to being at the hospital. A few study participants suggested that researchers add questions related to being away from home, family and friends and the ripple effect of treatment on other family members.

“Only by measuring and understanding self-reported symptoms and function in children and adolescents with incurable cancer can we adequately address threats to their quality of life and improve symptom control and supportive care,” Hinds and co-authors conclude. “By giving children a voice in the process, clinicians will be able to better anticipate and manage symptoms and thereby improve life for patients and their families.”