Expert Removed from Diagnosing Child Abuse Cases: Why Qualifications Matter

    Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

    Written by
    — Updated on April 20, 2021

    Expert Removed from Diagnosing Child Abuse Cases:  Why Qualifications Matter

    After providing medical expert testimony in suspected child abuse cases for more than three years, a doctor in Tacoma, Washington has left her hospital post. Dr. Elizabeth Woods’s exit comes after an explosive investigation exposed her lack of credentials in this practice area. As an expert witness, Dr. Woods was tasked with offering medical opinions on whether a child’s injury was the result of abuse. Her testimony in these cases was often the driving factor in deciding whether a child should be separated from their parents.

    Now, numerous custody determinations, child placements, and child abuse convictions are all called into question over testimony from an inappropriately credentialed expert. This is a prime example of how an unqualified expert can cause deleterious consequences on legal, financial, and personal levels. Further, this case highlights the importance of properly vetting your expert through reputable services.

    Credentials Under Review

    Last year, NBC, in partnership with its Seattle affiliate, KING 5, published a report questioning the credibility of pediatrician Elizabeth Woods, M.D. At the time, she was the director of the child abuse intervention program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. Woods was on a small roster of doctors providing medical reports to the state’s child welfare agency. She also acted as a medical expert in a number of cases. In cases where Woods reported medical evidence of abuse, children could be taken from their homes. In some cases, officials filed charges against a parent or guardian.

    Dr. Woods was once thought to be one of the state’s preeminent experts on spotting subtle but critical signs of child abuse. However, allegations began to emerge as to Woods’ qualifications and training. At a court hearing in May 2019, Woods admitted under oath that she had not completed a three-year medical fellowship. She also explained she had not passed the exam required for board certification in the medical subspecialty of diagnosing child abuse. Woods defended her qualifications by asserting that most doctors who specialize in identifying child abuse have not completed the fellowship training. She further claimed this training program was just three years old.

    The Investigation’s Findings

    But according to the investigation, Woods’s statements were inaccurate. In fact, she was the only doctor providing medical opinions to the state’s Child Protective Services without decades of experience. Investigators further uncovered Woods was the only doctor who didn’t complete the fellowship. This program is now required of all doctors as part of a program that began 15 years agowhen Woods was still in medical school. Currently, there are more than 375 child abuse pediatricians certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. They specialize in identifying accidental versus purposely inflicted injuries. This differentiation is a key factor in abuse cases.

    “Expert” Contributions

    According to a review of Woods’ prior reports, she misstated key facts and presented contradictory opinions from other experts. Protective services even removed children from their parents’ custody on account of her findings. For example, in one case, Woods pinned a child’s bruise on abuse. She reached her conclusion solely by looking at a photograph and without examining the child in person. Child Protective Services agreed with the opinion while describing Woods as “a physician with extensive training and experience.”

    Law enforcement and prosecutors also relied on Woods’s opinions. This was true in the case of Michael Dominic Rivera who was charged with homicide by abuse for the death of his five-month-old son. Woods also served as a key expert witness in a second-degree murder case against Damien Charles McCarter, alleged to have killed his two-month-old son.

    In another case, Woods advocated for the removal of a four-year-old child from her family. Woods concluded that the mother had caused her young child’s extensive medical issues. Woods even falsely reported that she had video evidence of the child’s mother tampering with her daughter’s medicine. As a result, the state removed the child and her eight-year-old brother from their family for a year. They weren’t reunited until a judge dismissed the case, finding Woods’ opinions “without supporting factual basis” and “speculation at best.”

    Avoiding Unqualified Expert Testimony

    Unreliable testimony from an unqualified expert witness has a multitude of consequences. In all pending criminal cases, the state prosecutors had to send out letters advising defense attorneys of possible impeachment or Brady evidence (evidence that is exculpatory to the defendant) concerning Woods. To the extent any of Woods’s testimony led to a criminal conviction, there will likely be appeals filed on behalf of those defendants. In addition, all pending and previous child custody petitions affected by Woods’s testimony will likely involve costly and time-consuming reviews.

    At Expert Institute, we conduct full background and conflict checks on all of our experts. This ensures their qualifications and credibility are beyond reproach. As part of our screening practices, we research licensures, criminal records, litigation history, corporate affiliations, and publications. This information all protects against credibility challenges.

    With access to a vast database of experts spanning practice areas and industries, Expert Institute can connect an attorney with an expert in any specialty. Unlike Woods, whose failure to obtain specialized training contributed to the unraveling of her credibility, Expert Institute works with an array of experts certified in subspecialties and other particularized areas of practice. You’ll never need to rely on an expert in a general field again.

    An expert’s prior opinions, particularly those given in open court, are a part of their history. Thus, attorneys must consider past testimony before retaining an expert. Expert Institute is able to run litigation history checks to confirm an expert’s previous experiences, opinions, methodologies, and practices. You can proceed with confidence in your expert and avoid any unwelcome surprises down the line.

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