April 1, 2021 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
Well, this is good news (NBC News, 3/25/21). Dr. Elizabeth Woods is out as a child abuse physician at Seattle’s Mary Bridge Hospital and out as an expert in child abuse cases. Among other things, area prosecutors are formally informing criminal defense attorneys that Woods expertise and opinions are highly impeachable. Here’s a piece I did on Woods 13 months ago.
Who is Dr. Elizabeth Woods? For years she practiced as a “child abuse physician” at Mary Bridge Hospital. That means she was relied on by child welfare officials, other doctors, courts, etc. to opine as to whether injuries to a child resulted from abuse or accident. But, as a superb series of articles by Mike Hixenbaugh revealed, Woods could be far more of an advocate than an impartial expert. Hixenbaugh uncovered at least four cases in which Woods seemed to have bent over backwards not only to find abuse where there was none, but to direct actual malice toward parents.
For example, after having caused a child to be taken from her mother for over a year and having her opinions on the case excoriated by the judge as, among other things as “not plausible,” “speculation at best” and “without factual basis,” the state’s case against the parents was dismissed. Undeterred, Woods waited six months before levelling new charges of medical abuse at the mother, despite neither Woods nor anyone else at the hospital having seen either the little girl or her parents during all that time. Unsurprisingly, Woods’ new claims turned out to be factually false.
Helped by Hixenbaugh’s revelations, Woods is now looking for other work.
But this winter, Woods left her position as the director of the child abuse intervention program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, and last month she was removed from the small roster of doctors who provide expert medical reports to the state’s child welfare agency, hospital and state officials confirmed. Some area prosecutors have also been sending letters to defense lawyers disclosing that Woods’ credibility as an expert witness has been called into question.
In at least one of the cases Hixenbaugh examined, Woods frankly lied under oath in an effort to obtain a court finding of medical child abuse by the child’s mother.
Meanwhile, parents celebrated the departure of Woods.
Her exit was celebrated by several parents — many of whom banded together in a Facebook group titled, “Families Wrongly Accused by ‘Dr.’ Elizabeth Woods” — who say mistaken reports by Woods led the state’s Child Protective Services to needlessly separate them from their children. And it raises questions about the future of any pending child abuse cases that hinge on her expert medical findings, legal experts said, possibly opening the door for parents or their lawyers to challenge the state’s case against them.
At this point, no one knows how many cases may be affected by the realization that Woods’ opinions aren’t reliable. Doubtless some children she considered to have been abused were. If those kids end up back with their abusers due to Woods’ conduct in other cases, they may be at risk of further abuse or worse. Still, it’s good to see Elizabeth Woods discredited. She richly deserved it.
But of course Elizabeth Woods is but a single person. The greater ill is the steadily enlarging subspecialty of child abuse medicine. I strongly suspect that such a subspecialty tends to attract zealots like Woods who too easily see abuse or neglect when there is none and other factors explain an injury to a child. If I’m right, state child welfare agencies’ reliance on those specialists results in more kids taken from their parents than is necessary or even factually correct. Indeed, state agencies seem to embrace those specialists for that very reason. Having an in-house doctor who’s willing to corroborate CPS suspicions and encourage what caseworkers too readily want anyway, i.e. to take the child into care, must look to some like the ideal situation. It places a gloss of medical expertise on state overreach.
Anything or anyone that encourages or expands the already-existing tendency of state child welfare agencies to overreach should be resisted. Dr. Elizabeth Woods is just one person, but unquestionably, there are more like her. Articles like Hixenbaughs raise the necessary red flags. All child abuse physicians should have their opinions looked at askance and be vigorously cross examined in court.