Misdiagnosis in child abuse case kept mom from her baby for months; judge says DCYF delayed second opinion
SEATTLE - Four-week old Kane was hurting, that much was obvious to his mom, Kacey Sigman. Born in May 2021, he often cried or fussed when held, but now a darkening bruise had appeared on his left thigh. Doctors had waived off her early worries – but the bruise was new. Over the next several hours, she sought medical help for her son – driving from one doctor to the next, her fear growing at each stop – from Aberdeen, up to Tacoma, then finally to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
An examination revealed Kane’s tiny frame had been fractured, at different times and in multiple places. "They did a full body x-ray," Kacey said. "They found broken bones on his ribs and his legs and his arms." The injuries would require treatment, casts; she’d probably have to leave him at the hospital.
Kacey was right – but not in the way she thought. "It no longer went from ‘what can we do for Kane,’" Kacey recalled. "It went to ‘what happened to Kane, what did you do to Kane?’" A pediatrician had decided Kane was a victim of child abuse. Kacey couldn’t believe what she was being accused of: "It felt horrifying, like how could I be a monster?"
For Dr. Elena Feldman, the child abuse pediatrician on call, Kane’s x-rays told a painful story: new or healing fractures in his forearm and legs: a total of nine in a child who was too young to move on his own. In her report, obtained by Kacey and reviewed by FOX 13 News, Feldman described the fractures as "classic metaphyseal lesions," the result of "a twisting or pulling force to the extremities." Per her training, CMLs "are considered very specific for child abuse."
She documented how she reached that determination after ruling out other possible causes. Kacey’s family history was flagged: "maternal great-grandmother reportedly had easily broken bones." So Dr. Feldman checked for low bone density or rickets but "Kane’s bone labs and x-rays did not show any evidence." She also ruled out a genetic disorder, osteogenesis imperfect, or OI, commonly known as brittle bone disease. Her reason: "Kane’s fracture pattern is not consistent with factures seen with OI."
Two days after he was brought in, Dr. Feldman issued her final determination: "Kane’s injuries are most concerning for non-accident trauma." In other words: it was child abuse. Kane was turned over to the social workers with the Washington State Department of Children Youth and Families, who would place him with a foster family; his real family would be subjected to a police investigation. "They were taking Kane into custody," Kacey remembers. "I would have to leave him at the hospital and if I tried to take him before the social worker got there, I would be charged with kidnapping." In his case file, there’s a picture of Kane taken around when he was turned over to Child Protective Services: he’s alone in his crib, his left arm and both legs in tiny casts.
The next time his mom would see him, and for nine months after, it would be at arranged visitations, "I missed all the milestones," Kacey said. Each visit was limited to a few hours at a time, strictly supervised by social workers, and continually documented. They took pictures of how she held Kane, and even when she’d change his diapers. But that was just part of her ordeal. If she wanted her son back, DCYF required that she undergo a series of psychological tests, education courses, and drug screens. Kacey says she did them all. "Infant class, toddler class, mental health evaluations," Kacey said. "I wanted to do it as soon as it could. I didn’t want to push it out any further. If there was something they told me I had to do, I wanted it to be done"
Through it all she strived to stay positive, knowing she never hurt her son: "One of the things I was asking all the time was, when can I take him to another doctor for a second opinion, when can we x-ray him again," recalled Kacey. Under state law, Kacey was entitled to a second opinion about the abuse determination but she says she never got a straight answer from DCYF when she asked about the status of her case review. Regardless, in a child abuse trial, Kacey knew she wouldn’t win back Kane without evidence to the contrary. So, with the help of a court-appointed legal team, this mom went to find it herself: "I started requesting all the discs of x-rays, got all the paper work that showed the labs that had be done and then I sent that off to the other doctors for opinions"
It didn’t take long for the legal team to identify what they believed were cracks in Dr. Feldman’s diagnosis. Kacey’s lawyers found blood work had been done on Kane a month after DCYF took him, showing he had a genetic variance that could be associated with brittle bone disease and other skeletal problems; other tests showed Kane had issues with his Vitamin D and calcium absorption levels; two of Kacey’s cousins reported having brittle bone disease; Kacey took an anti-depressant when she was pregnant with Kane, which studies showed "has a deterring effect on bone formation in embryos."
Kacey also found allies in two genetic researchers: Dr. Gerard Pals, the Director of the Genome Diagnostics Laboratory at Vrije University in Amsterdam, a specialist in brittle bone disease, and Dr. Marvin Miller, professor of Ob/Gyn and Pediatrics at Wright State University and clinical geneticist at Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio. Together they Dr. Feldman’s determination point by point, arguing instead that bone disease was the likely culprit. Dr. Pals believed there were strong indications of OI, and worried that, "even without further genetic testing, there is convincing evidence of factors that will cause Kane to have compromised bone quality" as he grew older. Based on his review of the case, Dr. Miller concluded, "The diagnosis of child abuse has been made by an overzealous child abuse pediatrician who discounted and disregarded the totality of findings."
FOX 13 reached out to Dr. Feldman and DCYF about Kane, and the second opinions obtained by Kacey’s team. After multiple attempts to contact Dr. Feldman, her clinic told us she was unavailable; instead of granting us an interview, DCYF issued a statement: "The court continues to review the case while a child is placed in out-of-home care, including the services provided to that child and family, and whether the circumstances have changed that would allow that child to return home, including return home with a safety plan. The Department looks to reunify children with their families when it is safe to do so, and continues to provide information to the court to consider. The family and other legal parties to the case also present information to the court. Ultimately, the court makes the determination whether to reunify a child with the parents. Every case is different, and the court considers the unique situation, including risk and protective factors when making a determination."
The case files reviewed by FOX 13 indicate DCYF’s plan was for Kane’s full return to his mother – at some point. Kane had been in foster care since June 2021 and Kacey – who was by then 9-months pregnant with Kane’s sister, had completed all her DCYF requirements. Her legal team had several convincing arguments that Kane’s injuries were genetic, and police hadn’t found any evidence of abuse.
Yet when the family finally petitioned the court for Kane’s return late in March 2022, DCYF fought to keep him in foster care, appealing the judge’s decision to reunite the family, owing to Kane’s still "unexplained injuries." Kacey, meanwhile was at the hospital, giving birth to her daughter Zoey. In a shocking move, DCYF then used Kane’s case as a pretext for putting Zoey in protective custody too. "I was blown away," Kacey said. "How could this be happening again? How could a judge sign off on that? I reached out to my attorney and said, ‘I just gave birth, and I was served with papers a couple hours later.’"
But it turns out, when DCYF petitioned for custody of Zoey, they didn’t tell the court about the other judge’s prior ruling, returning Kane. That came out in a hearing in Grays Harbor County Superior Court a few days later, where the judge – described by the family’s attorney as "visibly upset" by DCYF’s omission in Zoey’s case, sided with Kacey – ordering an immediate return of both children, over DCYF’s continued objections.
Something else had convinced the judge to reunite the family, on top of Kacey’s fact-finding mission. According to the motion to dismiss filed by Kacey’s lawyer, the core of the agency’s argument in keeping Kane was that he was safe: "… while Kane was in DCYF care, he never had any injuries." But it turns out he had. In an irrefutable twist of fate, the same kind of mystery injuries that took Kane away from Kacey, would now be used as proof that he should be returned.
A routine physical done on Kane, done while the court was deciding his status, found four unexplained rib fractures – that he’d suffered while he was in DCYF care. Remember, this is when his family still had limited access to him, and their visits were never unsupervised. "They said that me, the foster mom and the daycare are all going to be investigated," Kacey said. "When they couldn’t piece together any story, because nobody broke Kane’s bones, then it just disappeared."
Judge Jean A. Cotton’s final order was explicit: "…there were no findings of abuse or neglect" and "DCYF was not timely in giving the parents the opportunity to get a second medical opinion." Kane is back home with his mom, making memories. But Kasey knows she’ll never be able to get the time back she says the state stole, "We have a bond now, but that baby time is gone." She says another thing that is gone, is her trust. "Now I’m left too scared to take my kids to the doctor," Kacey said. "I’m scared at who’s knocking at the door."