The day I was accused of child abuse.
This is a story I wish I never had to tell. It’s one where my biggest nightmare was coming true and I was at risk of having my children taken from me. I’m still angry about it. My heart starts beating quickly whenever I think of this, but it’s a story that needs to be told. Not everyone is perfect. We should
always be kind. Please be kind.
The twins were six weeks old and I was so beyond exhausted. My husband was back to work and it was me verses two premature newborns, just home from the NICU. Whatever sleep I was getting was broken and spaced out to the point where I couldn’t think clearly. Both our girls had reflux but Katie’s was worse. If she wasn’t burped properly and held upright for at least 20 minutes she would choke and turn blue in her sleep. I was always on alert listening for her while also trying to sleep myself. My biggest fear was waking to a dead baby, so I made sure that didn’t happen, even if it meant I didn’t sleep. Hazel struggled too but her struggles were almost in the “normal” range of fussiness so I wasn’t so concerned about her. If she was kept her upright after a feed, she was fine. With their three hour routine of diaper change, eat, burp, upright time, and sleep x2 there wasn’t much time for me to sleep.
Last March I cracked. I begged my husband to keep the babies downstairs for a few hours so I could actually sleep. After a few glorious hours of that deep sleep you only get when you’re so beyond exhausted, I helped bring the babies upstairs and put them down in their bassinet. At 4:30 a.m. the girls were up again for some milk, so I changed their diapers in the dim light. I noticed some weird marks on Hazel’s belly. I tried to wipe it off thinking it was leftover poo or something but they didn’t come off. I flipped on my phone’s flashlight and saw these long, linear bruises across her belly.
I woke my husband up – “WTF is this?!?!?” He had no idea. I called Telehealth Ontario and told the nurse what I saw, and she told me to go to the hospital right away. I finished their feed and packed the girls up and off we went. Tom stayed home with Nora and got her off to daycare the next morning before heading to work himself.
It was 5:30 a.m. when we arrived in the Emergency Room and we were brought back to see a doctor almost immediately. They put us in the room right outside the nurse’s station, which at the time I thought was because I had two babies and someone could step in to help if things went sideways. I’ve now learned my naive assumptions were wrong. I could feel my anxiety growing as the parade of doctors and nurses came down to see what was going on. The Pediatrician on call kept calling it a rash, but to me it was so obviously bruising. I was told I needed to go to McMaster Hospital for further testing, so I called my Mom and asked her to meet me there.
It was just after noon when we left. During the hour-long drive to the children’s hospital just about every scenario went through my head. Well, all except one. See, I live a pretty sheltered life. I’ve never been witness to child abuse so to think that my fragile 6-week-old baby had been abused never once crossed my mind. Little did I know, that’s the #1 assumption from the medical team. I understand it now. A newborn shows up at the hospital with unexplained bruising. Abuse would be my first assumption too. But as the Mother I knew that wasn’t a possibility, unless I wanted to accuse my husband of abusing the baby while I was sleeping. I trusted him. I knew he would never do anything to put our girls in danger. Ever.
The McMaster team was waiting for us. We went through the same questions and answers as we did at Grand River. They brought specialists in and looked over Hazel, then looked over Katie too, which I found weird at the time. Katie was fine, she was just along for the ride. I found out afterwards one of the doctors they brought in deals especially with child abuse cases and checked Katie to make sure she wasn’t bruised too. Nobody had any answers. We were nearing 11 p.m. at night and we were still in the ER. Almost a full day of people poking and prodding my babies trying to find an answer. I was asked multiple times if I abused my children, or if my husband was quick to anger. My answer, never changing, was always no. I was pulled aside and asked if I or my children were in danger. Again, the answer is no. I was asked about my relationship with Tom. How long had I known him for? How much did I trust him? I was starting to get angry that they didn’t believe me. Every single doctor and nurse asked. Over and over. Why is everyone asking me if I’m abused? It was almost like if they asked me enough times they expected me to break down and say yes. Don’t they know how fiercely protective I am of my children?
The ER doctor came over to me as I was sitting in a chair holding Hazel while she slept. She bent down so we were eye to eye and said “I’m sorry, I don’t have a choice. There’s unexplained bruising on an infant. I have to report this to Family and Children’s Services (FACS) I’m so sorry.” I gripped Hazel tighter and fought the urge to get up and run. It was then that I realized what the doctors had suspected all along. I felt so stupid that I didn’t see it sooner.
I kept it together to finish the conversation. I understood why they needed to do that, but didn’t they know my baby wasn’t abused? I came to the hospital for help. This bruising wasn’t the typical pattern of someone who had been hit. I was so tired I couldn’t argue but my mind started reeling. I instantly blamed myself for being so weak and needing sleep. Surely FACS will see this isn't a case of abuse and dismiss the report immediately, right? Right?!?!? This never would have happened if I had cared for them myself. The internal dialogue between hating myself for putting my baby in this situation, and telling myself I’m being ridiculous, their dad would never hurt them was like a ping pong match, constantly going back and forth not knowing what the right answer was. I messaged Tom to give him a heads up that FACS was now involved but since it was almost midnight he had already gone to sleep. I messaged my best friend who is a Child Protection Worker trying to figure out what this all means. Obviously, it was the middle of the night and she was asleep too. I was alone with my thoughts trying to figure out how we got here, absolutely terrified my babies were about to be taken from me.
Just after midnight we were admitted to the Pediatric ward for the night and the nurses treated me like a criminal. I had been awake since 4:30 a.m. and been through a battery of questioning all day. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. The nurses didn’t look at me. They didn’t speak to me. They talked to my Mom if they had to say something. They did what they had to and left immediately. Our door always remained open so they could always keep an eye on me and the babies. I found out later that I was also being watched for Munchausen By Proxy, a psychological disorder marked by attention-seeking behavior by a caregiver. Their top two theories were that my husband abused Hazel, or I did for attention. I want to throw up just writing that.
My Mom is the real MVP here. She was strong enough for the both of us. As I was slowly falling apart, she was the calming presence in the room. We had to take shifts sleeping since the pediatric ward only had one of those fold out chair beds per patient. So, one of us watched the babies and the other slept. Luckily the crib was large enough for both girls to sleep together, so we didn’t always have to have one in our arms. Just as I was about to lay down to sleep my phone rang with a private number. It was 2 a.m. and a Child Protective Worker and the Police at my front door asking if I could get a hold of my husband. They were banging on the door and nobody was answering. I anxiously awaited by my phone for the next hour to hear what was going on. I felt so helpless, not able to protect any of my babies. Desperately wanting to be home with Nora, but knowing Hazel needed me. I didn’t and still don’t understand why they would show up at our door in the middle of the night. How terrifying for Tom and even more so for Nora.
When Tom finally called me back, he said the Police Officer and FACS worker went through the whole house and asked him a lot of questions about what had happened the night before. They demanded he get Nora out of bed and strip her naked to see if she had bruises on her. I was angry. No, I was furious. This was out of control! I came to the hospital for help and was being treated like a criminal! My poor 2-year-old at home must have been terrified to be woken up and had her body looked at by total strangers. Tom said she cried for an hour and ended up falling asleep in his arms. And here I was, an hour away and not able to protect her. It was the lowest point of my life to date.
Even though I was boiling, everything seemed to calm down afterwards. It was almost if that raid confirmed my story and they started to look at alternative explanations. Although they had the answers they needed, I was still angry but was scared to speak up. They had the ability to take my children away. I was going to do whatever they needed me to prove that I was a competent mother. I was hyper aware not to show any anger. I didn’t want to fuel the fire. But inside I was screaming.
Hazel went for a full body x-ray to make sure there were no broken bones. Her scans were clean. Then a Hematologist was called in and we talked about possibilities of these rare blood disorders, almost all of them deadly in childhood. Leukemia was brought up… Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, we went from being accused of child abuse to being told our baby may be dying. I was so mad that they just wasted a full day trying to prove child abuse when my baby was dying! The emotional rollercoaster I was on was intense.
I texted my best friend (the child protective worker) for guidance. I needed to know if my children were about to be taken from me. I trusted her to tell me the truth. Also, that’s what you do when you’re in a crisis. You lean on your friends. Mine just happened to have the inside scoop.
I was completely gutted, empty, and exhausted. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. I refused to leave my baby’s side and we were out of snacks. I was still trying to pump milk for them. To add to the stress, my milk supply crashed and I had to ask the nurses for formula. I felt like a complete failure of a mother in every aspect possible. I just knew they were going to take my children from me. “Look at her” I imagined them saying, “she can’t even feed her babies”. We were out of diapers and I had to ask for those too. I wasn’t expecting to be out of the house for two days! Clearly I wasn’t cut out for this motherhood business. These were the darkest moments of my life.
The next morning the social workers were in our room bright and early asking if we could bring the swings the babies were in to the hospital. My in-laws saved the day, broke into our house and drove the MamaRoo down to the children’s hospital. I met them down in the parking lot and all three of us burst into tears. The weight was so heavy on my shoulders, it was nice to share the responsibility between the four of us for a little bit. At the same time my best friend texted me back telling me it will be okay. She didn’t have access to our file, but as a child protection worker, she knew the process and knew we just had to ride the wave. And she was right.
With my in-laws at the hospital I took that opportunity to go for a shower. The doctors were saying we could be there for a few more days and I needed a minute to myself to wash off the stresses of yesterday and prepare for the next phase. It was the first time I stepped away from Hazel’s bedside for longer than a quick bathroom break. Everything turned around in those 20 minutes. I came back and the whole tone of the room had changed. It was a celebration! They were laughing and dancing and clapping. To say I was confused is an understatement!
There was a team assigned to our case that basically were medical investigators, like that TV show House. Their job was to make sense of the cases that made no sense. They were working with the nursing staff, social workers in Kitchener and at McMaster, and the team of doctors on rotation to piece together everyone’s thoughts and opinions to find the truth. And thank goodness for them! They could see these were no ordinary bruises. They ruled out abuse immediately. It just didn’t fit. I wish they had been called in sooner!
Her x-rays were clear. There was no internal damage. They called my husband and had him walk through everything that happened while I was sleeping that evening. They asked probing questions and he let them know that Hazel had been fussy after her bottle. A fussy newborn is not all that unusual in itself, but what he did was wrap her up in her arms in her Summer Infant swaddle so she felt secure and put her in her MamaRoo so she was upright to help with her reflux while he changed and fed Katie. It sounds like he did everything right. He put her someplace safe, upright so she doesn't puke and choke. I very well could have done the exact same thing.
Well, we guess Hazel was gassy and arched her back to get some gas out and, in that process, pushed her belly full of milk against the Mamaroo straps. When we wrapped her up in the swaddle and put her in the Mamaroo my inlaws brought down, the lines across her belly matched up perfectly with the edges of the swaddle and the belt in the swing. We now know that our sweet Hazel is very sensitive – emotionally and physically – and bruises easily. Finally, we knew what happened. The tone of the nursing staff and doctors changed immediately towards me. They apologized for their treatment of me. We were discharged and sent home to sleep.
This was the most exhausting and frustrating 36 hours of my life. I felt like a complete failure as a mother, and still can’t look at these photos without being drawn back into the darkness. I could have kept this story buried, never to see the light of day again, but I wanted to show that “normal” high functioning families also experience situations you could never imagine yourself in, until you’re there yourself.
This isn’t a story about how the system failed us. On the contrary, this is how the system succeeds. At the end of the day I’m grateful for all the questions we were asked. I’m grateful that this was taken seriously, although I do think a sweep of our house could have been done once the sun came up. I’m grateful because even though child abuse wasn’t the case here, it does happen and somebody needs to stick up for those little babies. I’m grateful that my sweet Hazel doesn’t have some lifelong or life-ending blood disease. And most of all, I’m grateful for my village for showing up for us and believing in us, even when nobody else did.