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Class action suit alleges LVHN falsely accused 12 families of child abuse

Protest at Lehigh Valley Hospital
Olivia Marble
Lawyer Beth Maloney speaks at the protest organized by Parents' Medical Rights Group Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter on Aug. 30. Maloney is part of law group Francis Alexander, which filed the class action suit.

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — A class action lawsuit that says 12 families were falsely accused of child abuse by Lehigh Valley Health Network doctors is officially underway.

Francis Malofiy of law firm Francis Alexander on Tuesday filed the complaint on behalf of the families in Philadelphia County Court.

The parents say they temporarily lost custody of their children because of the false allegations, and some served prison time.

Among the claims in the suit are that doctors conducted sexual assault examinations on the children, even though in several cases, there was no evidence of sexual abuse.

It also claims false imprisonment and arrest because some of the parents who are defendants served jail time based on allegedly false reports of child abuse.

It also says LVHN doctors kept children at the hospital after suspecting child abuse, amounting to false imprisonment.

And it alleges LVHN doctors coached one child on how to accuse his parents of medical child abuse.

A class action suit uses a plaintiff or plaintiffs to collectively represent a group of people who it says were harmed by defendants in the suit.

If the suit is successful, all members of the group, or "class," are compensated with monetary awards or actions by the defendants.

Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, who has been a central figure in the controversy, and LVHN's John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center, or CAC, are defendants in the case.

Also listed as defendants are The Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania because of its affiliation with LVHN and alleged involvement with some of the cases.

St. Christopher's Hospital For Children is another defendant, also because of its alleged involvement.

“Early recognition of abuse can be lifesaving and our clinicians remain committed to caring for and protecting our patients.”
LVHN Media Relations Director Brian Downs

Several other lawsuits have recently been filed against LVHN and others with similar claims of false accusations of child abuse.

LVHN Media Relations Director Brian Downs said the health network does not comment on ongoing litigation, but emailed a statement saying the health network is responsible for reviewing and reporting suspicions of child abuse and neglect.

“Like all healthcare providers and caregivers in Pennsylvania, we are required by law to report suspected child abuse and we take this responsibility seriously,” the statement read.

“Early recognition of abuse can be lifesaving and our clinicians remain committed to caring for and protecting our patients.”

LVHN likely will respond to specific claims during testimony.

A case management conference, or an initial meeting with the judge and attorneys to discuss the case, is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 22 in Philadelphia City Hall.

It likely will not include testimony.

The complaint is available online for a fee.

A months-long controversy

Several plaintiffs are members of the Greater Lehigh Valley Parents’ Medical Rights Group, or PMRG, which has protested and called for changes in the local child welfare system.

Their protests followed a report released in late August by Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley, who is running for state Auditor General.

The report alleges “systemic overdiagnosis” of medical and other types of child abuse in the county.

Olivia Marble
Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley held a press conference after releasing his report, the Cost of Misdiagnosis.

Formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy, medical child abuse happens when a caregiver deliberately fabricates or induces an illness in someone under his or her care, often to gain attention or sympathy.

In a statement, Pinsley said the complaint is a “powerful and eye-opening indictment” of both LVHN and what he said was a “disappointing level of inaction” from Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong and Lehigh County commissioners.

In October, commissioners began to look into actions they could take to reform the county’s Office of Children and Youth Services, but later delayed the investigation because of the threat of legal action.

“I believe they understood the extent of the allegations brought forth and chose to ignore them."
Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley

Pinsley said he will call for a third-party investigation into the county for what he said was an attempted cover-up of his report.

He previously alleged that Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong threatened to reduce funding to his department if he published the report.

“I believe they understood the extent of the allegations brought forth and chose to ignore them,” the statement read.

PMRG’s members previously endorsed Malofiy’s firm to lead a lawsuit against LVHN. Malofiy donated $50,000 to Pinsley’s recent re-election campaign, causing some to raise ethics questions.

Malofiy is well-known for leading a lawsuit accusing rock band Led Zeppelin of stealing the opening riff of "Stairway to Heaven" from an obscure band.

He also earned a multi-million dollar settlement from the car rental service Hertz for allegedly falsely reporting its customers stole their cars.

PMRG released a statement saying the group was "pleased litigation has commenced to establish accountability for the widespread harm caused to families and children stemming from false accusations of child abuse."

"We support and applaud the brave families including the 24 children who are using their voices to ensure this harm in our community never happens again. No more silence," the statement read.

The statement encouraged families with similar stories to share them at childinterrupted.com

The claims

The 233-page legal document summarizes the 12 families’ allegations and outlines the basis of the claims being brought against defendants.

It includes 17 claims, including negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with parental rights, false report of child abuse, defamation, invasion of privacy and assault and battery.

The claim of assault and battery was based on alleged sexual assault examinations conducted by doctors in the CAC.

The complaint claims that in several cases there was no evidence of sexual abuse, so the exam was unnecessary.

In one case, the suit alleges the exam was not documented in medical records and that photographs were taken of the child.

Another claim was false imprisonment and arrest. Some of the parents who were named as defendants served jail time, and the complaint alleges their imprisonment was based on false reports of child abuse.

The complaint also alleges that when LVHN doctors kept children at the hospital after suspecting child abuse, that constituted false imprisonment. It says some parents were told they would lose custody of their children if they took them out of the hospital.

The invasion of privacy claim was based on a Facebook comment that appeared to share private medical information related to one of the cases.

Under a post of a news outlet's article about one of the cases, anonymous profile “Mugs Sadler” asked a parent repeatedly whether the child had blood infection and sepsis during their hospital stay.

Facebook comments Mugs Sadler.png
A screenshot of some of the Facebook comments referenced in the complaint.

The child had both, and the hospital claimed they happened because the mother had poisoned the child’s IV line. The complaint claims that LVHN was at fault for the injuries.

The suit argues that the commenter must work for LVHN, since there was no other way he or she would know about the blood infection or sepsis.

Several high-profile cases of medical child abuse have included sepsis and blood infections.

The complaint suggests the plaintiffs should get an unspecified amount of monetary compensation and should have all mentions of abuse stricken from their children’s medical records.

LVHN previously said in a statement that “due to the sensitive nature of their work, physicians specializing in child protective medicine are often the unfortunate target of emotionally driven and unsubstantiated criticism.”

An alleged motive

The complaint alludes to a potential motive for the alleged actions.

In the summary of the case involving PMRG President Kimberly Steltz and her husband, Steve Steltz, the complaint alleges LVHN doctors coached Steltz’s son on how to accuse his parents of medical child abuse.

Olivia Marble
Lehigh Valley Parents' Medical Rights Group President Kim Steltz speaks at the Human Services Committee meeting on Oct. 18.

According to the complaint, the incident began when the Steltzs’ eldest son attacked Kimberly Stetlz after she took away his phone for misbehavior.

It says she called the police, who told her to take her son to the hospital for psychiatric help.

Kimberly Stetlz’s son allegedly lied to doctors and said he was the one to call the police because his parents were emotionally abusing him.

Esernio-Jenssen and the CAC had allegedly been put on an internal improvement plan in 2020 to 2022 as a result of their false claims of medical child abuse.

The suit says a doctor who was trained by Esernio-Jenssen “coached” Kimberly Steltz’s son on how to accuse his parents of medical child abuse.

“Esernio-Jenssen and her cohorts saw [Kimberly Steltz’s son] as nothing more than an opportunity to be manipulated, so they could accuse the Steltzes of medical child abuse and vindicate their serial MBP [Munchausen by proxy] accusations,” the complaint reads.

LVHN and Lehigh County officials did not immediately respond to a request to verify whether an internal improvement plan happened.

Malofiy also did not respond to a request for comment.