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LVHN likely to face class action suit alleging false accusations of child abuse

Protest by Lehigh Valley Parents' Medical Rights Group
Olivia Marble
A protest on Aug. 30 in front of Lehigh Valley Hospital by Greater Lehigh Valley Parents' Medical Rights Group.

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — A class action lawsuit is in the works alleging Lehigh Valley Health Network and others falsely accused people of child abuse, a legal filing says.

Attorney Francis Malofiy on Nov. 28 filed a writ of summons for a class action suit against the health network and others, including the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.

A writ of summons is a way to initiate legal proceedings without filing a complaint.

It includes no specific allegations against the defendants, but indicates an official complaint with more information likely will be filed soon.

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.

The health network recently has faced other litigation.

Lawyer Thomas Bosworth of Philadelphia in late January filed three lawsuits against Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) and others.

Bosworth said five to 10 more lawsuits are on the way.

A local movement

Several listed plaintiffs in the writ are members of the Greater Lehigh Valley Parents’ Medical Rights Group, or PMRG.

PMRG has protested and called for changes in the local child welfare system following a report released in late August by Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley.

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

Olivia Marble
President of the Parents' Medical Rights Group Kim Steltz at the Aug. 23 Lehigh County Commissioners' meeting.

PMRG’s members previously endorsed Malofiy’s firm, Francis Alexander, 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 legendary rock band Led Zeppelin of stealing the opening riff of "Stairway to Heaven" from an obscure band.

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

LVHN Media Relations Director Brian Downs said the health network does not comment on ongoing litigation. The health network previously defended its personnel.

“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,” the statement read.

All four legal documents were filed with the Philadelphia County Court and are available online for a fee.

What's in the writ?

The writ lists 48 plaintiffs, including PMRG President Kim Steltz. That number includes 24 children who will be represented by their parents in court.

It has a preliminary list of 18 claims against the defendants, including medical malpractice, false imprisonment, negligence, battery/assault and infliction of emotional distress.

Another claim was civil conspiracy, meaning Malofiy likely will allege that some defendants collaborated intentionally to commit a crime.

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

Also listed as defendants are The Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania, St. Christopher's Hospital For Children, Tower Health, Drexel University and about two dozen health professionals.

Blank Rome, the law group representing LVHN and the CAC, filed a Praecipe for Rule to File Complaint on Jan. 24.

That gives Malifoy 20 days, until Feb. 13, to file an official complaint, or the litigation may be dismissed.

Bosworth’s lawsuits

The three lawsuits filed by Bosworth all allege that Esernio-Jenssen falsely accused parents of physically abusing their children, resulting in the parents temporarily losing custody of them.

Esernio-Jenssen used to be the medical director of the CAC but was replaced in September. She still practices part time at other LVHN locations.

“We like to think that the pediatricians will have the right motives, and won't be sort of skewed in their perception."
Lawyer Thomas Bosworth

The accounts in the lawsuits reflect those of others detailed in rallies and protests by the PMRG.

Bosworth said in an interview that while the specifics of the cases are different, they all involve “a failure to consider objective medical findings.”

“We like to think that the pediatricians will have the right motives, and won't be sort of skewed in their perception," Bosworth said.

"But what if they are? And I think that's what we see with Dr. Jenssen."

Bosworth said in the interview that Esernio-Jenssen made “huge calls, unilaterally, with no checks and balances, about whether parents should have custody of their children.”

In a Lehigh County Human Services Committee meeting in October, former county Commissioner Bob Elbich gave an overview of the county’s child welfare system.

System entities.jpg
Lehigh County
A slide from Human Services Committee Chair Bob Elbich about the relationship between different entities that deal with cases of suspected child abuse.

Elbich said that while the CAC makes assessments, it does not have the power to make decisions in child abuse cases.

That falls to the county Office of Children and Youth Services, which uses the CAC’s assessment and other information to make its determinations.

'No checks or balances'

Steltz argued during public comment of that meeting that the CAC is not independent from the Office of Children and Youth Services.

“Lehigh Valley [Health Network] is funding the CAC and your caseworkers are getting free office space there,” Steltz said. “So if there's competing doctor opinions against the doctors from the CAC and LVHN, the caseworkers are not going to go against Lehigh Valley Hospital.”

"No system, no party, no entity works well when what people think is very different than what it is.”
Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice in Berks County at the Oct. 18 Lehigh County Commissioners Human Services Committee meeting

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice in Berks County, gave a presentation at the meeting outlining several layers of oversight on the child welfare system, including the state Department of Human Services, the General Assembly and the Auditor General.

“And yet families feel, in their heart they genuinely believe, there's no checks or balances in the system,” Palm said then.

“That's a really important thing because whether it's true or not, it clearly has become a preset perception. And no system, no party, no entity works well when what people think is very different than what it is.”

Bosworth said he thinks the likelihood the parents will win the lawsuits is “very high.”

All three of his lawsuits list LVHN, Essernio-Jenssen and Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, which may soon merge with the health network, as defendants.

One of the lawsuits lists local nonprofit KidsPeace as a defendant.

Plaintiff Amanda Suranofsky of Bath alleges her children were sexually abused during their time in the foster care system, when they were under the responsibility of KidsPeace.

Kidspeace Director of Communications Robert Martin said in a statement that the nonprofit does not comment on any specific ongoing litigation.

“We are confident in the commitment of our associates to providing a safe environment for all children in our care," the statement read.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Lehigh Valley Health Network is a financial supporter of Lehigh Valley Public Media and a founding supporter of LehighValleyNews.com. LVHN has no influence on our editorial or business operations.