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LVHN protesters: New leader at child advocacy center isn't enough

About two dozen people, many with signs like "fire Jenssen," stand in the rain in front of a Lehigh Valley Health Network sign.
Ryan Gaylor
About two dozen people protest outside Lehigh Valley Health Network's Cedar Crest campus on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023.

  • About two dozen people protested outside Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Cedar Crest campus
  • The protesters, members of Parents’ Medical Rights Group, represent parents who say they were falsely accused of child abuse
  • The doctor at the heart of their allegations was recently replaced as the head of LVHN’s child advocacy center, which the group says is not enough

SALISBURY TWP., Pa. – A group representing parents who say they were falsely accused of child abuse protested outside Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Cedar Crest campus on Sunday, the latest in a string of public demonstrations.

About two dozen people, many with umbrellas or plastic ponchos for the rain, stood near the hospital’s Juniper Road entrance calling for the hospital to fire one of its physicians, Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen.

The organization, Parents’ Medical Rights Group, accuses Jenssen of repeatedly misidentifying cases of child abuse, in some cases leading to prosecution and children being placed in foster care.

Many of the cases deal with accusations of medical child abuse, the condition formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy, where a caregiver fakes or induces an illness in their child.

The same group previously protested at LVHN’s Allentown campus at 17th and Chew streets and spoke at length during meetings of Lehigh County Board of Commissioners and Northampton County Council about the harm they say Jenssen caused.

In addition to her ouster, they have asked for an investigation on how the child advocacy center operates, changes to procedures for how allegations of child abuse are handled there, and, in particular, transparency from LVHN.

Without mentioning specific clinics or practitioners, the health network previously defended its employees.

“We will be continuing to use our voice effectively. There are a lot of people listening.”
Kim Steltz, founder of the Parents' Medical Rights Group

“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,” a LVHN representative wrote in a statement released in August.

Jenssen, a specialist in child protective medicine, formerly led the health network’s John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center, which aims to provide a minimally traumatic environment for victims of abuse to receive medical care and interface with law enforcement and social workers.

She was replaced as the head of the child advocacy center earlier this month after “a nearly year-long national search,” according to a statement from LVHN. The statement said Jenssen “will be providing care part time in other network locations.”

Parents’ Medical Rights Group founder Kim Steltz said, because of that statement, she was surprised to learn Jenssen is doing much of the same work she has always done at the child advocacy center.

“Originally, we assumed [replacing Jenssen] was an attempt to put a level of oversight in to protect the community,” Steltz said. “Unfortunately, it appears that Lehigh Valley [Health Network] has intentionally deceived the public in their statement.”

She said her group has learned of cases where Jenssen has made accusations of child abuse since she stepped down as director of the child advocacy center. As of Sunday, LVHN’s website still shows Jenssen as practicing there.

A representative for LVHN confirmed Friday that Jenssen is still employed by the network; they did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.

Steltz said that until Jenssen is fired and the valley’s system for handling allegations of child abuse is overhauled to remove her influence, her group will continue their work.

“We will be continuing to use our voice effectively,” she said. “There are a lot of people listening.”

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.