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Lehigh County promotes CYS assistant despite families' protests, pleas

About two dozen people, many with signs like "fire Jenssen," stand in the rain during a protest in front of a Lehigh Valley Health Network sign.
Ryan Gaylor
About two dozen people, many with signs with messages such as"fire Jenssen," stand in the rain during a protest Sept. 24 near Lehigh Valley Health Network's Cedar Crest Hospital. Many protested again Wednesday night outside the Lehigh County Government Center.

  • Lehigh County commissioners unanimously approved Heather Reed’s promotion to lead the county Child and Youth Services department
  • Lehigh County CYS and Lehigh Valley Health Network are mired in controversy after a report detailed allegations they repeatedly misdiagnosed medical child abuse 
  • Numerous families have told Lehigh and Northampton County officials about the trauma they experienced after being falsely accused of abusing their children

LEHIGH COUNTY, Pa. — Dozens of people last week in downtown Allentown continued their protests against the alleged "systemic overdiagnosis" of medical child abuse in the region.

They then filed inside the Lehigh County Government Center, where, at Wednesday's meeting, many urged county commissioners to reject or postpone Heather Reed's promotion to lead the county's Children and Youth Services department.

Retiring CYS Director Paula Roberts "ignored our pleas for help, and the plan is to replace her with the second-in-command," protestor Kim Steltz, of Emmaus, said.

Steltz is among many parents who've told Lehigh and Northampton county officials in recent months about the trauma they experienced after being accused of medically abusing their children.

"Our voices and pleas to protect the other families seem to not be heard."
Kim Steltz, of Emmaus

"Our voices and pleas to protect the other families seem to not be heard," Steltz said Wednesday. She told commissioners the planned promotion feels like more of "the same-old, same-old."

"I think we were hoping for something different here," she said. "Heather Reed is part of the same leadership team who participated in the abusive practices" that families are protesting.

Steltz implored commissioners "to bring in a fixer [at CYS], not someone who's entrenched in the status quo."

But more than a half-hour of passionate pleas from Steltz and 10 others didn't slow down commissioners as they quickly and unanimously approved Reed's promotion to CYS chief.

The meeting quickly emptied after the vote, with some voicing their disappointment on their way out.

Controversy at CYS, LVHN

CYS, Lehigh Valley Health Network and its Child Advocacy Center have been the target of numerous protests since August, when Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley published a report that detailed an “abnormally high number of medical child abuse diagnoses in the Northeast region of Pennsylvania.”

The report, titled “The Cost of Misdiagnosis," showed more than 30% of the state's cases of medical child abuse came from Lehigh and Northampton counties.

Medical child abuse — formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy — is a condition in which a caregiver induces or fakes an illness in the child they care for, usually for sympathy or attention.

The controller's report said Lehigh County's Child and Youth Services department "heavily relies" on expertise of hospital staff when deciding whether to remove children from homes for suspected abuse.

Pinsley has recommended changes to how suspected abuse is investigated, such as requiring a second opinion from a medical specialist.

He’s also called for county officials to hire an independent agency to review previous medical child abuse diagnoses.

Since Pinsley published his report, LVHN has removed Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen as head of its John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center.

Pinsley’s report did not identify any medical group, but LVHN’s John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center is the only facility that handles medical child abuse cases in the Lehigh Valley.

On the county's side of the controversy, Paula Roberts is set to soon retire as CYS director. Her retirement opened the door to Reed’s promotion Wednesday.

She was appointed to lead the department in 2017.

'Extraordinary responsibility' to children

LVHN spokesperson Brian Downs said in a statement Tuesday that "less than .5% of children who visited our children's hospital (in the past year) were referred for suspicion of child abuse."

All doctors and caregivers in Pennsylvania are legally required to report suspected child abuse, Downs said, adding they can face criminal charges if they do not report.

LVHN employees have an "extraordinary responsibility ... in safeguarding children because early recognition of abuse can be lifesaving," he said

Hospitals and physicians refer cases to the Child Advocacy Center "because they know that each case will be evaluated fairly in a setting that is comfortable for children and in line with national standards," Downs said.

Cases that require further attention are evaluated by child protective services and legal authorities, he said.

"Importantly, when the authorities decide to not press charges, or a case is determined to be unfounded, it does not confirm that a misdiagnosis has occurred," Downs said. "In some instances, it may mean that authorities have decided to pursue a different path such as providing support services and a safety plan for any child/children and family members involved."

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.