Dallas couple wrongly accused gets their kids back

Houston Chronicle — The doctor walked into the room and took a seat on the lid of a red trash can. Your baby has bleeding in his brain, he told Gabe and Zahava Edery, and there are broken bones, too.

They were stunned.

It was July 3, 2021, and the Ederys, both 32, had taken their three-month old son Mickey to the hospital that evening after he grew unresponsive following a family trip to synagogue. It was the Sabbath, a family day, and the couple and their three children had spent it together. The baby had rarely left Zahava’s arms.

But the combination of the initial diagnoses — the brain bleed, plus fractured ribs, plus a retinal hemorrhage — made the doctors think the child was a victim of “shaken baby syndrome,” which kills between 1,000 and 3,000 children each year. Child Protective Services got involved, and a social worker directed Gabe to bring their family’s other two children in.

A pediatric abuse specialist went on to classify Mickey’s injuries as potentially stemming from abuse, and all three children were taken from the Edery’s and placed in the foster care system.

Within days, the hospital walked-back the diagnosis of broken bones, saying the only injury was the brain bleed. This weakened the case for abuse, but that didn’t change the state’s response. A cloud of suspicion hung over the Ederys — fueled by questions Zahava asked at the hospital in a moment of panic, among them: “Did we do this?”

Proving that they did not cause Mickey’s injury to the satisfaction of Child Protective Services and an appointed guardian ad litem took seven months. Their twin boys have now spent more of their lives outside their parents’ home than in it. The family took their case to social media, raising about $272,000 from more than 3,000 donors around the country. But the costs were higher — more than $300,000 for lawyers, doctors, psychologists and other expenses.

The Ederys hired four pediatric neurology experts to examine the medical evidence. The doctors concluded that Mickey, a twin born prematurely, had slight head trauma from delivery that caused a fluid buildup inside his skull that ultimately caused the brain bleed.

Without other injuries, it was unclear how abuse could have possibly caused the bleed. If the baby had been punched, there would have been broken bones or extensive bruising. If he had been shaken, there would have been injuries to the ribs, neck or spine. But there was none of that.

A new state law that went into effect in September — two months after Mickey’s injury — was too late to help the Ederys, but it promises new resources to Texas parents who find themselves in a similar predicament in the future.

Under the law, the Ederys would have had the right to demand a second, independent medical opinion outside of the initial abuse finding from the doctor, which could have kept them out of the system entirely, avoiding the months of heartache, uncertainty and expense that started with their children being taken from them.

New law is ‘right direction’ for a slow process

The law change was prompted by a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and NBC News of 40 cases in which the conclusions of state child abuse specialists were questioned.

Giving parents and their lawyers the right to request a second opinion is a significant step forward, parent advocates say, but it doesn’t solve all the problems that come from a misdiagnosis.

“The challenge is once the system is involved, it’s pretty much nine months to get back even if you’re wrong. I don’t know if I can ever remember a case where somebody recognized after a week they’re wrong,” said state Rep. James Frank, a Wichita Falls Republican who chairs the Human Services Committee that vetted the legislation.

Yet even critics acknowledge that the abuse specialists’ conclusions are likely correct most of the time, particularly when children have suffered extensive unexplained injuries. And in some cases, they help rule out abuse when CPS might otherwise have been suspicious.

Medical groups lobbied hard against the bill in 2019 when it was initially pushed, and failed to pass. It’s their position that doctors who specialize in identifying child abuse based on the child’s medical records are most suited to doing so. CPS is also quick to note that abuse doctors can be helpful to ruling out abuse in cases where children could have been removed in years past.

Still, Frank said if they see certain symptoms, like a brain bleed: “They’re a hammer and everything looks like a nail.”

“It’s the mindset that, ‘isn’t it worth it just to save one child?’ and if there’s any chance this child is abused, we should remove him. Not recognizing that the very act of removal is a tremendously traumatic experience for a child,” Frank said “CPS is not a broken system. The system works a lot of the time in some of the worst situations humans can have. As with most legislation, it moves in the right direction. But as long as you have humans in this situation, you’re always going to have problems.”

Guardian ad-litem blamed for stalling

Once the Ederys were sucked into the cautious bureaucracy, it took herculean efforts for them to get their children back.

They retained a lawyer, Lynne Corsi, who founded and ran the child abuse division within the Dallas County DA’s office and has more than 30 years experience working with child abuse.

“The good part is that this family had a lot of advocacy, the good part is they had resources from their community, that they had attorneys that were diligent. And that they had people that fiercely advocated for them, and that they could afford medical experts. Most people don’t have that,” Corsi said. “And even with all of the resources and the advocacy that they had, it still took a very long time to get a just result for this family.”

A continuous source of the delay was the independent attorney assigned by the court system to protect Mickey, Regina Clark.

She did not respond to repeated attempts from Hearst Newspapers to reach her, but court records and email correspondence show that Clark repeatedly called for delays of weeks or even months at a time — even after the Edery family completed court-ordered parenting classes and psychological evaluations.

For months, Clark delayed efforts to take the kids out of foster care and place them with a family friend of the Ederys. Then she delayed a subsequent effort to get the kids back to their parents. The ad litem refused repeatedly to explain the reason for the delays, other than to say she was concerned that returning the children was “premature,” the correspondence shows.

“From a bureaucracy standpoint, all these people are masters at saying nothing but delaying your case. Giving no substance why anything that’s happening is happening, but the end result is what they want: which is the case moves at the timeline they want, at the steps they want,” Gabe Ederys said.

Gabe Ederys said it could have taken until July to get the kids home.

But the Dallas District Attorney’s office, which represented the state, stepped in to help expedite the children’s return, batting down Clark’s efforts to push it back into March. “Without a defensible rationale to do so, the Dept. believes it would be an injustice to continue this suit,” an assistant DA wrote in an email.

So on Jan. 26, the whole family waited at their house for their oldest daughter, Eliana, to return from school. Normally when she gets dropped off at the curb, Eliana cuts through the grass toward the front door. That day, for some reason, she ran all the way along the driveway and into her mother’s arms.

“It was this real homecoming. She was all excited,” Zahava Ederys said.

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“Striking success”