A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

The pediatrics clinic at the hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, was jammed. Alice Velasquez, dressed in Army fatigues, passed four-month-old Liliana to her husband, Miguel, so she could stretch and check the clock. They had been in a waiting room at National Naval Medical Center for over an hour and a half. Now, Alice was late for duty at the Pentagon.

“Don’t worry, honey, it won’t be much longer,” Miguel told Alice. Then he kissed Liliana, and she began to coo.

A few days before, Alice had found two little bumps over Liliana’s left ribs. They felt bony, and bone problems ran in Alice’s family. The couple decided to ask the doctor to do x-rays during the “well baby” visit.

The VelasquezesPhotographed by Stephanie Kuykendal
 Husband and wife were a study in contrasts: Alice, blonde, outgoing, excitable; Miguel, olive-skinned, quiet, placid. He kept her calm until their turn finally came. Alice took Liliana. Miguel grabbed the baby’s diaper bag and toys, and they went into the exam room. It was the last moment of ordinary family routine they would have for the next five years.

Something Terribly Wrong
“Healthy, four-month-old female, normal growth and development, gaining appropriately but on the smallish side,” say the notes of the intern who first examined Liliana on that day, February 3, 2000. The intern dismissed their fears about the bumps, but Alice persisted. A pediatrician, Dr. Paul Reed, agreed to order x-rays.

“I knew as soon as I saw Dr. Reed’s face that something was terribly wrong,” Alice says. The x-rays showed that several of Liliana’s ribs were broken. “These injuries are nonaccidental,” Dr. Reed told them. Someone has squeezed your baby, probably to make her stop crying, Alice recalls him saying. The doctors did more tests to check for other injuries. Alice began sobbing loudly.

People in white coats peppered Miguel with questions. What had happened? Did he drink a lot? Get angry? Shake the baby? Miguel was shocked speechless.

“We Were So Young and Naive”
Because fractures stemming from compression injuries are often an indicator of child abuse, and noting Miguel’s seeming lack of emotion, Dr. Reed considered this a typical case of paternal mistreatment. He gave his opinion to his supervisor, Dr. Barbara Craig, head of the Armed Forces Center for Child Protection.

“We were so young and naive,” Alice says now, ruefully. She was 20, Miguel, 28.

The radiologist reading the next round of x-rays said Liliana also had a broken wrist and possibly a broken leg. This report, later found to be inaccurate, further convinced doctors of abuse.

Parents Questioned
Liliana was admitted to the pediatric unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for her protection, and another doctor examined her there. A summary of Liliana’s exam relates the following: no swelling, no bruises, no cuts, no burns. No evidence of pain. Well-nourished. Growing well. Not withdrawn. Clean clothes, earrings, painted toenails, very clean and well kept. Smiling, feeding, alert. Both parents attended all OB visits before the birth. Both parents bring her to clinic appointments.

The record also notes Alice mentioned bone problems in her family. Yet, medical experts would later testify, none of the many doctors at the Naval Medical Center or at Walter Reed recorded a thorough medical history, nor did they do a “differential diagnosis” to rule out what, besides abuse, could have caused Liliana’s broken ribs. All other tests, including a brain scan, were normal.

Well into the night, a doctor, two social workers from the Alexandria, Virginia, Child Protective Services, two Alexandria police detectives, and a military police officer all questioned the Velasquezes. They asked open-ended questions like, “How do you think this might have happened?”

See also:
10 Questions You Shouldn’t Ask a New Mom
The Good Fight: A Married Man Argues for Conflict
10 Things Never to Say to a Pregnant Woman
50 Secrets Your Nurse Won’t Tell You

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