Lawsuits mount against doctors at LVHN: Multiple families allege misdiagnosis of medical child abuse

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 2, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Dozens of families in Eastern Pennsylvania are suing Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) for allegedly misdiagnosing medical child abuse, formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. 

  • The families claim LVHN caused financial, emotional, and physical harm, and a report suggests LVHN had a high rate of such misdiagnoses.

  • LVHN defended its practices, but the doctor at the center of the lawsuits stepped down from her position at the end of March 2024.

Dozens of families across Eastern Pennsylvania have filed a lawsuit alleging that doctors at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) misdiagnosed medical child abuse, formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy.[]

All the families involved in the lawsuits have children with medically complex conditions that were difficult to diagnose. For instance, one of the families has a child with a mitochondrial disorder.[] 

An 'overzealous diagnosis'?

According to a Lehigh County report, doctors at LVHN repeatedly accused families of medical child abuse—formerly known as Munchausen by proxy—erroneously believing that they had falsified or caused the unexplained symptoms in their children.[]

In some cases, children were removed from their families’ custody. According to the suit, no interviews of the accused families were conducted prior to a diagnosis of Munchausen by proxy. In all cases, this diagnosis, as well as the call for removal from the home, was made by Debra Esernio-Jenssen, MD. At the time, Dr. Esernio-Jenssen was the head of the Child Advocacy Center at LVHN. 

The children involved are now back in their families’ care and have received medical diagnoses. However, some families who’ve filed suit say that no apologies have been made. According to complaints, once the children were returned to their families, the cases were closed and no further actions were taken.

The families say they were impacted financially, emotionally, and physically as a result of LVHN and Dr. Esrnio-Jessen’s overzealous diagnosis of medical child abuse.

A consistent error

Recently revealed information signals that overzealous diagnosis of medical child abuse might have been an alarmingly consistent error at LVHN.

According to a report by Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley, 40% of all medical child abuse reports between 2017 and 2021 in Pennslyvania were from the Northeast region.[] About 14% of the region’s population is under 18. All cases of suspected child abuse in the region are processed through LVHN’s John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Allentown, PA.

LVHN’s response

LVHN has defended its practices and Dr. Esernio-Jenssen. In an August 2023 statement, the health network stated:

“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 Lehigh County Controller has no jurisdiction over the CAC, nor the clinical credentials to conduct a review of a clinician or the services rendered by a clinician—and we disagree wholeheartedly with the controller’s conclusions being shared with the media.”[]

Dr. Esernio-Jenssen’s retirement from her position was announced in March 2024.[] She has been replaced by Sarah Kleinle, DO.[] LVHN has continued to deny any wrongdoing by Dr. Esernio-Jenssen or any of its facilities. 

Bias and abuse reporting

Physicians have a duty to report suspected child abuse. In most states, physicians fall under the umbrella of professionals—along with teachers, social workers, and other healthcare professionals—who are required to report suspected child abuse.

However, bias can sometimes cloud judgment. For instance, a 2022 report found that although Black patients represent approximately 12% of the United States population, about 33% of suspected child abuse patients reported by physicians were Black children.[] 

Of course, it’s not the decision of most physicians to determine whether a specific case is child abuse. Physicians and other professionals are often advised to report any suspicion and to leave the investigation to child services professionals, but the choice to report can still be a difficult one.

The AMA's Journal of Ethics recommends that physicians take a few steps to help prepare for suspected child abuse situations, including staying up-to-date on the AMA's educational opportunities involving child abuse as well as reporting laws.[] 

What this means for you

Dozens of families are suing Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) for allegedly misdiagnosing medical child abuse. LVHN doctors, led by Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, were accused of misdiagnosis and causing unnecessary separations between parents and their children. Despite the children being returned and receiving proper diagnoses, families claim LVHN caused financial, emotional, and physical harm. LVHN defended its practices, but Dr. Esernio-Jenssen retired amid the controversy. Bias in abuse reporting, as evidenced by disproportionate reporting of Black children, highlights challenges for physicians in identifying genuine cases of child abuse.

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