Comer Children's CAPS team: How they identify and protect children who have been abused

Dr. Jill Glick, director of Child Advocacy and Protective Services at Comer Children

Jill Glick, MD, director of Child Advocacy and Protective Services

An infant girl with a scalded foot. A two-year-old boy with broken ribs and suspicious markings on his face. Physicians, nurses and other staff at UChicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital help treat patients with injuries like these, but they also have to answer the question: are these accidental injuries, or did they result from abuse?

The investigation process is uncomfortable and difficult.

"Many people are afraid of this area," says Jill Glick, MD, director of Comer Children's Child Advocacy and Protective Services (CAPS). "It breaks someone's heart to have to call child welfare, because no one wants to be responsible for separating a child from their parent."

Thanks in large part to Glick, Comer has protocols in place to help identify patients who have been abused. Not all hospitals have the same protocols, nor do many follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for evaluating patients who are suspected of being abused.

At Comer, any child less than two years old with an injury and any child less than three with a burn is evaluated by the CAPS team. These patients tend to be the most vulnerable, in part because they can't yet speak for themselves. The CAPS team also looks at cases involving unexplained ingestions (if Methadone, for example, showed up in a child's blood unexpectedly), medical neglect (if a child with a serious disease, for example, was not taken to a critical medical appointment), failure to thrive with a social concern (if a child is not gaining weight when they should be), or any concerns for sexual abuse.

Each morning, CAPS clinical coordinator Lindsay Forrey, LCSW, scans through all of Comer's admissions and compiles anything that qualifies as a potential abuse case under Comer's protocols. Next, she touches base with the social worker assigned to each patient. The CAPS team will then engage with the care team and assess the need for a formal consultation.

"It can be uncomfortable when we show up in a patient's room, with their parents," says Glick. "We just try to tell them that we're working together around their child."

Tuesday mornings at 10 a.m., the Comer pediatric social workers, two board certified child abuse pediatricians (Drs. Glick and Veena Ramaiah), physician assistant Kristen Bilka, trauma coordinator Michele Rosado, RN, child life representatives and others from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services all gather in a small conference room on the UChicago Medicine campus. This is the weekly CAPS team meeting, where staff members review all of the new consults since the previous week. Each case is presented, and the team reaches an interagency consensus regarding findings and interventions. Forrey says that of the 300 to 400 cases they see each year, injuries more often result from neglect, rather than abuse.

"The nice thing about having a protocoled system," says Forrey, "is it reduces the chance for selection bias and often we can expedite the discharge of a patient with an accidental injury that was reported by an outside hospital.”

According to Glick and Forrey, who have promoted the need for an interagency collaborative approach to investigate children with concerning injuries, the children at greatest risk for abuse are nonverbal. Rarely do caretakers admit to abusing their children, they say, and while a history of an injury is possible, it is impossible to discern between abuse and negligent-related injuries without corroboration by police and the state Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS). The CAPS team recognizes that errors in this determination can result in terrible consequences for the child and family.

Forrey says her time with CAPS has changed some preconceptions she had about the demographic of parents who abuse their children.

"Anyone can abuse their child in moments of high stress," she says. "We've seen professionally educated people, people who work in therapy services and parents who work in hospital settings, all be found responsible for abusing their children."

Forrey says signs of abuse and neglect can be hard to quantify because they often present similarly to injuries that could be caused by a number of things. She and Glick urge hospital staff with any concerns to call a social worker. As for non-hospital staff, anyone with concerns can call the Illinois DCFS Child Abuse Hotline at 800-25-ABUSE, (800-252-2873), or TTY (1-800-358-5117).