WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A state health team dedicated to examining and interviewing children who may be recent victims of child abuse or sexual assault have suspended nearly all in-person medical examinations in Palm Beach County, despite having enough protective personnel equipment on hand.
According to public emails uncovered by Contact 5, the Child Protection Team of Palm Beach County (CPT) had more than 50 masks, 115 adult gowns, 700 gloves and four bottles of hand sanitizer in their inventory on March 3.
Despite the equipment, in-person exams were suspended except for the most severe child abuse cases, citing coronavirus concerns. At least 34 children involved in child abuse investigations were not assessed in person during the month of March, citing coronavirus concerns according to an email chain.
Child Protection Teams are under the Department of Health in Florida, and there are more than 25 teams within the state. The agency is required by law to examine and interview the most serious child abuse and child sexual assault cases. CPT exams and interviews are funded by taxpayer dollars.
“We are supposed to be paying for these children to be physically seen by a doctor because allegations of abuse have been made,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay told Contact 5’s Merris Badcock via a Zoom conference call on Tuesday. “That is not an examination that can be done using telemedicine.”
McKinley, who was notified of the suspended exams via email, was more blunt in her written response to the county’s director of public safety, Stephanie Sejnoha. “Why the hell isn’t CPT doing everything they can to make sure children are ok right now?????,” McKinlay wrote. “The risk of abuse is so high under these conditions. Nothing can replace a face-to-face.”
Sejnoha emailed McKinley to let her know that CPT of Palm Beach County was requesting $10,200 in taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of 34 non-sexual assault medical consultations during the month of March.
While Contact 5 is still working to determine the exact differences between a CPT medical consultation and a CPT medical exam, the emails suggest that a medical exam requires an in-person assessment and a consultation does not.
Sejnoha believes, alongside the County Attorney’s Office, that because of the protective personnel equipment on hand with the Child Protection Team, the 34 children should have had been assessed in person. “The county will not reimburse them for the 34 exams,” Sejnoha wrote.
“Right now families are under a lot of pressure. Domestic violence is on the rise, and I’m sure domestic violence being on the rise is also associated with child abuse being on the rise.
“This is not the time to shortcut doing an examination of child abuse when allegations have been bad,” said McKinlay.
Despite numerous emails and phone calls to CPT’s executive director Alison Hitchcock, Contact 5’s request for an interview and statement went unanswered.
“That is an essential service, if ever there was one, and not something that we should be circumventing right now,” McKinlay said.
Now, lawmakers like State Sen. Lori Berman are trying to figure out who green-lighted the change in protocol.
“I think the exams should always been done in person. These are very at-risk children. We want to make sure they are protected.”
According to an old PowerPoint presentation created by CPT of Palm Beach County, CPT medical personnel must be called in to investigate the most serious cases, including: “injuries to the head”, “bruises” or “alleged sexual abuse” of a child.
“April is actually National Child Abuse Prevention Month, so it is kind of ironic we are having a situation where our child abuse system might not be doing all the things that they should and should be doing on behalf of our children,” said Berman.
Berman has reached out to Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees who oversees the Department of Health, and is waiting on a response from his office.