Doctors & Lawyers: A Great Team for Child Protection

The connection between doctors and lawyers isn’t always in malpractice litigation. On March 24, 2010, The NY Times reported on a legal aid office located in the pediatric clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Doctors and other medical professionals are uniquely positioned to identify circumstances which can lead to health issues. For example: Is there heat in the home? Is there enough food? Has a child been tested for learning disabilities?

But this is not only instance of doctors leading the way for lawyers to protect children. In Barry Siegel’s excellent true crime tale, Death in White Bear Lake, the first heroes were emergency room physicians who began to describe twisting injuries that babies and toddlers across all economic strata presented in their ERs. These doctors concluded that falling on stairs or from a crib could not have caused those injuries. They talked, they met, they organized conferences, they wrote papers defining battered child syndrome, and then they invited prosecutors to hear them out.

In a compelling primer for law and medical students, lawyers, and doctors, Siegel demonstrates how problems are identified and law is made. He describes the development of child abuse law, including changes in evidentiary rulings, definitions of battered child syndrome, and the rise of the legal and medical culture of child protection. Sadly, all of this came too late for Dennis Jurgens, the child at the center of his book.

Dennis Jurgens’ death and its aftermath provides Siegel with a dramatic canvas, which includes a starkly bizarre central character in the sadistic adoptive mother, Lois Jergens, and a large cast of characters in her family, police (including her brother who was a police officer), prosecutors, court personnel, and reporters. Among the shadows hanging over this well-told story is that the prosecutors attended one of the first child abuse conferences with ER doctors within months of Dennis’ death.

Death in White Bear Lake became the gripping tv movie, A Child Lost Forever: the Jerry Sherwood Story. The movie’s focus is on the mother, played by Beverly D’Angelo, who was forced to give up her young child for adoption. When she went to find him 18 years later, she found was a coroner’s report of multiple injuries and a police case report of “deferred.” Determined to find out what really happened, she demanded that the case be re-opened. Dennis died in 1965. With the testimony of Dennis’ brother Robert, Lois Jergens was convicted of his murder in 1986.