The system for investigating potential child abuse in Mississippi is complex, but one man has a position of particular power: Dr. Scott Benton.
Benton, the only board-certified child abuse pediatrician in Mississippi and the 20th person to earn that certification in the United States, launched the Children’s Safe Center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2008. He sees patients at the hospital suffering from severe trauma and examines children referred to the center by Child Protective Services, police, lawyers and emergency rooms.
During his tenure, Benton has also implemented a system under which any child who comes to UMMC with a certain injury or symptom must be evaluated by Benton’s team. The triggers for the involvement of Benton’s team are wide-ranging, including any bone fractures, burns, and “all trauma warranting admission.”
Though Benton has undoubtedly played a major role in getting children who have been abused into state custody, the power he wields can have devastating consequences for families if he gets it wrong.
Mississippi Today has uncovered three instances in recent years where parents allege he got it wrong. In each case, there were other explanations or potential medical conditions for the injuries the children exhibited that were not fully vetted by Benton or his team before their caregivers were accused of child abuse.
Parents are often unclear they are being investigated for child abuse when interacting with Benton and his team, they say. Benton said he and his team introduced themselves as “pediatricians from the Children’s Safe Center.”
When giving expert witness testimony in child abuse trials, Benton has minimized the debate about abusive head trauma diagnoses, and at least in one case, provided medically inaccurate information on the stand.
Mississippi Today examined thousands of pages of court documents and medical records over the course of this investigation. Reporters interviewed families who were separated due to accusations from Benton that never resulted in convictions.
Together, the stories in this series show the danger of placing so much power in the hands of one individual with limited oversight. They also raise questions about how the state can protect children from abuse while minimizing the unjust separation of families.