PEORIA — The state’s child abuse case against Matt Everly relied heavily on the opinion of a child abuse pediatrician whose close working relationship with law enforcement is being questioned by some family rights advocates.
Dr. Channing Petrak, medical director with the Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria (PRC), told police the injuries to Olivia Everly were likely caused by a violent, jerking motion. Everly was acquitted Dec. 31 by Judge Casey Costigan, who ruled that the state failed to make its case linking the father to the baby’s broken limbs.
The pediatric center conducted 215 exams for physical abuse and 90 for sexual abuse in 2017, according to a PRC report. The PRC consults with parents, law enforcement, doctors and child welfare agencies in 52 counties on cases of potential physical and sexual abuse of children.
Michelle Weidner, executive director of the Family Justice Resource Center (FJRC), a Peoria-based group that helps parents wrongfully accused of child abuse, said “the current practice of relying on state-contracted child abuse pediatricians is resulting in an increasing number of children being removed from loving homes.”
The impact of a false accusation on a family cannot be overstated, said Weidner, who helped establish the resource center after she and her husband were wrongfully accused of abuse.
“Wrongful allegations commonly result in enormous emotional trauma for children, tens of thousands of dollars in legal debt for parents and difficulty reintegrating into community life,” said Weidner.
Diane Redleaf, an attorney and a member of the FJRC board, said the center supports legislation requiring child abuse pediatricians to disclose what she considers their “divided loyalties” to the caregivers of children who are being evaluated for abuse. Such a disclosure is “required by medical ethics, especially where there are contracts” between the doctor and a state institution or agency, said Redleaf.
A consultation between a doctor trained to identify child abuse and authorities is not problematic, said Redleaf, but the situation changes when a physician consults with the caregivers of children without explaining the doctor’s role in the investigative process.
OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center referred questions about Petrak’s handling of potential abuse cases to the doctor’s employer, the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Petrak has medical privileges at OSF. The Pediatric Resource Center is located on the hospital’s campus, but her employment contract is with the state, said an OSF spokesperson.
The college of medicine was willing to disclose Petrak’s hire date and position, but would not answer questions about her work.
Stephanie Johnson, executive director of the Pediatric Resource Center, also declined to answer questions about the doctor’s relationship with police, prosecutors and child advocacy centers.
The U of I College of Medicine website describes the center as “a community service program” of the medical school. It “does not arrest people or determine who is 'guilty' or who is a good or better parent,” according to the website.
Parents are notified in written materials that the results of any exams of their children will be shared with “any mandated authorities,” including police, DCFS, law enforcement and prosecutors.
The resource center, like the Bloomington-based Children's Advocacy Center is "a valuable resource in assisting law enforcement with abuse investigations," said McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp.
Petrak is one of 17 child abuse pediatricians who provide services to hospitals and authorities in Illinois.