When the State Gets It Wrong: A Family Shattered and The Battle to Bring the Pieces Back Together
In Georgia, a legal battle is ongoing for the custody of two children. However, controversy surrounds this case as many criticize the state's actions as unnecessary and cruel.
On June 6th, 2023, Matt and Tuckey Hernandez took their infant daughter to a pediatrician after noticing their daughter's leg was swollen. Matt also showed a picture of bruising behind their baby's ear that had disappeared the week before. The pediatrician then sent baby Emma to the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) where Dr. Stephen Messner diagnosed that Emma was a victim of child abuse. After the diagnosis from Dr. Messner, the Hernandez family went through heartbreak as social workers from the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) were called.
Emma and Arya are then taken from the Hernandez family and discharged from the hospital to the care of Tuckey’s sister. On June 9th, Arya, the oldest, is interviewed by a forensic specialist. Tuckey was soon arrested on four counts (2 counts of 1st-degree cruelty to children and 2 counts of aggravated battery) and was released days later; however, she was denied any communication with her husband Matt as both parents were still under investigation. Tuckey’s sister noticed a rash on Emma’s feet and took her, after DFCS recommendation, to CHOA, after which Arya and Emma were taken from their aunt and uncle (no explanation for this has been provided) and placed into foster care. For the next nine months the Hernandez’s while battling in court, would remain separated from their children with limited visitation.
CHILD ABUSE PEDIATRICIAN:
When looking closely at this case, many questions and concerns arise as to how the state carried out this investigation. The first impropriety is in the hospital when Dr. Messner diagnoses child abuse. Questions have arisen from the nature of this diagnosis. Was Emma given a fully comprehensive test to attempt to rule out physical abuse? When looking at the medical expert who reviewed Emma's injuries when asked by the defense, it causes one to question what Dr. Messner even did to determine abuse. Below are excerpts from the medical analysis that was read in an interview with Matt Hernandez on the Megan Fox Podcast:
Figure 1 (top left): Medical summary of what was tested and analyzed as well as a medical summary of Emma’s injuries.
Figure 2 (top right): analysis of tibia and fibula showing evidence of vitamin D deficiency and possible signs of neonatal rickets.
Figure 3 (final diagnostic): The medical examiner provides the final diagnosis that Emma has vitamin D deficiency caused by neonatal rickets.
The above findings of a medical expert outside of CHOA were presented to the judge, who still ruled in favor of Dr. Messner’s testimony; the state ignored all the medical evidence provided by a third party. The reason provided by the judge was that the medical examiner provided by the defense was not a pediatrician. This calls into question what the role of a child abuse pediatrician is; these doctors are tasked with identifying signs of physical and sexual abuse in children who are brought to the hospital. While social workers have always used doctors to receive medical analysis on the cases they work on, these relatively new child abuse-focused doctors (there are only 400 operating nationwide) are trained to identify signs of abuse absent of any social worker. This has led to controversy over the years as often the word of these doctors is taken as gospel by the state, and the power that these doctors wield is also concerning. If a child abuse pediatrician believes your child's injuries are abuse, your child will be taken by the state. I reached out to Dr. Messner's office for comment and was told he was unavailable; the only thing we can gather about Dr. Messner is this detailed review from WebMD written about him.
The Williams family Received Emma and Arya into their home and began noticing issues with Emma, from the shape of her head being slopped to her joints seeming misshapen. They have been advocates for the return of Emma and Arya to their parents. During my interview with the Williams family, they relayed to me that when they noticed issues with Emma’s body, Jennifer Williams reached out to the previous foster parent, who told her that Emma was a victim of abuse. Jennifer explained that the issue with the state failing to notify her of a possible abuse case is that it does not allow her to treat the child with the special care that is needed. Jennifer then emailed her concerns to Makenzie McCray, Emma, and Arya Hernandez’s case worker. She outlined in her email that the misshapen head and joints seem to be in line with other cases of bone diseases that she has seen in her career as not only a foster parent but also a baby photographer. Whether or not these concerns align with the defense’s medical examination, as well as what the parents have stated was seriously discussed at DFCS, is unknown. What we do know is that DFCS still does not recognize Emma as having any disorder. after the Williams family spoke out about this case in defense of the Hernandez Family, their foster home was shut down. Jennifer expressed fear of retaliation by Forsyth County for her comments and opinions that went against the state. The Williams family provided me with this statement regarding this case:
“Our family has enjoyed being a safe and loving home to at least 30 kids in foster care over the last 13 years. We are sad that our system has stopped us from being able to continue being a foster family simply because we chose to support the Hernandez family. We are beyond heartbroken that our system is not taking our concerns seriously and in turn they are destroying this family. DFCS stands for Department of Family and Children Services, it should bother every person in our state that neither families nor children are being treated with the respect deserved by our current state administration.”
As I researched this case getting the state employees and supervisors involved became impossible. All emails and calls were either ignored, or the individual I sought was not available. I then contacted a former social worker who did the work for over 15 years. The social worker wished to remain anonymous so they will be referred to as X.
X expressed initial frustration with the interview process, (in reference to the forensic interview with Arya), saying that “she (the forensic specialist) didn’t follow the protocol and the whole process was rushed.” Concerns were raised about the interviewer not establishing rapport with Arya, asking leading questions, and misrepresenting words.
“Sometimes we speak to them in a different context for them to understand and comprehend what we are saying, and I felt like the interviewer was talking to her like she was much older,” X stated.
X described the interview as more of an interrogation than a forensic interview. X explained that the interviewer needed to assess Arya's understanding of truth and lies, which is part of the protocol. Arya made some statements about her parents being mean and explained that the definition of mean to an adult is different than how a three-year-old would see it. X also stated they believed there was no indication of abuse and wouldn't have recommended removing Arya, saying: “In my professional opinion, I don't think I would have; I honestly don't think I would have removed Arya “because there was no indication that Arya was abused”.
I then asked X what the standards and protocols are for these cases. They explained that the forensic interview protocol is standardized across the United States, but X criticized this interview as particularly “sloppy.”
I asked for final thoughts regarding this case, to which X expressed disappointment in the state's handling of the case, stating that “barriers” were put up against the family, hindering the goal of reunification, which X expressed has always been the goal. Going further, X explained, “I think the state did a poor job. I don't think they advocated for this family in terms of what you typically do when children come into care, in terms of helping them reach reunification, and reunification is the goal. I feel based on what I viewed. They did everything in their power, the department to put up barriers for this family.”
X also said that medical neglect would be what they would look for. X claimed that because Emma had old injuries with no record of prior appointments, this made the parents "look guilty."
Explaining that the old injuries were what most likely started this whole case, X said that there was not enough evidence of physical abuse. When I referenced the medical report made by the defense medical expert, X stated, "Based on that, as a former social worker, you could use that information to decide on a course of action for the family (referring to the defense medical examiner report). Hopefully, that department will work out a plan with the parents to bring the children back home with a safety plan to ensure that medical appointments are maintained, scheduled, and attended.”
The mission of protecting children is an important job that involves many individuals. Through this process, it is often hard to split families, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently. But when this is done wrongfully, it becomes truly tragic as a family has become separated and endured emotional trauma for no reason. This case is still ongoing, and both Matt and Tuckey are still separated from their children. No plan for reunification has been made for this family. If you wish to support the Hernandez Family check out the following X accounts that provide updates to the case and are working closely with the family: @RealSpikeCohen, @YATPOfficial.
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