Wisconsin judge, jury, prosecutor dismiss child abuse cases sparked by Dr Barbara Knox
Before child abuse allegations capsized his life in 2016, Alfonzo Clayborne had his first high-paying job and a new apartment in Fitchburg that he and his new family were turning into a home. He had bought himself and his girlfriend each a car.
Life at 22 was becoming more and more “stable”, he said.
It all disappeared one day in June when he found his 3 month old son unconscious in his crib. He called the baby’s mother. She came home from work and together they called 9-1-1.
An ambulance took her and the baby to the hospital. Clayborne followed him in his car. But once she arrived, staff at the American Family Children’s Hospital forbade her from reuniting with her family.
The hospital’s child protection team told authorities the baby had a brain hemorrhage and a broken left leg. A medical assistant told police other injuries were possible but not yet confirmed, according to the criminal complaint.
Authorities have focused on Clayborne. A police officer and a child welfare worker interrogated him. The child protection worker was the first to tell her about her son’s condition.
“They said he had a broken leg or a broken limb, bruised ribs and a fractured skull,” recalls Clayborne. “And I was like, ‘There’s no way.'”
The CPS employee asked him if he hit the baby, he said, and offered scenarios suggesting that Clayborne harmed the child out of frustration. They gave him a difficult choice: either his girlfriend had hurt the baby, or he had. Clayborne replied, “It was me.”
âThe situation was overwhelming and I was just trying to end it. I didn’t know I would end up being charged,â he said.
The baby left the hospital with a cast on his leg for a break he turned out never to have had.
Seven days later, Clayborne left the police station with an ankle monitor and a felony charge of reckless first degree injury – later dropped after experts reached conclusions dramatically different from Knox’s.
Knox once said she never made a mistake in diagnosing child abuse. But Clayborne’s case is one of many examined by Wisconsin Watch in which Knox’s child abuse diagnoses led to charges that the criminal justice system ultimately dismissed. Wisconsin Watch previously reported the experiences of seven groups of parents who were investigated – but not charged – for child abuse when there was none.
In two other cases, caregivers are serving jail time in cases initiated by Knox.
Jennifer Hancock of Verona is serving a 13-year sentence for the death of a child in her care. She appealed her case to the Wisconsin Court of Appeal.
Madison’s Joshua Gehde is serving a 20-year sentence after his girlfriend’s toddler died while Gehde looked after her. Gehde has appealed unsuccessfully and is considering another appeal.
Families and individuals showed up to tell their stories after a Wisconsin Watch Survey 2020 showed Knox mistakenly suspected a couple from Mount Horeb of harming their 9-month-old son.
UW suspended Knox in 2019 for allegedly bullying his colleagues. She left that year to become the medical director of Alaska CARES, a statewide forensic pedophilia clinic. Knox was reportedly put on leave from the Anchorage facility, which has seen a mass exodus of staff who say Knox bullied them and made unwarranted allegations of child abuse, according to a joint Wisconsin Watch / Anchorage Daily News investigation.
Knox did not respond to several requests for interviews, phone calls and a list of findings sent by email.
“I was robbed and kidnapped”
A week after Clayborne was fitted with an ankle monitor, a pediatric orthopedist told the baby’s mother that her son had never had a fracture, but “a normal variant of the distal femur,” according to a court document. .
Despite this observation, the momentum of the criminal prosecution snowballed.
While Clayborne’s attorney Bill Jones tried unsuccessfully for months to get Knox’s medical report from the prosecution or whether it had been prepared, Clayborne was arrested again after being found with marijuana. The arrest violated the terms of his bail on the child abuse charge that was later found to be false, and Clayborne spent the next seven weeks in Dane County Jail charged with one count of additional charge, jumping on bail for felony.
While in detention, Clayborne lost his job, his car and was evicted from his new apartment. And he missed important milestones in his son’s life, like his first Christmas.
“When I went to jail it didn’t work. When I got out of jail he was talking and walking“Clayborne said.” I felt like I was kidnapped, basically. I was robbed and kidnapped. My first high paying job, doing good, getting raises. (Then) it happens. “
At Jones’ request, pediatric neurologist Dr Joseph Scheller examined the case of Clayborne’s son and determined that a seizure triggered by irritation to the baby’s brain tissue caused the baby to lethargy on the day of the incident.
“Infants who are victims of abusive head trauma typically present with external injuries, fractures, neck injuries, retinal hemorrhage, and brain damage,” Scheller wrote in her report. “(This child) had none of that.”
The new medical reports prompted Dane County Assistant District Attorney Rachel Sattler in May 2017 – nearly a year after Clayborne’s arrest – to file a complaint motion to dismiss the case. But by then, Clayborne’s stable life had already shattered. He is still emerging from under the wreckage.
Clayborne struggles to find new accommodation with an eviction on his record. He now spends as much time as he can with his healthy 5-year-old son, who is doing well in school and recently won an award for playing football.
Jones said doctors and authorities quickly made assumptions about his client. He called the episode a “nightmare” for Clayborne.
“The problem is, the medical evidence doesn’t support any of this. They kind of ignored it,” Jones said. “They went with ‘Angry young parent loses his temper and hurts his child.'”
Falling down the stairs leads to charges
Clayborne isn’t the only person whose life has been turned upside down after being falsely accused of child abuse as a result of Knox’s assessments.
In Jefferson County, a judge ruled a charge so false it ended the trial before the defense even presented its case.
In 2016, a Lake Mills babysitter fell down the stairs while holding a 4 month old baby. The baby received a blow to the head, which briefly knocked him unconscious, while the caregiver reportedly sustained minor injuries. After scans showed the child had brain bleeds and eye hemorrhages, Knox said it was abusive head trauma, and the woman was charged with recklessly causing damage to the baby.
But the 2018 Jefferson County Circuit Court trial ended abruptly after the prosecution presented its arguments, including Knox’s testimony that the injuries were intentionally inflicted and not caused by a fall.
The defense decided to drop the case, citing a lack of evidence, and Judge Jennifer Weston agreed. Weston found the state had not shown how the caregiver’s conduct caused the injuries – or how reckless she was.
Scheller was seated in the courthouse waiting room, ready to testify for the defense when the trial was halted. He recalled the biker group dedicated to combating child abuse who were present to support the charge. The bikers let out an “uproar” of protest after the judge dismissed the case, he said.
âAnything can happen while rolling (down the stairs),â Scheller said of the charge. “It was so ridiculous.”
The caregiver declined to speak to Wisconsin Watch, citing the stigma, bullying and public scrutiny she continues to face after being falsely labeled a child molester. She asked not to be named.
The guardian acquitted
Most recently, on November 11, a Dane County jury Stoughton guardian Kathryn Campbell acquitted of reckless child abuse causing injury after only two hours of deliberation. Knox triggered the criminal indictment in 2017 when she told authorities the 4-month-old in Campbell’s care was suffering from “overt child abuse.”
Scheller, testifying for the defense, said the child, who is now a healthy 4-year-old, had a condition that predisposed her to bleeding around the brain.
Knox was slated to be a “key witness” in the Campbell trial, but the prosecution removed his name from the witness list and Judge Susan Crawford ordered both parties to refrain from mentioning his findings.
Scheller specializes in abusive head trauma cases and has reviewed the records in over 500 cases and testified in over 250 of them. He does not take care of cases he suspects of child abuse.
Nationally, at least 25 people convicted of abusive head injury or its sub-category, shaken baby syndrome, have been cleared since 1992 – five of them in 2021 alone, according to The National Register of Exemptions. One of the most publicized cases involved Audrey edmunds, a Waunakee caregiver and mother of three who served 12 years on a shaken baby conviction which the State Court of Appeal overturned in 2008.
Scheller said in his experience that when abused pediatricians get it wrong, there is no accountability.
âYou have the power to inflict so much damage on an innocent person,â he said. “You just have to be very careful with this power.”
The Investigative Journalism Fund provided financial support for this story. Wisconsin Watch editor-in-chief Dee J. Hall contributed to this story. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Any works created, published, published or broadcast by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.