An editing mistake at the Sun-Sentinel on a story about a doctor losing his license for not reporting a pregnant 12-year-old upset many
It was the hot news of the day on the Web's largest physician discussion board Thursday. Shocked doctors commiserated over the latest regulation to come down the pike: The state of Florida mandates that they report all minors under 16 years old who are engaged in sexual activity, announced the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and NBC Miami. A southern Florida obstetrician saw his license suspended by his state's board on Saturday because he failed to report a pregnant 12-year-old. The case brought against him cited a state law requiring "doctors to automatically report cases of sex involving children under 16," according to the Sun-Sentinel.
NBC Miami's dispatch credited the local paper for getting the story first: "Dr. Michael Benjamin faces professional disciplinary action by the Florida Department of Health for allegedly violating a law that requires physicians to automatically report instances of sex involving patients under the age of 16, according to the Sun-Sentinel."
All across the country health-care providers are required to report cases of suspected child abuse, but reporting consensual sex among minors raises a whole thicket of trouble, as the doctors online pointed out.
As one family medicine doctor lamented, "[The medical board] must be the moralistic over the hill ... elderly to think that such a thing does not take place in this world.... And think of any doctor who dares to report all these people? What is his practice going to be like then? This is a thankless profession, damned if you do and damned if you don't."
A passionate pediatrician wrote: "If my patients knew that I was going to call [Child Protective Services] if they told me they were having sex, they would stop telling me. They would also avoid seeking prenatal care. Laws like this are why teens have babies in bathrooms and abandon them there. 'Why didn't they tell anyone,' the press asks. This is why."
Dr. Benjamin believed the false story his patient and her mother fed him, reports say. They told him that another minor her age was the father. Thinking no abuse had occurred, he proceeded to perform the abortion they sought.
"What this judgement does is say that you not only have to be a doctor, but you need to be a private investigator and somehow collaborate every story that your patients tell you while seeing 30 patients a day," another family medicine doctor chimed in.
While a formal state investigation in every instance where health-care providers suspect a child under 16 has had a sexual encounter may pick up more cases of abuse than a clinician is capable of detecting on her own, I think most states have duty to report laws tagged to suspected abuse rather than age out of concern for the public health.
If this law is enforced, Florida's children will clam up pretty quickly once they hear what happens once they've shared their private lives with a doctor.
I decided I was on to something and would have get to the bottom of this crazy law from a state that earned its own tag on Fark.com. After all, it required a federal court injunction to protect the state's pediatricians from a new Florida law that threatened diligent doctors who cared enough to ask parents about gun safety in the home. Who knows what other insanities lie waiting in Florida's legal code? While pestering local law professors and medical societies I searched Florida's child abuse statutes on my own, where I simply couldn't find legislators demanding to know about the sexual activity of all the state's minors.
So I rang up the reporter behind the original story, Bob LaMendola. Nice guy. A straight shooter. Turns out he or his editor left out one rather important word. His copy should have read that doctors are automatically required to report cases of "sex abuse involving children under 16."
Crisis averted. A simple typo blown out of proportion. Local newspapers do still have an impact (just ask NBC Miami). Most importantly, Florida's kids will continue to get their health care unburdened with fears that government interrogators will track them down.
But obstetricians who see children six-months pregnant accompanied by mothers who say they didn't notice will have to think twice about accepting the stories offered. As it turns out, this particular preadolescent was raped by the mother's boyfriend, who has since been prosecuted and is serving a 15-year sentence. If health-care providers are to err, we should do so on the side of child protection, not practice protection.