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How do I report concerns about my child's pediatrician?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

I had previous feelings of uneasiness with my children's primary care provider. I even tried changing providers, but had to bring my children in for their four year well-visit. I noticed odd behavior, and having experienced abuse to my child from a family member before, I am aware of grooming. I made it known that I was completely present and the doctor seemed nervous and backed off. I plan on filing a grievance and calling the hotline for the medical group. Not sure how to address it other than explain what has happened.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

Thank you for reaching out to us about this. While it may be intimidating to think about taking action when you're concerned about a pediatrician's behaviors, it is actually very similar to taking action when you're worried about another adult's behaviors towards a child. In this email we will talk about how to file a grievance as well as other important action steps like checking in with your child and safety planning. 

Trusting Your Intuition
First, it is great that you're trusting your gut. It can be all too easy for any person to feel nervous around a professional adult, and that can be something unsafe individuals bank on; their power and privilege may allow them to cross boundaries in ways that are not safe, but it's great you stood your ground and re-stated your expectations about your presence during this appointment. Not only did you model something really important for your child in this moment, but this shows this pediatrician that you are an involved, caring adult who is willing to speak up in uncomfortable situations when you feel like someone is crossing a line. 

Identifying Unsafe Behaviors
I also hear that it seems like there have been other behaviors that this pediatrician may have been doing with or around your child that's made you uneasy. You absolutely have unique insights as a parent of a child who experienced sexual abuse, and it's very possible you may be picking up on subtle cues that this adult is crossing boundaries. I want you to take a look at these Signs an Adult is At-Risk to Harm a Child and Behaviors to Watch for When Adults are with Children as it may help you to find words for what you may be noticing. Not every person who displays one of these behaviors has malicious intent with a child, but it's always a good idea to have a conversation when we're seeing behaviors that make us worry or have questions. You can even consider speaking with any other parent you know who may also see this same doctor, as often times other people may also have had similar concerns - but may not know what to do with what they've seen. Having allies can be a great resource as you think about next steps.

Following Up With The Doctor
You've already talked to this doctor, and you're welcome to follow up again with them now that you can do so on your own terms and without your child's presence. What we know from parents who later find out that their pediatricians were abusive to their children is that social pressure can play a role in stopping parents from speaking up. And I'm not saying that this individual plans to commit harm, but although it can be uncomfortable to have this kind of conversation, it can also be really important in setting strong, safe limits. It can be hard to share something that you may be concerned will hurt someone's feelings, that may make you feel like an overprotective adult or that you worry is offensive to the other person, so do take the time to choose your words carefully, practice what you'd like to say and even consider having another person along for support. This talk doesn't need to involve accusations or judgements; this is why we talk about focusing on behaviors rather than guessing at intentions. We have a guidebook that outlines ways adults can have a conversation with another adult who is crossing boundaries around children called Let's Talk if you choose to share your concerns again with this doctor.  

Filing Complaints
You can also choose to file a complaint with whomever employs this doctor and their licensing board. Generally, to file a grievance, you can call the front desk of their office and let the receptionist know you'd like to file a complaint against this specific doctor, and request that your child be transferred to a different person's care. It could be that they take your complaint over the phone or ask you to fill out a document online or in person. As for their licensing board, use the acronym that is after their name (for example, NP) to look up your state's licensing agency for that individual. You can also ask the receptionist at the office about what agency this doctor is licensed by. You can use the warning sign tip sheets above to help you phrase what you witnessed specifically, and please do consider encouraging any other parent who has had a similar experience to do the same thing: there is power in numbers. 

Learning More About Responding to Professional Adults Who Are Crossing Boundaries
We also did a webinar on a very similar (though not the same) topic of concerns about a professional adult's behaviors, called Dear Stop It Now! Helpline, My daughter says her teacher is creepy: With frequent news stories describing abusive behavior from adults in youth-serving institutions or practices, this webinar brings real-life questions from parents and other caring adults concerned with warning sign behaviors in professionals who work with children, such as a coach, faith leader or school employee. Policies and procedures should be required in every youth serving organization, but even when they are provided to both staff and guardians, there is still uncertainty about how to speak up and take action before a child is harmed. 

Safety Planning
This incident can also be a great jumping-off point with your children. You can remind them about the rules about touch and privacy and safe boundaries in your household - what we call a Family Safety Plan. And you can also talk to them about what to do if anyone is ever making them uncomfortable - and that includes professionals, like a doctor, or a coach or their teacher; they should speak with an adult who they trust (whom do they trust? Help them brainstorm at least 3 people), and that they're also always allowed to say no to any touch that makes them feel uncomfortable. Emphasize listening to their own body and feelings, for example that funny feeling in your stomach when something is strange or confusing. Let your child know that when they're in a medical appointment, a doctor should always explain to them what they're doing before they're doing it (and you can also prompt any doctor or nurse in this way if they fail to do so, and remind them about your child's bodily autonomy if they, for example, attempt to grab their arm for their blood pressure without asking first) and that you'll always be in the examining room until they're older and they'd like privacy. 

You mention that your child was previously abused by a family member, and I'm so sorry to hear that. How is your child doing now? Do they have any and all resources they need to recover? Not every child who experienced sexual abuse requires therapy, but if you do notice any Warning Signs in their behavior, even if time has passed from the incident, then it would be a good idea to involve a therapist who is specialized in working with children who have experienced sexual abuse as children. This tip sheet is to help parents identify concerns when they are not sure if their child has been abused, but I think the behaviors noted may still be helpful in determining whether a child who absolutely did experience abuse needs professional help and support. Below are some additional resources.

Finally, I want to talk about you. You did such a fantastic job of speaking up to your child's doctor in the moment, and I really want to commend you for that as I know it's not easy. You shouldn't need to deal with all of this alone either, and I am curious what your support network looks like. I do hope that you have people you trust - and that you feel comfortable reaching out to them for support if you need it. I also want to include our resource guide specifically for Parents of Children Who Have Experienced Sexual Abuse as this can be a unique way you connect with other people who have been where you have, and a place to share your story and ask for support. Do check-in with yourself and give yourself permission to find a therapist you can share your feelings with too, if you feel like that would be helpful.  

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: February 1st, 2021