A world famous scientist now working as an expert witness in court rooms around the world is using a theory he developed to disprove claims of non accidental injury in babies and children going through child protection proceedings.

Non accidental injuries, unlike accidental injuries, are deliberately inflicted by another person, and can include physical damage to children like bruises, burns, or fractures. These injuries are often considered to be synonymous with child abuse.

Dr Michael Holick is the Director of the Bone Health Care Clinic at Boston University Medical Center, and the leading authority on Vitamin D. In the last seven years, Dr Holick says he has consulted or testified as an expert witness in over 300 child-abuse cases in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Canada. And in almost every case, he has diagnosed the child in question with a rare genetic disorder called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

Considered to be one of the most prominent and sought-after expert witnesses in the US for the defense in child-abuse cases, Holick told The New Yorker that around 50% of the parents he helps have a positive experience, such as getting their children back or having abuse charges dismissed. Sometimes he claims a much higher success rate. “Before I started testifying in these court cases on behalf of the family 100% of these cases had been won by the prosecution…. Now that I am testifying on behalf of the family 90% of the cases have been won by the parents and their children have been returned to them without further incident.”

Holick says children with EDS have weaker bones which can fracture much more easily. He also believes that, “thousands, if not tens of thousands,” of parents around the world have been wrongly accused of fracturing their children’s bones. When he doesn’t diagnose a child with EDS, he concludes that the bone fractures are down to rickets or a Vitamin D deficiency. Holick also believes that in every case he has come across, not one child had been subjected to abuse. Crucially, he also says that parents who approach him for help have never tried to fake an illness in their children in order to avoid prosecution.

Not everyone thinks Holick is right. The National Institutes of Health estimates that EDS affects 0.02% of the population worldwide, at most, and so Holick’s near 100% diagnosis rate for the condition does not sit well within that mathematical probability of chance. That Holick often does not see the children he is diagnosing, choosing to attribute conditions over the phone instead, also gives his critics more leverage to query the accuracy of his findings.

A 2008 case Holick worked on, in which he diagnosed a baby who had sustained 26 fractures, with EDS, later led to the father being sentenced to 24 years in prison. Holick maintains that the sheer volume of fractures could not have been caused by external trauma without resulting in the baby’s death. The heightened levels of flexibility in small children too, make it much harder to diagnose EDS, and almost impossible to diagnose children under the age of five, according to other experts in the field.

There are four studies which Holick uses to support his conclusions, and while the authors of those studies say his approach is not backed by published scientific research, they are not entirely dismissive of his theory. Cristina Eller Vainicher, who is the lead author of one of the paper’s that Holick often references, told The New Yorker that “she can’t entirely discount his thesis, because some studies have suggested that a subset of EDS patients do experience fragility fractures during childhood. Still, she wrote in an e-mail, “This does not mean that we could state all children with hypermobile EDS are at high risk of fractures.””

The current scientific gaps in Holick’s theory have not prevented him from being deeply influential in non accidental injury cases, which is most likely down to his formidable reputation as the man who discovered the active form of Vitamin D, resulting in treatments for bone disease in kidney patients and for psoriasis. He went on to discover that orange juice helped the body absorb Vitamin D, and was invited to consult for NASA, who asked him to examine bone loss in space. That he was called a “legend” at the last annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists perhaps sums up his powerhouse status in America.

BAILII offers three public judgments in which Holick has been referenced, either as a consultant to the case or because of his 2017 research paper, entitled, “Multiple fractures in infants who have Ehlers-Danlos/hypermobility syndrome and or vitamin D deficiency: A case series of 72 infants whose parents were accused of child abuse and neglect.”

All the cases have been heard in family courts, with the first taking place in Northern Ireland at the end of last year: A Health and Social Care Trust v A Mother and A Father (In the matter of two children: Non-accidental Injury: Causation).

The second case published lists a hearing at the Family Court in East London in March: A, Re [2018] EWFC B34 (16 March 2018).

The final case mentioned, ES (A Child), Re [2017] EWFC B96 (03 November 2017), was heard in the Family Court at Milton Keynes.

His views don’t appear to be well received by judges in the above cases, with one judge even going so far as to say that Holick was unable to produce evidence of any prior cases he assisted on.

You can access Dr Holick’s research papers here, and follow him on Twitter @VitaminD_Holick and Facebook at  DrMHolick.

Dr Holick can also be contacted via his website (scroll down to the bottom to access the form) or emailed at mfholick@bu.edu.

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Dr Michael Holick. Image Credit: Boston University.