Do Racial Stereotypes Contribute to Medical Misdiagnosis of Child Abuse?

Investigating Tunnel Vision in the Emergency Room


  • Cynthia J. Najdowski University at Albany, SUNY
  • Kimberly M. Bernstein University at Albany, SUNY
  • Katherine S. Wahrer University at Albany, SUNY



shaken baby syndrome, wrongful convictions, racial bias, medical misdiagnosis, child abuse


Despite growing recognition that misdiagnoses of child abuse can lead to wrongful convictions, little empirical work has examined how the medical community may contribute to these errors. Previous research has documented the existence and content of stereotypes that associate race with child abuse. The current study examines whether emergency medical professionals rely on this stereotype to fill in gaps in ambiguous cases involving Black children, thereby increasing the potential for misdiagnoses of child abuse. Specifically, we tested whether the race-abuse stereotype led participants to attend to more abuse-related details than infection-related details when an infant patient was Black versus White. We also tested whether this heuristic decision-making would be affected by contextual case facts; specifically, we examined whether race bias would be exacerbated or mitigated by a family’s involvement with child protective services (CPS). Results showed that participants did exhibit some biased information processing in response to the experimental manipulations. Even so, the race-abuse stereotype and heuristic decision-making did not cause participants to diagnose a Black infant patient with abuse more often than a White infant patient, regardless of his family’s involvement with CPS. These findings help illuminate how race may lead to different outcomes in cases of potential child abuse, while also demonstrating potential pathways through which racial disparities in misdiagnosis of abuse and subsequent wrongful convictions can be prevented.

Author Biographies

Cynthia J. Najdowski, University at Albany, SUNY

Cynthia Najdowski is an Associate Professor in the University at Albany’s Department of Psychology. She uses psychological theory to understand criminal justice and legal issues concerning vulnerable and victimized populations. Her research has been published in leading journals in her field and recognized with several nationally competitive awards. 

Kimberly M. Bernstein, University at Albany, SUNY

Kimberly M. Bernstein is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, SUNY. She has served as the lab manager and a graduate research assistant for the Psychological Understandings of Legal Systems Encounters (PULSE) Lab at UAlbany since 2015, studying topics related to criminal and constitutional law, psychology and law, and miscarriages of justice. Her recent work has been published in Child Abuse & Neglect and Monitor on Psychology, and presented at the annual conferences for the American Psychology-Law Society and the American Society of Criminology.

Katherine S. Wahrer, University at Albany, SUNY

Katherine S. Wahrer is a Ph.D. student at the University at Albany's School of Criminal Justice. Her current research involves understanding the impact of dehumanizing and disgust-eliciting language on social media, specifically in regards to vulnerable populations such as immigrants.




How to Cite

Najdowski, C. J., Bernstein, K. M., & Wahrer, K. S. (2020). Do Racial Stereotypes Contribute to Medical Misdiagnosis of Child Abuse? : Investigating Tunnel Vision in the Emergency Room. The Wrongful Conviction Law Review, 1(2), 153–180.