Dr. Michelle Clayton says she has found her niche as a child-abuse pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk.
She describes the work as “a fusion of medicine, law, forensic science and social work. … I’m blessed doing what I really love every day.”
She helps injured children talk about being abused and develops clinical evidence of abuse so that they can be protected and the abuser prosecuted.
She advises child protective service workers and police on whether the injuries are consistent with an accident or reflect a deliberate injury.
She trains forensic nurse examiners on what to look for when sexual assault is suspected and what tests to perform to verify or disprove the suspicion.
And she prepares children to testify in cases of physical and sexual abuse and often provides the expert medical testimony in prosecutions of abusers in Hampton Roads.
Jane Hollingsworth, the executive director of the child abuse program at the hospital, says the area “has benefited greatly from her work, her compassion and her dedication.”
The 2010 class of Influential Women of Virginia recognized those attributes earlier this month when it selected Clayton as the Influential Woman of the Year.
Clayton’s path to that honor wasn’t as direct as she had in mind when she entered Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges with a goal of becoming a doctor.
Her undergraduate grades were not as high as she had hoped they would be – not high enough that she even applied to medical school after receiving her degree in psychology.
She worked at a psychology lab at Harvard Medical School before returning to her home town to attend the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
Finally, about two-thirds of the way through her master’s program, she applied to Pitt’s medical school and was accepted.
Her first expectation was that her specialty would be obstetrics and gynecology. But in her medical school rotation through the various clinical fields, she says she found that “what I liked best was the babies. I was just drawn to the children. They’re so resilient and so full of courage and hope. It’s incredible to work with them.”
She arrived at King’s Daughters for her residency “determined that I was done with formal training” and eager to pursue a general pediatric practice.
But she became fascinated with forensic pediatrics and wanted to pursue the specialty even though it would require further training.
She had married, and her husband was reluctant to leave the area, so she joined a pediatric practice in a move that appeared at first to be an abandonment of her goal of becoming a child-abuse specialist.
Fortunately, however, the job at the practice was considered full-time but required less than 40 hours a week. That allowed her supervisor at King’s Daughters to create a fellowship for her so that she could work around the job and become one of the few board-certified child abuse pediatricians in the state.
She joined the King’s Daughters staff full-time after completing the fellowship. She is the medical director of the pediatric forensic nurse examiner program there and is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Hollingsworth said, “She’s so gentle and you can just tell how much she loves children.”
On the other hand, “When she needs to be, she can be quite assertive,” Hollingsworth said. “She will move immediately to do what is necessary to protect a child.”
Clayton is popular with detectives, prosecutors, CPS workers and parents, Hollingsworth said.
She has a solid reputation as an expert witness in child abuse trials, Hollingsworth said. “She has really clear analogies to explain her point and is just really talented in that area.”
Although child abuse cases can be stressful and reflect the worst in society, Hollingsworth said Clayton “stays focused on the positive and takes on more and more,” teaching seminars on preventing child abuse in addition to training those who work in the field.
Clayton said she has found few of those who abuse children physically are inherently evil. Much more often, they are normally caring persons who lose control, she said.
Sexual abuse cases can be much more difficult because young children can’t talk about it, and frequently there is no physical evidence for abuse of older children. Often her testimony is that the absence of a physical injury doesn’t mean that there is an absence of abuse.
That’s especially true in the case of inappropriate touching, which can leave emotional rather than physical scars.
Clayton said the birth of her son, now six, changed her “entire perspective on the world.”
Before, “I never understood how people can cause harm to a child.”
Motherhood has reinforced her understanding that “parenting is a very frustrating job,” she said, but when it comes to causing physical harm to a child, “I understand it even less.”