RICHLAND COUNTY, SC
When hospital staffers performed medical scans on the infant twin boys, they found multiple fractures in their ribs. One also had a mild skull fracture.
A doctor who reviewed their scans but never actually saw the babies, determined they likely had been abused.
That set into motion a three-year ordeal that led to their father, Michael Livingston, making a false confession and being jailed, the separation of the family, a medical mystery and, most recently, the quest to clear the Livingston name through a lawsuit filed June 22.
“We were a perfectly happy family,” the Livingstons’ then-9-year-old daughter pleads to her father in a wrenching telephone message while the family had been split apart. “And now I’m at some stranger’s house. And I don’t even know her.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Hannah Livingston said, sobbing during an audio recording of the conversation provided to The State newspaper by Columbia attorney Eric Bland, who filed the lawsuit. “And why did this happen? Why? Why? I love you so much. I wish we could see each other right now. I need you. And I need you now.”
To prove his innocence, the then-Fort Jackson anesthetist scoured for months through medical research for the answer that doctors, child-welfare caseworkers and Richland County deputies had missed.
Livingston knew he had not injured his boys, according to the lawsuit filed in Richland County court, though the family now lives in the state of Washington. He knew neither his wife nor Hannah had hurt them, either.
But the idea of detectives possibly turning their focus on to his wife as the abuser was too much. So, he told them in September 2013 that perhaps he had played a little too roughly with the twins, Bland said.
Livingston figured the rest of his family would go home from the hospital once he confessed – even if it was without him. It turned out that was the last night he’d see his children for two years.
A long search for answers
During that time, a team of defense lawyers and medical experts searched for an explanation for the boys’ fractures. They brainstormed ideas until they settled on the possibility that their mother, Heather Livingston, might have a rare genetic disorder that leads to brittle bones.
Sheriff’s detectives and caseworkers did not heed the new medical evidence and persisted with their cases, the suit aimed at the doctor who determined abuse, the Sheriff’s Department and the state Department of Social Services states.
“It was a nightmare for them,” their criminal lawyer, Jack Swerling, said Friday. “They went through hell.”
The Livingstons are suing for violation of their civil rights, defamation, malicious prosecution and conspiracy.
Bland and Ronald Richter represent the Livingstons in the suit. Bland said he doesn’t fault the doctor for reporting that she suspected child abuse when the injuries were first discovered. But after that came a series of failures that snowballed into the arrest of Michael Livingston, Bland said.
“This case is about abuse of power; abuse of authority,” Bland said Friday. “And my clients were just unwilling victims of it.”
Michael Livingston was an officer in the Army who worked at then-Moncrief Army Hospital as a nurse anesthetist when his wife gave birth to twins Jacson and Joseph in July 2013.
Heather Livingston, a counselor at an elementary school, took Jacson to a hospital Sept. 1, 2013, after noticing a bump on the back of the 5-week-old’s head. She told doctors Jacson had arched his back twice in two days, bumping his head lightly against an infant bathtub and against his father’s knee, according to the lawsuit.
A CT scan of Jacson revealed a “mild skull fracture.” A full body scan revealed multiple rib fractures.
The doctor who reviewed the case reported it to law enforcement and child protective services. The doctor told authorities that she believed the injuries were caused by “human hands,” the lawsuit states.
The caseworker already was at the hospital when Michael Livingston arrived with Hannah and Joseph. The caseworker told them Jacson’s injuries could not be attributed to striking his head when he arched his back, the lawsuit states. The child-protection worker accused Heather and Michael Livingston, or Hannah, of causing the boys’ injuries.
Meanwhile, the hospital staffers asked permission to evaluate Joseph. A scan revealed that he, too, had multiple rib injuries.
The Livingstons were taken to Sheriff’s Department headquarters. They were not allowed to say goodbye to Hannah, were escorted out in handcuffs and placed in the back seat of a patrol car, according to the suit.
Textbook police work would follow.
Investigators separated the couple. Heather Livingston was accused of injuring her twin boys, because authorities told her that “nine times out of 10, it is the mother,” the lawsuit states. Investigators said abuse usually happens when a mother gets frustrated by her inability to quiet a baby. They also said that when a mother is proven guilty of abusing her children, the father often is found guilty of covering up for the wife.
No one had read the Livingstons their rights, according to the lawsuit and a judge’s order in the criminal case. When Heather Livingston refused to admit any wrongdoing or to implicate her husband, investigators focused on Michael Livingston.
After repeatedly being accused of hurting his sons, Michael Livingston asked for a lawyer, the suit states. Investigators wouldn’t give him back his mobile phone to look up the number of the only attorney he knew in town.
Investigators used an interrogation technique in which they talk about building the case in front of a suspect in hopes of triggering a confession, the judge wrote in the Dec. 29, 2016, order, according to the suit. The investigators discussed questioning Heather Livingston for several days, including subjecting her to a polygraph test and questioning Hannah.
What happened next is what any father in that situation would do, Swerling and Bland said. Michael Livingston made a false confession in hopes that his children would be allowed to stay with his wife.
“It’s not unusual given the condition that someone is in when they give those statements,” said Swerling of what he calls a false confession. “They are frightened. People are going to say what they need to do to protect their family.”
The confession, however, had the opposite result. All three children were taken away from the Livingstons.
During his bond hearing, Michael Livingston was accused of nearly killing his twins, according to the lawsuit. Hannah and the boys also were separated while in state custody.
The father was ordered not to have contact with his children. He could not return gut-wrenching phone calls from scared and confused Hannah.
Because of the no-contact order, Michael Livingston was forced to move out of his home and in with a friend who let him sleep on his couch. He was not allowed to return to his medical duties and was relegated to desk work.
Meanwhile, child-protection caseworkers threatened to oppose reunification of the family unless Heather Livingston pleaded guilty to neglect. She refused.
To appease caseworkers, she told them she would divorce her husband in hopes of regaining custody of the children, according to the lawsuit.
By the summer of 2014 – after months of searching for answers that could explain the injuries – a specialist suggested the twins’ injuries were healing fractures that were likely caused during childbirth. The expert recommended that Heather Livingston be tested for a rare hereditary disorder, known as brittle bones. The test proved positive.
That October, an expert in bone health diagnosed the twins as suffering from the same congenital disorder as their mother. Though the findings were shared with caseworkers and sheriff’s investigators, neither agency relented.
In May 2015, however, DSS and the Livingstons entered an agreement to end DSS’ involvement. In November of that year, Michael Livingston was allowed to return home. There was never any finding of abuse or neglect against the Livingstons, according to the lawsuit. A message left with the Department of Social Services spokeswoman was not returned by the time this article published.
But the nightmare was not over yet. Michael Livingston’s criminal case was still pending.
Swerling’s team moved to have Michael Livingston’s confession suppressed from the case. They argued that Michael Livingston was pressured into giving a false statement. Circuit Court Judge Robert Hood sided with them in the December 2016 order. The case was dismissed in January of this year, Swerling said.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott declined to comment on specifics of the case for this story, stating “lawsuits will be determined in a court of law, not in a press release from a defense attorney.”
Bland said his clients want someone to be held accountable.
“Somebody should have slowed the process down,” Bland said. “The real victims here, in addition to their parents, are the children. The worst victim was the 9-year-old daughter.”
“They had to go through forced family counseling during this about child abuse when there was no child abuse,” Bland said. “And now they need family counseling because of the problem.”