As he retires today from a 40-year career in pediatric health care, Dr. Daryl Steiner will walk out the door with the satisfaction of knowing he has made a difference in the lives of our community’s most vulnerable children.
He began his career as a private practice pediatrician but ended up as one of the nation’s most respected experts in child abuse evaluation and treatment.
Dr. Steiner began working in Akron Children’s Emergency Department in 1987 and soon noticed that the care of children suspected of physical or sexual abuse could be improved. The exams were done by physicians on a rotating schedule and the hustle and bustle of the ED environment did not give these children the privacy and calm environment he thought they deserved. So the CARE (Children At Risk Evaluation) Center was created in an area of the ED that was essentially a large closet.
Dr. Steiner, who was named the center’s director in 1991, formed a tight-knit staff, including nurse Gail Graise and nurse practitioner Donna Abbott, who have been with him all these years.
“The best thing I did was hire good people,” said Dr. Steiner. “This has been a team effort and the hospital administration has supported my work every step of the way.”
The decades since Dr. Steiner took the helm of the CARE Center have paralleled both Akron Children’s regional growth and the national recognition of child abuse evaluation as a subspecialty in pediatric medicine.
From 2002 to 2008, Akron Children’s began to expand and partner with child advocacy centers to offer on-site child abuse evaluations in Stark, Portage, Wayne, Tuscarawas, Medina, Mahoning, Columbiana and Trumbull counties.
In 2005, the CARE Center became an accredited Child Advocacy Center by the National Children’s Alliance, and, in 2007, child abuse pediatrics became a certified subspecialty of the American Board of Pediatrics.
More so than his peers in other pediatric disciplines, Dr. Steiner spent a good part of his time with law enforcement and child protective service agencies and in courtrooms.
“Child abuse is a concern looking for a diagnosis and treatment that also has legal implications. It’s a crime,” he said. “Ohio statute mandates that when we have a suspicion, we must report it. So that’s where we become a little different than everyone else because our evaluations include that intersection with law enforcement and children’s services.”
An expert and accurate diagnosis is important in all cases because it is equally invasive and traumatic to subject a child and family to child protective services and law enforcement if the injuries were not caused by abuse.
While Dr. Steiner believes the number child abuse cases have remained steady over the course of his career, there is greater awareness of the problem.
“The public is more aware,” he said. “Child abuse has come out of the shadows.”
Mandatory reporting laws, refinement in diagnostic criteria, the greater emphasis on mental health treatment, and technology – a telemedicine program has allowed Dr. Steiner to extend his expertise to a wider geographic area – have all contributed gains in child abuse prevention, evaluation and treatment.
It’s a tough job
Of course, a common question Dr. Steiner gets is, “How do you do it?”
“If I am at a cocktail party, and I explain what I do, the conversation usually just stops,” he said. “Oh, that must be difficult … Did you see the Cavs game last night?”
Dr. Steiner said he learned to compartmentalize his difficult work and remain optimistic.
“Every day, kids make me laugh,” he said.
And he set the example for others.
“I have had the true privilege to work by his side on some of my most distressing cases,” said Lori Dente, a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit social worker. “His expertise and sense of humor often saw me through. I will greatly miss him being the one by my side on these darker days.”
Akron Police Lt. Brian Harding said Dr. Steiner genuinely cares about the kids and making them whole.
Dr. Norm Christopher, chair of the Department of Pediatrics, said Dr. Steiner will be missed but has left a great foundation for his program to continue to build.
“I am so thankful and appreciative for his leadership,” said Dr. Christopher. “Daryl and his team have been able to expand these programs, with the goal of always being able to advocate for these very high-risk children. The addition of mental health and trauma-informed services has been a game changer.”
Studies have shown that early traumatic events, such as child abuse, can impact children throughout their lives. As they grow into adulthood, they are more likely to participate in risky behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse and it can impact education, employment and relationships. Victims of child abuse even have a life expectancy that’s 20 years shorter than the general population.
Stopping the cycle of abuse
The recent recognition of trauma-informed health care is a huge step forward, said Dr. Steiner.
“Children who are exposed to the toxic stress of abuse carry that with them throughout their lives,” he said. “But if we are able to identify those children and provide therapy, I think that goes a long way in preventing abuse down the road. They don’t carry those same behaviors with their families.”
One particular story has given Dr. Steiner great hope.
He saw a child in his career – an infant who was badly beaten. He made the diagnosis of abuse and the child was taken into protective services.
“Then about 17 years later, we read in the newspaper that he was an athlete and graduated high school with honors. He was able to have a successful childhood and adolescence. You see that and you think, ‘Aww, yes, we were able to do some good.’”
In retirement, Dr. Steiner looks forward to spending time with his grandchildren and working on his hobby farm. He enjoys woodworking, golf and tennis and plans to take classes in areas of the liberal arts – history and literature – that didn’t fit into his medicine-focused education.
He will miss his staff the most.
“I’ve had a good run,” he said. “No regrets. I can walk away feeling like we made a difference. We helped the children who had no voice.”