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Lack of medical records stymies state’s case against Children’s Healthcare pediatrician

More than 30 women came forward about Dr. Jose Rios, telling police that the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta pediatrician groped and humiliated them, sometimes in full view of their children

But more than two years after Rios’ arrest, DeKalb County prosecutors say they still can’t start a trial in the case because they don’t have all the records they need from his ex-employer. DeKalb County State Court Judge Mike Jacobs has delayed the case for the third time after hearing about the state’s travails in obtaining medical records from Children’s Healthcare.

Jacobs said this will be the last delay. 

Chamblee police arrested Jose Rios in late 2015 and charged him with sexual battery of several mothers of his pediatric patients. (SPECIAL/CHAMBLEE POLICE DEPARTMENT)

Children’s says it isn’t holding back any records, but rather following its own policies for releasing sensitive records protected by federal privacy laws. 

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“Children’s has fully cooperated with authorities in this case,” a statement provided in response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said. “We responded to all questions we received from investigators and facilitated interviews between our employees and the investigators. We are working with the Solicitor’s Office to ensure they have everything they requested …” 

Rios faces 14 misdemeanor charges involving five women. The charges include sexual battery for allegedly touching his patients’ mothers’ breasts and buttocks, and disorderly conduct for allegedly acting “in a violent or tumultuous manner” toward them. 

Rios worked at the Children’s Healthcare clinic in the Plaza Fiesta shopping center off Buford Highway. Many of his alleged victims spoke little English and lacked immigration papers, but they were emboldened to come forward by a Spanish-language internet radio show, “En Hora Buena” on Oxigeno Radio. Without naming him, show host Brenda Bueno alluded to Rios during a broadcast. 

At least 33 women gave Chamblee Police detectives accounts of abuse as far back as 15 years. Rios’ case was among thousands the AJC examined as part of its Doctors and Sex Abuse project in 2016

Among the allegations against Rios, the moms said he grabbed them from behind during their children’s appointments, squeezed their breasts as they breast fed their babies and hounded them after hours with lewd phone calls, among other things, police records obtained by the AJC showed. One woman said he thrust his crotch into her buttocks with her child in the room. Another said he called her an illegal alien and threatened her family if she told anyone that he had touched her. 

In civil lawsuits, some women also accused Rios of touching their children inappropriately. Those cases have since been settled, and the attorneys involved have declined to speak to the AJC. Rios faces no criminal charges involving children.

With a two-year statute of limitations, most of the women’s accounts of abuse were too old to be prosecuted, so the solicitor’s office only brought charges related to five women. Since then, prosecutors have been trying to shore up their case by obtaining medical records that would list the dates that the alleged victims brought their children to Rios. 

As place holders, the state’s formal accusation listed date ranges for when the offenses occurred of two to four months. Assistant Solicitor-General Lisamarie Bristol said that was done because some of the women, when they talked to detectives, could only tell them the seasons of the year when they took their kids to the clinic.

But nine months after filing the accusation, prosecutors only have records corresponding to two of the five women, Bristol told Judge Jacobs last week. 

In its statement to the AJC, Children’s Healthcare described an ongoing, time-involved process. 

“There are a number of reasons why a request may be sent back for clarification or take additional time to process,” the statement said. “Due to patient privacy, we cannot confirm specific reasons for these particular requests, but we are working closely with the Solicitor’s Office to make sure they receive the information they need.” 

Bristol conceded that unless she can narrow down the time frames, the majority of the charges will be too weak to stick. Rios’ defense attorney, Peter Zeliff, complained that he has yet to see any medical records, and he asked why prosecutors can’t support their charges through other evidence. 

Jacobs has given Bristol more time to work with Children’s twice before – once in October, again in December. 

“I suppose what makes sense, in terms of fairness to both sides in this case, would be to continue one final time,” Jacobs said on Thursday. “I want to be clear: This is a final continuance. To March.”

About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.

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