Shaken by Shaken Baby Convictions that Could Be All Wrong

Hi Readers! I just wanted to call your attention to this amazing piece in Slate by Emily Bazelon. It’s titled, “Are Innocent Parents Being Prosecuted for Killing Their Babies?” And the subtitle is: “The Doctor Who Came Up With ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ Thinks So.”

The gist of the piece is that the symptoms doctors automatically used to assume indicated abuse may sometimes be the result of natural causes. The Free-Range angle for me is that while we have become sensitive to child abuse — which is good —  sometimes we now go overboard and see it when it’s not there. That’s why  CPS will get called in to “protect” children whose parents are simply letting them exercise some independence, for instance. And why, on that same continuum, sometimes prosecutors will charge caregivers for murder when they were just wretchedly unlucky enough to have babies who died.

These days it is hard for us to remember that we can’t protect everyone from everything because Fate intervenes. And we can’t blame parents for every ill that befalls a child for the same reason. The sad, stark fact — that terrible things happen, even to innocent little kids — is a truth we have a hard time understanding in our “Fix it, outlaw it or blame someone!” culture.

Bazelon’s earlier work on the shaken baby topic in The New York Times Magazine was equally excellent (but a lot longer). Here it is. Read it and work to keep our concern for our children from curdling into injustice. — L.

34 Responses

  1. I would read it but it is the double standard, hypocritical NYT…

  2. The first story isn’t NYT. It’s sad to think that so many drs would ignore past medical history and prosecute well intentioned parents. There are enough people who really do abuse their children and never get prosecuted that it’s really sad to realize that a number of parents have been jailed who didn’t.

  3. These cases are very fact specific. And I would like to point out that the standard for this sort of information in the medical community is peer reviewed medical literature rather than the popular media like Slate or NPR. Until there are case studies, research papers and the like these are unfortunate stories, but not reliable in the community.

  4. I found this surprisingly difficult to read. I am a free-range parent, but this hit me at a different level. I provide child-care in my home so that I can be with my own children, and despite being an excellent care provider with 20 years of experience, I fear false accusations. You cannot assume that as long as you care for another’s child (or even your own) carefully and with great love, nothing bad will happen. And, the thought that I could be separated from my own children indefinitely due to legal proceedings following bad luck, an unexplained illness, or even a fall while they are playing (as children should) fills me with terror, which this article only increased.

    In other words, bad things happen rarely. But reading a news article about those bad things makes us assume that they happen more frequently, and that, surely, they will happen to us.

  5. If you read the full article from the NYT what you actually find is well intentioned medical professionals who are always learning more. Some of these symptoms have been used to prosecute innocent parents but not for malicious reasons at all. There are for miscarriages of justice in several specific cases and it seems like the science/medical literature has stepped back to recognize that more evidence is needed for an abuse diagnosis.

  6. Here is a story from Canada, Took 4 years for them to get thier kids back after a wrongful shaken baby diagnosis

    http://www.cbc.ca/thenational/indepthanalysis/gopublic/story/2012/01/02/bc-childrenreturned.html

  7. It reminds me of that story from the 1980s where a mom was prosecuted for feeding her baby anti-freeze and eventually was exonerated after it was discovered the baby had a rare genetic disorder that created high levels of natural occurring ethelyne glycol in the body.

    http://www.justicedenied.org/patriciastallings.htm

    I remember the made for TV movie about it. I think the made-for-tv movie generation played a major role in the fear mongering generation.

  8. I have been following stories on NPR, as well as locally. Locally, a nanny has been charged with murder. The mom came home for lunch and said the just 1 year old was fine. The mom left, 10 minutes later (according to the nanny) the boy stood on a toy about 4 inches tall and fell. He hit his head and went unconscious. (I have never heard what the floor was made from, which would make a difference.)

    After about 6 months, she was charged with murder. Right now the defense is trying to get a delay to the trial to get an expert in to talk about the injuries, but because of articles like above, he now is in high demand. A very sad case for all involved.

  9. Dr. John Cannell of the Vitamin D Council hears frequently from distraught parents accused of shaking and injuring their breastfed babies, but there is evidence that the babies are actually suffering from severe Vitamin D deficiency and very weak bones, often since birth.

    Mothers who are Vitamin D deficient during a pregnancy will deliver Vitamin D deficient infants, and breast milk from a Vitamin D deficient mother will exacerbate the issue. Babies are often over-protected from sun exposure, too, further endangering a baby suffering from Vitamin D deficiency.

    The cases are further complicated when the babies are taken from the home, put into child protective services, and bottle-fed infant formula, which is Vitamin D fortified. The fortification improves the infant’s bone health, so that medical examination doesn’t reveal the prior Vit D deficiency, making it very hard for parents to prove they didn’t harm their child.

    Infant Vit D deficiency may be implicated in some cases of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), too.

    http://blog.vitamindcouncil.org/2011/11/05/forensic-specialist-reviews-shaken-baby-syndrome-cases/

    http://blog.vitamindcouncil.org/2012/01/27/vitamin-d-deficiency-in-sids/

    http://www.healthychild.com/immune-system-support/vitamin-d-deficiency-in-pregnancy-babies-children/

    Vitamin D deficiency is much more common than most people (or doctors) realize (my “sunny” San Diego area gynecologist says that 80% of her patients have levels of Vit D that are deficient or much too low when they are tested). In the US north of Atlanta, GA, the sun is at such a low angle that it is nearly impossible to make any Vitamin D from the spectrum in sunshine that triggers Vit D production in the skin from late fall to early spring (assuming skin is even exposed to sunshine). The dose added to Vit D fortified milk is so small that it isn’t a reliable amount to fully supply an adequate dose of Vit D, even in dedicated milk drinkers. Modern lifestyles, often spent indoors during the middle of the day when the sun is high and the ray angle is right for making Vit D in the skin, use of high SPF sunscreens, and fear of wrinkles and skin cancer further increase risk of Vitamin D deficiency on a year round basis. Darker skinned people, whose skin acts as a natural sunlight filter, or those who are always heavily clothed (esp for religious reasons) are especially vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency and giving birth to Vitamin D deficient babies, even more so the farther away from the equator one lives.

  10. Our daughter-in-law was wrongly accused and convicted of killing a friend’s baby many years ago. She’s one of the best moms I’ve ever known. Fortunately, she was able to serve her sentence and return home while the kids were still young. The kids are now teens. Our grandson is one of the top athletes in the United States for his age. Our granddaughter is an outstanding student and ballerina. The most abuse they ever endured was losing their mama when they were just 2 years (him) and 6 months (her) old.

    SBS theory rests on unproven assumptions: that certain symptoms can be caused by nothing apart from violent abuse, and that collapse is immediate and the last person with the child is therefore an abuser.

    No one who went through this with us will ever babysit again. It is dangerous even to be alone with your own infant (if both parents happen to be present, both will be charged). I recommend having a recording device on at all times if you babysit. At least then you can prove a child was not screaming uncontrollably and you were not yelling or out of control.

    It is remarkably easy for a doctor to make an accusation, and remarkably difficult to prove a negative (that you did not do what they say you did). I am no NYT fan, but SOMEBODY has to speak out about injustice or nothing will ever change. I have tracked more than 1000 cases of what I believe are wrongful accusations of shaking babies. Some were acquitted. Most were convicted. And most were sentenced to decades in prison, not just a few years, depriving their utterly innocent little ones of a breadwinner and caretaker. This despite NO criminal or violent history, and often with no external signs of trauma, just the assumption that the symptoms are invariably caused by trauma.

    Some states have laws (generally named after babies who are believed to have been shaken) mandating very long sentences because babies are so defenseless. But we should have learned from the DNA exonerations that it is not at all difficult to convict innocent people of heinous crimes.

    The very same people who approve premeditated abortion a few months before birth are happy to demonize parents for supposedly “snapping” and allegedly killing a child a few months after birth. Something is wrong with this picture.

    And something is wrong with depriving the innocent and living children of a person who has been accused of a parent, home, and future (the cost of defense bankrupts most families) to avenge the death of a little one who, no matter how he died, will not come back to us. All this based on medical opinion and assumption alone.

  11. One thing to remember is that most of the charges for SBS are initiated by Medical Examiners and Coroners. The qualifications for these positions varies greatly from area to area. Radley Balko’s “The Agitator” website goes into more detail about this.
    Once these charges are brought forth, public opinion takes over. Most District Attorneys, Prosecutors and Judges are elected and are concerned about being re-elected. When you consider the media hype that goes along with anything involving children (think Casey Anthony) is it any wonder that things like this happen.

  12. I think that these stories are the exception (to the nth degree) not the rule. First of all, bleeding in the brain, retinal hemorrhages, and brain swelling are not symptoms, they are signs. They are objective exam findings. That “a small number of doctors” is disagreeing with this evidence means nothing to me– the same could be said of vaccines/ autism or even germ theory.
    This reminds me of the osteogenesis imperfecta kids– yes, there are extremely rare medical conditions that are associated with multiple fractures at a young age– but the vast majority of the time an infant or child with multiple fractures is a victim of abuse. Just like the majority of time children who walk home from school are just fine, we should not be making our decision on anecdotes. The danger is missed diagnosis of relatives/ caregivers abusing kids, not the other way around. What I see most often is children with devastating injuries with NO ONE being charged– not because no one thought the abuse occurred but that there was no clear person at fault.

  13. Awesome post, I agreed that these stories are the exception (to the nth degree) not the rule.

  14. Miriam, you do make a valid point. There are always a small number of mavericks in any science who disagree with orthodoxy. Most times those mavericks are just that and are either so in love with their own theories they’re blinded to the evidence or have other axes to grind. But occasionally they turn out to be right.

    My fields of expertise are chemistry and physics, but I believe I am familiar enough with statistics , medicine and the scientific method to make an informed judgment on this topic. What strikes me most about SBS is the sheer paucity of the evidence.

    The doctor who originally proposed the SBS hypothesis was trying to explain the deaths of infants who exhibited the ‘triad’ of cerebral haemorrage, cerebral swelling and retinal bleeding without any indication of external trauma. In England (Lancashire I believe) he observed some mothers shaking babies to stop them crying and formulated the hypothesis that this could cause this triad without any head impact. Unfortunately he did not conduct any rigorous statistical study to confirm this. Instead he just published his theory and given the enthusiasm with which it was adopted by both the medical and legal professions and a number of high profile cases such a study soon became impossible. No one is now likely to admit to shaking an infant.

    Both animal experiments and biomechanical studies have yielded conflicting results. Supporters of the hypothesis have claimed SBS awareness programs in antenatal clinics have reduced the incidence of the condition, but I have yet to find any statistically rigorous confirmation of this claim. In summary. the SBS hypothesis is based more on anecdote than hard science.

    Yes, I know many have ‘confessed’ to shaking babies who later died. But not all confessions are genuine. Even when they are correlation does not prove causality. The fact that a baby who was shaken later suffers from the SBS triad does not prove the shaking was responsible for the child’s condtion. A common feature of these cases, whether the carregiver confesses or maitains innocence, is the claim that the child was irritable and constantly crying.. This may well cause some to lose control and shake the baby, but it is entirely possible both the irritability and the later symptoms are the result of a yet unidentified cause, It is possible that all those accused of injuring a child by shaking alone are innocent, even if they themselves think they are guilty!

  15. Agreed…but I have a hard time reconciling:

    “These days it is hard for us to remember that we can’t protect everyone from everything because Fate intervenes. And we can’t blame parents for every ill that befalls a child for the same reason. The sad, stark fact — that terrible things happen, even to innocent little kids — is a truth we have a hard time understanding in our “Fix it, outlaw it or blame someone!” culture.”

    with this:

    “After his parents stopped for gas early Wednesday, the young boy scrambled out of his child seat, found a gun police say was left in the car by his father and fatally shot himself in the head.

    Tacoma police said his father put his pistol under a seat and got out to pump gas while the mother went inside the convenience store. The boy’s infant sister, who also was in the car, was not injured.”

    No one is being charged.

  16. About 15 years ago I started questioning how valid the medical evidence truly was. I cannot remember the case but the news showed the prosecutor showing the jury how a child had been shaken by violently shaking a life sized doll for about 30 seconds. It was extremely hard to watch. I can’t even imagine how the parents must have felt having to see that. The the prosecutor said something I found interesting. She said that the baby sitter (a young woman maybe 140 pounds) shook that child violently for 5 minutes. 5 minutes! She must be a monster. But wait. Is that even possible? At the time I was a first aid instructor. Before my next class I tried shaking one of the infant manniquins and I could not do it for more than one minute before I had to stop. Add to that the fact that the manniquin could not cry like a real baby would and I wondered what human could possibly do that for 5 full minutes. I understand that people can “snap” but even a momentary loss of humanity could not explain for most loving adults doing that for the length of time the prosecution said. A recent documentary here in Canada asked the same question. They also discussed how some of the signs associated with SBS (brain bleeds, bleeding behind the eyes) can be caused by other issues including premature birth. I am not an expert. I do not pretend to have all the answers. I just wonder what it must be like for the medical officials who see abused children day in and day out and how helpless they must feel. I wonder if sometimes the desire to find a reason or a culprit for a child’s dealth may lead them to stop looking when they think they have an answer. I can certainly imagine myself doing the same thing in their place.

  17. I am not going to argue that there are some people out there who do things that better judgement says they should not.

    What I am going to argue is that in some of these cases of SBS, underlying conditions are sometimes overlooked. Like children who were sick, running a high fever right before death. Children who have chronic conditions. Or neglect on the part of the parent who had the child in their care before the child was dropped at day care.

    Our society, as we have seen often here, wants to blame someone for each and every injury, death or sickness. No child can ever die of natural causes here, unless it is due to cancer or a really bad car accident and the child was strapped in properly and still died.

  18. In cases like this, it would be wise to remember the case of, now, utterly disgraced (but retired) medical examiner Charles Smith in Canada. He failed to recognise what is and has been known for eyars regarding contre-coupe injuries. You fall, hit your head and can suffer bruising in the brain at the back of the brain as well in the front. Also, the triad of injuries that are said to signify shaken baby syndrome has been questioned.
    Although I don’t doubt that some babies/children are shaken/abused, the diagnosis itself is questioned within the medical community and has sometimes reached fever-pitchy debate level. In the light of that, a great deal of careful consideration and proper fact-checking is in order before shaken baby syndrome is said to have occurred.

  19. Actually, Miriam, I don’t believe that these cases are the exception and, unlike the vaccine/autism theory which was always overwhelmingly debuncted by the medical community, there is a growing movement in the medical community against shaken baby syndrome. Experts who will testify in court denouncing the theory are not few nor are they fringe outliers with questionable pedigree.

  20. Ugh, sorry, the above had nothing to do with anything. I pasted the wrong thing in here.

  21. Here is what happened to a family in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada:

    http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/dont-expect-big-apology-after-family-torn-apart-143035045.html

  22. Sherri, now THERE’s an outrage!

    “Ferguson wondered if Blessing’s mother was depressed, if the young daughter was doing any or all of the mothering and whether the father was away a lot.”

    Based on “wondering” about three things that are fairly normal and one that could be a problem (the young daughter doing ALL of the mothering) they justified this?

    The young daughter doing “any” of the mothering is absolutely FINE, as long as it wasn’t ALL of it. The mother being depressed could be a problem, but is a fairly normal situation that can be dealt with in ways other than taking away the children. They don’t ordinarily call CPS on white middle class English speaking families because mom reports PPD, do they? And the father being away is something we honor men in the armed forces for doing — now it’s a reason to take kids away?????? And all based on WONDERING?????????!!!!!!!

  23. For anyone interested in how things can really get ugly – and people are arrested and jailed – I urge you to read, if not the whole inquiry, at least its abstract. http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/goudge/index.html
    or this

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2009/12/07/f-charles-smith-goudge-inquiry.html

    Smith odyssey into the absence of science began with the prosecution of a young babysitter where the baby fell a short distance in a flight of stairs and then died of head injuries. Her family spent a fortune proving the theory of shaken baby syndrome wrong and that head injury in young children could occur without shaking. This said, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen; I’m saying that it should not be used as a quick determinant of head injuries in children.

  24. Here’s a link to the investigative documentary on SBS aired a few weeks ago here in Canada:

    http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2011-2012/diagnosismurder/

    I hope people elsewhere can watch it online too.

  25. Paul, cant agree more. Why cant we blame the gun manufacturers and politicians that support hand guns and AK47s the way we do those who suggest Megan’s law is wrong? Lets start putting the blame for gun deaths where it belongs. You want to hunt, fine, use a rifle, otherwise you have no business having a gun. Repeal the 2nd Amendment and lets start being a modern nation.

  26. Another difference with the vaccine/autism theory is that no one here is challenging medical findings. What’s being challenged is the quickness to apply a diagnosis of SBS plus a quickness to attribute blame to the last caretaker, to any child with some or all distinctive SBS symptoms. No one disputes that violently shaking a baby causes internal/neurological injury and potentially death. It’s an objection of the overly broad application of medical knowledge to certain legal situations, not a fringe medical theory.

  27. “The danger is missed diagnosis of relatives/ caregivers abusing kids, not the other way around.”

    No. Failing to protect children from abuse and failing to protect adults from false convictions for murder are equal, not competing, dangers. It’s not okay to ruin X number of lives *unnecessarily* in order protect X number of other lives. Every care should be taken to protect both the lives of children and the freedom of innocent adults.

    Mistakes will always be made, but just writing off the ruination of families in the name of protecting some children who “might have been” getting abused, as opposed to being as careful as necessary to get it right, is not a legitimate excuse.

  28. Similarly, in the UK there was recently a case where parents were acquitted of beating their four-month-old baby to death. Turned out the mother was severely Vitamin D deficient, and the poor child had terminal rickets.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/09/couple-cleared-killing-baby-son

  29. Pentamom, if you’d read my post you would see some here DO question that violently shaking a baby causes neurological damage. it’s possible that it can of course, but such a hypothesis has not been proven.

  30. I think it is definitely questionable that violently shaking a baby causes neurological damage WITHOUT neck injury. That has always puzzled me about shaken baby syndrome. If you are in a car wreck – essentially the same back and forth motion of the head that is alleged to cause the neurological damage in babies – your neck is injured long before you get to neurological damage. How is it possible that infants can have such severe injuries from their head slinging back and forth without a single hint of neck strain?

  31. I should say no one disputes that violently shaking a baby *can cause* neurological injury. You’re right, it’s not a straight-line connection, where all shaking = a definite level of injury. But if you shake anyone hard enough to cause concussion, that’s by definition neurological injury.

  32. Hi, I just came across this section. It gives me hope to read many of the responses above. I am trying to help someone who was wrongfully convicted of SBS in 2003. Just from reading this appeal decision (only a few pages), tell me this: after reading Emily Bazelon’s piece, how many of you would convict?

    http://www.michbar.org/opinions/appeals/2004/110904/25172.pdf

    We’re in the process of trying to get a new appeal. I only recently became involved, or her case would not have gone anywhere. Much like the piece mentions, the baby had a history of illness in the weeks proceeding her death.

    Sadly, the odds of getting a successful appeal are probably less than 1%, and she will likely spend another 11 years in prison for a crime that never was. Prayers are welcome.

  33. Thank you, Lenore Skenazy, for covering this important but challenging subject.

    Hard as it is to believe if you haven’t been there, a shocking number of shaken baby diagnoses are inaccurate. While the symptoms that have defined the syndrome for 30 years can result from abuse, they can also represent any of a long and growing list of legitimate medical conditions. A hasty diagnosis of shaking not tears apart benign families but also denies sick children the care that need.

    For the tragic story of a family eventually exonerated after a misdiagnosed genetic disorder, please see http://onsbs.com/prologue/

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