Don't shake the baby.
February 3, 2011 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Shaken-Baby Syndrome Faces New Questions in Court. Earlier this month, the UK Crown Prosecution Service issued a guidance on "shaken baby" allegations. Emily Bazelon looks at the medical and legal gray areas in US prosecutions in this week's New York Times Magazine. An editorial last fall by law professor Deborah Turkheimer here touched on her own research into the issue [PDF], which she calls "the next Innocence Project;" it was met with some controversy by medical professionals.
posted by availablelight (24 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Michael Whitmer expressed his rage at Rueda’s next hearing by wearing a T-shirt he made. On the back is a picture of Noah taken in the hospital, with tubes coming out of his mouth and the words: “Ask me what happens when you shake a baby.”
I don't really have an opinion on this explosive and emotional issue, but stay classy Michael.
posted by theodolite at 6:13 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, that's a great article.
posted by klangklangston at 6:17 PM on February 3, 2011


The Whitmers' blog is here; they are not pleased with the article.
posted by lalex at 6:21 PM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


A propos is a discussion of Charles Smith, once an eminent child pathologist in Toronto, now disgraced and linked to a number of false convictions. His lies ruined many, including a family in my hometown, after Smith wrongly testified their infant died at the hands of her mother.
posted by docgonzo at 7:30 PM on February 3, 2011


Great article. With 1000 cases a year in the U.S., we'd better be sure if when we're sending people to jail. Unfortunately we've had a bad experience here in Ontario with faulty pediatric pathology. From other reading I've done about Dr. Smith, it seems like at times the police pressured him to come to certain conclusions based on their own theories or suspicions. I can see how doctors, faced with outrage over accusations of one of the worst imaginable crimes, would be tempted to make their conclusions more solid than the science dictates.
posted by kevinsp8 at 7:33 PM on February 3, 2011


So sad for the those kids and families.

But good to know that doctors and scientists are learning more about the matter.

sad subject
posted by Neekee at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2011


This is a great article, and the science behind Shaken Baby Syndrome is certainly fraught with misinformation (hence how a baby falling over in his highchair is misindentified as shaken) but SBS stories always confirm for me an underlying cultural problem: we underestimate the difficulty of childcare at nearly every turn, and parenting in America can feel like an extremely lonely, emotionally grueling task. I have heard many anecdotes from parents with the same themes: loss of sleep, screaming baby, one last fried nerve. Nearly every parent has had a moment where they've had to put a wailing infant in a safe spot and just walk away for a minute to avoid snapping.

When we live in a culture where childcare is undervalued (hey America, scroll down to the list of countries and kick yourself for getting beaten by Angola) and isolating, where teen birthing rates are high, where childcare is often prohibitively expensive, where family planning methods aren't taught in schools, where abortion rights are under seige, cases of SBS and other stress-related child abuse incidences will indeed skyrocket.

I'm not saying that any of this excuses the actions of baby shakers, but when we create a society that kicks childcare issues to the wayside and expects families to fend for themselves with little institutional support, how can we be surprised that the same society victimizes its most vulnerable members?
posted by Viola at 7:48 PM on February 3, 2011 [12 favorites]


I can't possibly imagine what Michael Whitmer went through. I feel horrible for what he went through, and for what happened to his son.

However, if something like that ever does happen to me, I hope that there is a legal system in place that will use science, rationality, and logic to restrain me from going on a vengeful frenzy in an attempt to destroy the life of an innocent person.

The fact that he is not even willing to consider the fact that his son might have had an undiagnosable medical condition is boggling to the mind. If I were in those shoes, I'd almost be relieved at that revelation, because it'd indicate that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent it.

The New Yorker's article about Texas and the Death Penalty from last year comes to mind regarding a similar misapplication of justice.
posted by schmod at 7:58 PM on February 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


...when we create a society that kicks childcare issues to the wayside and expects families to fend for themselves with little institutional support...
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:11 PM on February 3, 2011


Very sad, interesting article. Without trivialising her horrible pain and tragedy, Erin Whitmer's reaction to this piece on her blog is really out there and hyperbolic. She and her husband are definitely warriors fighting on one side of what they perceive as a war. I wonder if their shared faith in what happened and why has given them more comfort or disquiet in the intervening years.
posted by smoke at 8:32 PM on February 3, 2011


Jesus, Erin's reaction comes across as incredibly, irrationally defensive. She seems surprised that the journalist talked to the other people involved, didn't just accept her version of things uncritically, and provided wider context about the ethical dilemma of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

She and her husband don't come off in the article as idiots. Or as being "plausibly responsible" for what happened. She (twice!) describes the article as characterizing her son as a "ticking time-bomb," when it doesn't say that at all.

I know this must be excruciating to deal with, but recuse yourself, Erin!
posted by hermitosis at 9:01 PM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


It might seem an insensitive thing to say, but it seems like sometimes, people just need to accept that babies are often weak and sensitive creatures, and there are all sorts of natural causes of death for infants. Such is nature, sometimes cruel. I feel that this was more readily understood in times past...With significant medical advances, we no longer have to have 8 babies to plan to have 4 that reach adulthood; however, not all of the natural causes of death have been conquered.
posted by Kateruba at 9:33 PM on February 3, 2011


I feel that this was more readily understood in times past...

I dunno, I was just reading a great book on Edwardian slum life, and it's noted that cases of "overlain" infants were regarded skeptically by the matriarchs of the community, especially if the family were especially impoverished. Infant-rearing may be difficult today because of emotional isolation, but it's hard to imagine what it's like to add a new baby who's going to contribute to the slow starvation of your 5 previous babies. It seems like there was even more motivation to murder infants in times past, and maybe just as much suspicion in cases of accidental death.

Anyway, in regard to TFA, the defense experts, especially Uscinski (a neurosurgeon is really not likely to do a better job of reading an MRI of a baby's head than a pediatric radiologist), do seem a bit like hired guns. It should be remembered that expert witnesses for the defense are paid better, and when a few names keep popping up as being reliably against the medical establishment, it's not necessarily because they're a bulwark against orthodoxy. To be frank, it's easy money to be one of a handful lining up for the defense in cases like these.
posted by palliser at 10:48 PM on February 3, 2011


My cousin (let's call her Cheryl) caught her sister-in-law Laura shaking Cheryl's 3-year-old in the air in anger and yelling at her. Not hard but the anger was enough to frighten Cheryl. When my niece was born, my mom and I quietly warned my sister never to leave her baby alone with Laura. My sister had a big mouth and told Laura, and in revenge, Laura contacted my neighbors (whom I babysat for) and told them not to trust me with their kids (as I'd been caring for their kids for 12 years, they didn't believe her), as well as told the rest of my family I was not to be trusted around children. She didn't suggest what I would do to their kids, just not to trust me with them.

I have never hurt a child. I would never hurt a child. I love kids. I'm pretty sure most of my family does not believe Laura's accusations. But you have no idea how much it hurt me to think that some people would think I was a danger to their kids. As I read this story I felt terrified. It makes me want to never be alone with a baby again, unless there's a videotape, in case something happens to the baby.

I can't say whether the accused abusers in this article really did or did not abuse the kids, but I have to say this would be a horrible, awful situation to be in. I think more research should be done.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:28 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why exactly are the Whitmers above suspicion? Given that the latest science shows the injury could have happened considerably before the baby 'crashed', why are they off the hook, and only the care-giver implicated? See, I think the Whitmers protest too damn much. (because, what Schmod said is a valid point)

Cases of this sort anyway make me sick. See, it's a horror that bad things could happen to little babies. No doubt about it! But I find it just as much a horror that innocent care-givers get accused, and even convicted. And, to be honest, I also find real horror that a care-giver could be driven to injure a baby, and end up in prison. It's not like they set out to do harm.

There's some serious bullshit at work here. On the one hand, we say these people are shaking babies to DEATH! On the other hand, we say babies are all sweet and cute and wonderful little angels, and ignore the simple fact that they can scream until a person is driven into senseless rage.

Let's just accept the simple truth that babies are a PITA, and any rational person would discard them in the nearest dumpster. That being the case, parents require help and support. A parent should be able to say, and have someone to hear, "Take this little shit away before I kill it!" and get sympathy in response, together with a break from the dirty diapers and high-pitched screaming. Until they are again feeling a desperate need to cuddle their sweet innocent offspring once more.

But we insist on styling our culture to one where we would condemn a parent for even thinking in those terms. This human thing of insisting on belief in fairy tales gets in our way.
posted by Goofyy at 12:36 AM on February 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


A propos is a discussion of Charles Smith, once an eminent child pathologist in Toronto, now disgraced and linked to a number of false convictions. His lies ruined many, including a family in my hometown, after Smith wrongly testified their infant died at the hands of her mother.

I keep on thinking of Janet Reno and her "repressed memories" fun and games.

Imagine a psychopath/sociopath in a position of power such as Charles Smith or Janet Reno. Imagine how much free rein you could have to destroy lives. Imagine how much you could get away with compared to a psychopath/sociopath who murders people.

The DPP in Western Australia has made some very strange decisions in the last 20 years. And ya just don't wanna get on the wrong side of them. They scare me.

*DPP = DA in Americantalk
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:12 AM on February 4, 2011


Metafilter: babies are a PITA, and any rational person would discard them in the nearest dumpster
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:13 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


A parent should be able to say, and have someone to hear, "Take this little shit away before I kill it!" and get sympathy in response, together with a break from the dirty diapers and high-pitched screaming

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome has a parent education program related to that.
posted by availablelight at 6:15 AM on February 4, 2011


Yes, our society is incredibly inhumane to parents and babies. A baby is, in my opinion, at least a 3- person job. At least. And all of those people need friends, support, entertainment, respect, food, shelter. And yet we treat babies like a one person job, which can be preformed with no assistance, by someone who's getting evicted soon, has no experience, can't leave the house because the car goes with the person who needs to drive to work...it's insane, and people are not prepared for it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:38 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why exactly are the Whitmers above suspicion? Given that the latest science shows the injury could have happened considerably before the baby 'crashed', why are they off the hook, and only the care-giver implicated? See, I think the Whitmers protest too damn much. (because, what Schmod said is a valid point)

I never said that (Mainly because the Whitmers seem exactly like the sort of people who would blast an anonymous internet commentator with a libel lawsuit).

The notion of a "Lucid Period" seems to be pretty widely accepted among physicians for brain injuries in adults. Natasha Richardson's death was a particularly high-profile and well-documented example of this occurring. I'm a bit confused as to why it's so controversial to apply the same knowledge and methodology to infants. I'm also a bit outraged that the causal foundation for shaken baby syndrome never seems to have been established in peer-reviewed literature. From my interpretation of the NYT article, the "science" used in these trials wouldn't withstand the scrutiny of a High School Science Fair. Messy, messy, messy. Sure, they established that massive brain injuries occur when you subject a person to g-forces equivalent to driving car into a brick wall at 50mph. I cannot for the life of me understand how a scientist could honestly extrapolate those results to conclude that gently shaking a baby could produce the same result.

I'm also a bit outraged that "Expert Witness" appears to be a legitimate profession (with the one guy being a "go-to expert" on shaken baby syndrome making $200k a year to do it). Although I can see some cases in which the practice makes sense, it seems as though these doctors are effectively functioning as lawyers, not to mention that the defendant in that case certainly didn't have access to the same sort of monetary resources (and apparently wasn't even provided with an interpreter, despite her poor command of English -- if the NYT article is accurate, a mistrial should have been declared because of that fact alone; I can't imagine the jury being sympathetic toward a person who wasn't able to understand the lawyers interrogating her!). It reeks of the increasing politicization and classicism of our legal system.

The other thing bugging me is that a motive was conspicuously absent from all of the cases mentioned by the NYT. None of the accused had any history of abuse -- the evidence prevented was almost completely to the contrary. Would any of these people have received 10-20 year sentences if they accidentally hit and killed a child with their car? I don't think they would even if they were drunk. (Heck. If the kid was on a bike, they probably wouldn't even be accused of a crime). The legal system generally does not dole out massive punishments for tragic accidents, even if they were preventable. What was different about this case?
posted by schmod at 9:09 AM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


And, to be honest, I also find real horror that a care-giver could be driven to injure a baby, and end up in prison. It's not like they set out to do harm.

What an absurd decoupling of action from intention. Most murderers were presumably really irritated by the victim. It takes a horrible, horrendous amount of violence to injure a baby in this way, as anyone who's come running in horror at the way their toddler is "rocking" their infant, only to find the infant smiling widely, knows.

Why don't they just throw themselves out the window if they're so desperate?
posted by palliser at 9:12 AM on February 4, 2011


schmod:

Yes, the concept of a "lucid period" is well-established. However, it's measured in hours, not days. Unless of course you earn half your salary testifying for the defense in cases like these, in which case it can be as long as it needs to be.

There's actually a lot of peer-reviewed science behind the diagnosis of shaken-baby syndrome. The NYT article doesn't say that there isn't, just that the standard cast of expert witnesses for the defense dispute the methodology behind those studies. While, again, earning half their salary for doing so. Concluding on the basis of your reading a single lay magazine article that this is "high school level science" is a bit presumptuous.

Finally, you're confused about where the money is for doctors here. It's the defense witnesses who stand to earn a lot by taking this anti-establishment stance. It's Uscinki who's earning 6 figures/year testifying in these cases. That's because there are very few doctors who hold his opinions, so any who are willing to do it will be in very high demand.
posted by palliser at 9:21 AM on February 4, 2011


Schmod: This is what you said that I found so valid:
The fact that he is not even willing to consider the fact that his son might have had an undiagnosable medical condition is boggling to the mind. If I were in those shoes, I'd almost be relieved at that revelation, because it'd indicate that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent it.

That combined with all the loud hate. But maybe that loud hate has just gotten to be expected of people these days. I find it disgusting.
posted by Goofyy at 12:59 AM on February 5, 2011


More from the UK:

Three leading pathologists have accused the Metropolitan Police of attempting to discredit them as expert witnesses in so-called Shaken Baby court cases.

This appears to be a summary of one section of a Radio 4 programme due to air tonight (8 Feb):

File on 4
The Crown Prosecution Service has issued new guidelines regarding so called shaken baby cases. It comes at a time when the scientific debate between some medical experts appears as divided as ever. Those acting for the prosecution say the so called triad of internal head injuries is a strong pointer to a baby having been deliberately shaken, while defence experts say there can be other accidental or natural causes.
Andrew Hosken investigates the science behind the debate and uncovers concerns that experts on both sides may be deterred from acting in court cases because of the continuing controversy around the issue

posted by Jakey at 5:23 AM on February 8, 2011


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