Shaken Up About Shaken Baby Syndrome

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On a recent Saturday night, Marine Sgt. Aaron Rasheed was in Manhattan with his wife and three young children, including baby Elijah, who cried part-way through the new documentary they’d come up from Virginia to watch.

I can’t blame the boy.

The Syndrome” is about Shaken Baby Syndrome — a heinous crime we’ve all heard of. Back in the fall, when  Elijah was 3 weeks old, he suffered a seizure. Sgt. Rasheed and his wife rushed him to the hospital. The baby had two hematomas — blood on the brain (or at least it looked like that at the time). How had he gotten them? The parents had no idea.

Tsk tsk. They must be hiding something. Child Protective Services swooped in and accused Rasheed of shaking the baby. All three children were placed in a relative’s custody and Rasheed found himself facing trial. Frantic, he went online and tried to find any information he could about Shaken Baby Syndrome.

He found Susan Goldsmith.

Goldsmith  is the researcher behind  “The Syndrome.” This is her first film, but she’s been a journalist for over 20 years, specializing in child abuse.  Her investigative reporting resulted in two new laws protecting children  in foster care. She was especially revolted by the idea of anyone who’d shake an infant. I guess we all are. But the more she looked into this crime, the more surprised she became.

It turns out that the constellation of three symptoms that “prove” a baby was shaken (a type of brain swelling, brain bleeding, and bleeding in back of the eyes) can actually be caused by all sorts of other problems, including genetic issues, birth trauma — even falling off a couch.

And yet, over and over, distraught parents and caregivers with no history of anything other than loving their babies have been accused of shaking their kids to death, simply because their children presented these symptoms. To this day, about 250 parents and caregivers are prosecuted for this crime every year.

“The Syndrome,” tells the tale of how this new category of crime appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the mid 1990s. Goldsmith found  that some of the same doctors who had actively promoted the Satanic Panic of the early ’90s, accusing daycare workers of things like sacrificing animals in the classroom and raping the tots in Satanic rites, abandoned that narrative when people started doubting its plausibility.

In its wake, those doctors found a new horror  to focus on: Shaken Baby.  As Goldsmith puts it, “They medicalized Satan.” Attention, donations, and research money flooded in.

But after Goldsmith’s film interviews parent after parent who brought their ailing babies to the hospital only to find themselves accused of the sickest, saddest crime possible, it turns to the heroes: doctors who gradually started to question the syndrome.

Consider the case of Natasha Richardson, says one of them, neurosurgeon Ronald Uscinski: She hit her head in a skiing accident and even joked about it afterward. Two days later she was dead.

This happens to children, too, he says. Why would we think it doesn’t? Toddlers toddle. Sometimes they fall. Usually it’s fine, but sometimes it’s tragic. It may be diagnosed as the result of a shaking, but here’s the sticking point: If someone shook a baby so hard that its head went flopping back and forth, the neck would show signs of whiplash, right? And yet, the film notes: none of the hundreds of  “shaken” baby cases Goldsmith reviewed showed serious neck damage.

Not one.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor interviewed in the film, estimates 1,000 people are in prison today for a shaken baby crime they did not commit. Rasheed was almost one of them, but he was found not guilty. Said the judge, “My heart goes out to you.”

Mine too. Thank goodness this movie exists. Because the potential for injustice is enough to leave anyone shaken.

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Worst-first thinking = assuming a heinous crime instead of sad ol' fate.

Worst-first thinking = assuming a heinous, hitherto unheard-of crime instead of sad old fate.

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34 Responses to Shaken Up About Shaken Baby Syndrome

  1. SKL May 26, 2016 at 8:29 am #

    I had heard about a similar case before. Hopefully now the standard of proof will be higher in cases like this.

    Child abuse is real and needs to be addressed very seriously, but that doesn’t mean parents still aren’t innocent until proven guilty. And taking kids away is punishing the kids too. There has to be a better way.

  2. Wendy W May 26, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    Another possible cause is immunizations. Encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, can be part of an extreme reaction to a shot, and has also been implicated as one potential cause of shaken baby symptoms, particularly in cases where the shots were administered in the days immediately before the presentation of symptoms.

  3. Paul M May 26, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    Come on Wendy. You say that immunizations have been “implicated as a potential cause of shaken baby symptoms” and yet I have not seen anything out there about it. Given the fevered hysteria of the anti-vacs people latching on to any shred of potential evidence against vaccinations, I feel pretty certain that it would be out there a little more. The anti-vaccination attitude is among the worst when it comes to worst-first thinking.

  4. marie May 26, 2016 at 10:44 am #

    Thanks, Lenore. I hope wider awareness of this research saves families from the awful experience of prison. That kind of slam dunk evidence (1, 2, 3…yep, you are guilty) should make everyone uneasy.

  5. Art May 26, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    Wendy,

    Seriously?

    As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on SBS, I still think think there might be something to it. I would like to see a bit more information, BUT Encephalitis is far more serious.

    What’s so ironic is that the anti vac crowd is depending on herd immunity to keep THEM healthy, yet it’s the very thing that they are compromising.

    And one last thing, it’s not a matter of if but when Polio comes raging back. That’s when the real party begins. And yes, Polio is still live out in the wild.

  6. Emily Guy Birken May 26, 2016 at 11:01 am #

    When my oldest child was born in 2010, we were required by the hospital to watch a film on the dangers of shaken baby syndrome before we were allowed to check out with our son. Our nurse said something to me about how we didn’t seem like the type of people who would shake our baby, but that even throwing the child up in the air to make him giggle could cause the syndrome.

    I was too exhausted to articulate how completely impossible that sounded.

    By the time our second child was born in 2013, there was no more mention of shaken baby syndrome or required watching of an educational video about it.

  7. Jim Collins May 26, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    This hits close to home for me. In 1985 a good friend of mine was tried and found guilty of “shaking” his baby girl so hard that she died. All of us that knew him didn’t believe that it happened. We were in the Navy at the time and there was a hassle about the Navy being light on punishment for crimes committed by sailors, so he was tried in civilian court. Several of us wanted to testify on his behalf, but, we were sent on detachment during the trial. I used to watch her when he had duty and her mother had to work. I know how he was around her and that is why I refused to believe that he did it.

  8. LGB May 26, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    I don’t know if I read this correctly. The same doctors who were part of the Satanic Panic constructed the SBS diagnosis? This doesn’t do much in the name of credibility, does it?

  9. En Passant May 26, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    It is worth noting that Dr. Arthur Norman Guthkelch, the pediatric neurosurgeon who first found in 1971 that subdural hematoma could result from shaking an infant, has been “shocked” and “desparately disappointed” that his findings have been used by prosecutors opposite to the way they should be.

    Dr. Guthkelch found that brain injury could result from shaking. Prosecutors have turned that finding upside down, and argued very successfully in court that any brain injury is necessarily the result of shaking.

    The prosecutorial position is so profoundly wrong that any schoolchild could see its flaw, and only a judge more concerned with being called “soft on crime” than with scientific truth could uphold it.

    There is a two minute interview on the subject with Dr. Guthkelch here: http://www.retroreport.org/voices/the-doctor/

  10. Vaughan Evans May 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    Do they still teach Home Economics in Schools anymore.
    When I was in grade 8, (in 1962)ALL boys had to take Industrial Arts all girls had to take Home Economics
    In the early 1960’s books could NOT take cooking or sewing and girls could not take woodwork.

    This produced a generation of ignorant young people in their 20’s
    THE FACTS;
    The education-and parenting-of children who grew up from 1945-1970-did not prepare them forf a society-when adults of BOTH sexes-would be going to work-and looking after children-and cleaning, cooking, washing, and shopping.
    I 1m 67. I am barely able to manage my own affairs.
    I am single I have to do EVERYTHING myself.
    I have NO ONE whom I can call-if something puzzles me.

  11. Teresa May 26, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

    This is so scary. This is another one of those problems in society now, this must be someone’s fault, so we will find fault with the parents. Nothing can just be, that this is one of those things that just happens. So sad for these parents.

  12. Margot May 26, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

    “Child Protective Services swooped in….”
    Yep, let’s play “demonise the CPS worker” again. C’mon Lenore. It’s too easy. And frankly, it’s offensive. In cases like these and other suspicious injury cases, CPS workers are reliant on expert medical advice. There’s not a lot of “swooping” going on. Just a lot of careful and agonising weighing up of the evidence and consideration of the huge risks of leaving a child in a situation where the medical evidence may say they’re in grave danger.
    Yes, clearly the medical community needs to look harder at this. As it stands though, it’s bloody hard to argue with science in a court of law though.

  13. JennRae1 May 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Unfortunately for those of us living this the standard of proof is still very low and you are NOT innocent until proven guilty. YOU and your family have to prove there is something else that could be to blame. These children go undiagnosed because the doctors stop looking for anything else in so many cases.

  14. Theresa May 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    Some people say it can be caused by vaccines. It could be true.

  15. HotInLa May 26, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    I don’t think you’re crazy Wendy. It’s happened, whether people want to believe it or not. I couldn’t care less if someone thinks im a crazy anti-vaccine person. I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m pro safe vaccines. 😉

  16. Beth May 26, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

    Please. This is not remotely a vaccine post. Could we not go there?

    On topic, how does one watch this movie? At one point I checked and it was only being shown on a very limited basis in, of course, big cities. There was a place to click to “bring it to your community”. Is anyone aware of wide release or other plans to make it accessible?

  17. elizabeth May 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

    This was on an episode of Chicago Med. They eventually found the real cause, but the mother was red-in-the-face furious at being accused of child abuse.

  18. Wendy W May 26, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    I am not an anti-vaxer. I am anti- the extremely overloaded vaccine schedule that is forced on our kids, and am for a parent’s right to make an informed decision without penalty or coercion. I in no way suggested that we should not vaccinate our children based on this issue.

    Studies are done on individual vaccines, and on the combo vaccines. To the best of my knowledge no studies have been done on administering multiple combo vaccines at one time. That kind of load on a baby’s immature system could easily have more serious reactions than one shot at a time.

    The point of the article above is that symptoms of SBS COULD come from other causes. I threw out the idea that one of those “others” could potentially be vaccines. Encephalitis – brain swelling – is one of the symptoms of SBS, and is a known, though rare, reaction to some vaccines. Along with other possible causes it should be investigated BEFORE inflicting the families with the legal system.

    I found this article from a dr. who did some independent research: http://www.jpands.org/hacienda/buttram.html

    The following were taken from the vaccine package inserts I found on-line.

    From the MMR package insert: Encephalitis and encephalopathy have been reported approximately once for every 3 million doses of M-M-R II or measles-, mumps-, and rubella-containing vaccine administered since licensure of these vaccines.

    From the “energix-B” -HepB- package insert: Nervous System Disorders: Encephalitis;

    From the “Fluarix”- flu- package insert: Nervous System Disorders: encephalomyelitis,

    From the “Fluvarin”- flu- package insert: Nervous system disorders: myelitis (including encephalomyelitis
    and transverse myelitis);

    From the “Infanrix” -DTP- package insert: Nervous System Disorders: Encephalopathy,

  19. Sue Luttner May 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you so much, Lenore, for publicizing the tragedy of shaken baby theory in the courtroom. Susan Goldsmith and her cousin have documented an ongoing, heartbreaking injustice.

    Families falsely accused of shaking their children are now finding each other on the internet, trying to join their voices and change how these cases are handled. For more information, please see the Protecting Innocent Families web site, at https://protectinginnocentfamilies.wordpress.com/

    For the story of a family torn apart when their son’s metabolic disorder was misdiagnosed as shaking injury, please see https://onsbs.com/prologue/

  20. JP Merzetti May 26, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    A number of years ago, I researched extensively the whole Satanic Panic mess. It just goes to prove how utterly wrong society can get something. We are not now, and never have been infallible in our judgements.
    Even forensic evidence can trick us into believing that we’re seeing something that isn’t true.
    Add to all that the ‘pandemic’ of extremely punitive response that now runs rampant – and this becomes one more issue that we’re so quick to jump to conclusions about….regardless of evidence.

    Medicalistas are often reluctant to let go of their syndromes. Especially when they can be so lucratively financialized.

  21. Theresa May 26, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

    We are discussing the possibility of vaccines looking like SBS. The government would have you believe vaccines are 100% safe. There is no such thing as 100%safe. We get over a dozen in our first year of life and some folks think we get too many shots. Sure many can say they got shots and came out fine but not everyone can say it. So we should at least look at the possibility because that is a smart thing to do so we can chose the path we think is best. Some people say that letting kids play without mommy and daddy is bad but maybe you don’t. It all depends on what you know.

  22. ArchimedesScrew May 26, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    Wow…a nurse said even tossing in the air to make them giggle could?

    While only one data point, I can say that in at less one case, tossing one into a ceiling fan didn’t. Oops?

  23. CLamb May 26, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    Parents of children with genetic metabolic disorders sometimes have the disorder diagnosed as physical child abuse or intentional poisoning. A search of the Organic Acidemia Association’s website for “child abuse” turns up many cases. http://www.oaanews.org/

  24. Anna May 26, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    “Yes, clearly the medical community needs to look harder at this. As it stands though, it’s bloody hard to argue with science in a court of law though.”

    Yes, and the trouble is that “science” has been extended to cover scores of forensic specialties that are treated as gospel, even though many of them are increasingly turning out to be mere pseudosciences. Radley Balko at Washington Post covers this topic of phony forensics quite often. He’s covered Shaken Baby Syndrome too – my impression from his piece on it is that the whole thing is bogus and that we have no reason to think any of the convictions for it are valid.

    I suspect all those CSI-type shows – where the scientists can solve the whole crime definitively using half a tooth mark or whatnot – are partly to blame for our society’s indiscriminate acceptance of forensics as infallible.

  25. Donald May 26, 2016 at 8:20 pm #

    Kafka-esque

    I didn’t know what this meant until Lisa Simpson said it. I then looked it up. It seems quite fitting to this one as well.

    ….typically features isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers, and has been interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.

    Bureaucracy has become a life form of it’s own and just like all life forms, it grows and protects itself.

    This is an extract from my blog

    This is a scathing attack on bureaucracy while at the same time it’s standing up for bureaucrats.

    Q. How can you be on both sides?

    A. I’m not. I’m highlighting the concept of a third side. A bureaucracy is like a ship. The bigger the bureaucracy, the bigger the ship AND THE MORE LIKELY THAT IT HAS NO CAPTAIN! This is the third side. I want to show that the system has taken on a life form of it’s own. Many bureaucrats have little or no power. They can only follow procedures, or get fired. (even jailed!)

    Many bureaucrats are only the crew members without a captain! The ‘enemy’ is its own growth that spreads uncontrollably like a noxious weed! The bureaucrats themselves have lost control and became slaves to their own creation!

    http://www.onmysoapboxx.com/

  26. Donald May 26, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

    @ Margot

    CSP is a good example of bureaucracy out of control. I agree with the phrase, “Child Protective Services swooped in….” However, I also want to stick up for CPS. I’m not fence sitting. I’m trying to highlight a 3rd side. and this is why I wrote my blog.

  27. Theresa May 26, 2016 at 9:21 pm #

    Cps is sometimes more of a problem then the so called bad parents. Lots of kids go out worse than they went in. Cps has trouble with proper medical care even though some of the kids are guinea pigs for doctors. And let not forget they have been abused kids in their care. Rape often goes untreated. Though you can’t change or cure it you can treat the symptoms of rape.

  28. sigh May 26, 2016 at 11:26 pm #

    Oh hooray, so glad this one is getting exposed to light and air, finally. FINALLY.

    I remember when SBS came into “Vogue.” I always was haunted by the absence of neck injuries. I figured it would be more likely the child would have whiplash or a broken neck than a brain injury if shaken, and that the brain bleeds must be coming from something else, perhaps not at all sinister or external, just genetic.

    “Never shake a baby” always seemed so bizarre to me. In my weakest moments as a parent, it didn’t feel like a natural expression of rage would be to take the kid by the shoulders and shake them. Throwing them across the room, hitting them, even squeezing them too hard all seemed more likely to me. But the whole “don’t shake the baby” thing just didn’t even seem like a likely thing to warn against.

    Where the hell did they come up with this? One guy’s hypothesis in 1971 and suddenly there’s a syndrome?

    It always smelled like BS to me. Now I know I was totally on the money.

    Sigh.

  29. Anna May 27, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    ““Never shake a baby” always seemed so bizarre to me. In my weakest moments as a parent, it didn’t feel like a natural expression of rage would be to take the kid by the shoulders and shake them.”

    I hadn’t thought about it this way, but you’re quite right. It doesn’t seem like a natural response to me either. If I picture myself in a towering rage at a mechanized doll (just to avoid triggering my moral sense) I can imagine throwing it across the room or something like that, but not shaking it.

  30. Beth2 May 27, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    @Emily, yeah, I had to watch the horrible never-shake-a-baby video at the hospital too, in order to be allowed to leave with my child. Or, more precisely, I had to sign a form *saying* that I watched the video. I watched it when my first kid was born. I refused to re-watch it for babies 2 and 3.

    At discharge, my husband likes to joke about all the paperwork. He refers to that particular form as the one where we promise we won’t shake our baby. Since I am ever the lawyer, I had to correct him: No honey, it doesn’t say, “I won’t shake my baby.” It says, “I heard you tell me that you don’t want me to shake my baby.”

  31. pentamom May 27, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    I disagree on “shaking a baby” not being a natural psychological response. Obviously, it wasn’t for the other commenters, and people are different.

    But when you’re exhausted, frustrated, whatever, but not far enough gone to throw the kid across the room or something, giving the kid a good shake can be tempting. I’ve been there.

  32. Beth May 27, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    @sigh, in addition to the absence of neck injuries, isn’t there some statistic that NO instance of shaken baby has ever been witnessed, in cases that have led to conviction? I can’t find it now, but I’m pretty sure I read that.

    If true, it means parents/caregivers can completely control their frustration whenever anyone is around, but the minute someone, even the other parent, leaves the room, all that rage manifests itself toward shaking the baby?

  33. Donna May 27, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    “isn’t there some statistic that NO instance of shaken baby has ever been witnessed, in cases that have led to conviction?”

    That is my understanding.

    There have been several cases where the accused “confessed” to shaking the baby. But false confessions happen all the time and many of these so called “confessions” were simply the accused trying to explain that they lightly shook the baby to sooth or in the attempt to revive.

  34. C. S. P. Schofield June 1, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

    Margot;

    Chile Protection Services are textbook example of government overreach. Barring infinite funding and a staff go Seraphim, such agencies are going to make mistakes. Now, absent CPS, some families are going to kill their children. That’s a tragedy and a horror. But with CPS, some families are going to be falsely accused and their lives destroyed. That is a tragedy and a horror for which, since the Government serves the sovereign citizens, I AM RESPONSIBLE.

    No. We can’t bandage every boo boo, stop every bully, prevent every death. And trying to ensures that we will make some matters worse, and that will be our fault.

    Good intentions count of bupkis