Tulsa Attorney BlogShaken Baby Syndrome Relies on Shaky Science

Abusive Head Trauma Often Misdiagnosed

shaken baby syndromeChild abuse can be one of the hardest issues for the law to fix. After all, part of what makes being a parent so hard is that children sometimes get hurt. Plus, parents are allowed by law to physically discipline their children within reason. It can be very difficult for a judge and jury to sit in a courtroom and decide when the line is crossed.

Cases involving infants are a particular challenge because infants have no way to explain what happened to them. Evidence of shaken baby syndrome can be misleading. Until recently, testimony in shaken baby cases tended to be treated as settled science. Now, new research is casting doubts on the core presumptions behind what was once considered solid science.

Emotional Allegations and Wrongful Convictions

Shaken baby syndrome, sometimes now called abusive head trauma, is usually diagnosed by a “triad” of symptoms. These include (1) bleeding in the retinas, (2) bleeding around the brain, and (3) swelling of the brain. If a doctor sees these symptoms and they are not explained by some trauma like a recent car accident, then child abuse through shaken baby syndrome is often determined the cause.

It is often alleged that a parent or caregiver lost his or her temper with a baby that would not stop crying. There is a lot of reason to doubt the diagnosis, though.

Emotions run high during a shaken baby syndrome investigation. Parents will have just lost their child, and they are typically going to be devastated. If the baby died while with a caregiver the parents rage may focus on the caregiver. While the police or the parents might be looking to place responsibility on someone, the parent or caregiver might be uncooperative because they are shocked and offended by the questioning.

Parents or caregivers might also be reluctant to admit a mistake that may not be a crime. They might have allowed the child to slip and fall in the tub. Yet, by refusing to cooperate with investigators, they can find themselves charged with shaking the baby.

Another problem is that parents and caregivers are often convicted without all of these symptoms even being present. For example, one woman was convicted after her grandchild died and was found with bleeding in her brain, but no other symptoms. That grandmother also had no history of child abuse and a great deal of experience with small children, so there was no reason to suspect her of losing her cool and shaking the baby to death.

Changing Science Debunks Shaken Baby Syndrome

One case receiving national attention in recent months involved Zavio Johnson. In 2001, the 18 year old father was accused of killing his infant daughter. The infant died after suffering a fractured skull and internal bleeding.

It turns out the young father had accidentally dropped the infant in the shower, but in his fear he had failed to tell police about that. Instead investigators assumed he had shaken the baby to death. Mr. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In other cases, parents have suffered wrongful convictions after their children suffered from unrelated issues. For example, one father was charged with shaking his two-month-old baby to death while the mother failed to call 911 after the baby was found with a skull fracture, brain bleeding, two broken legs, and a fractured ribs.

Further investigation revealed the child could have suffered from a rare genetic disease that made her bones susceptible to breaking. There are numerous rare conditions that may be mistaken by police as shaken baby syndrome.

In fact, an extensive review in 2016 found that there is no solid evidence for taking the “triad” of symptoms as incontrovertible evidence of shaken baby syndrome. Swedish researchers looked at over 3,700 studies that linked the triad to shaken baby syndrome and found that only two studies contained plausible evidence that the triad of symptoms, without other evidence, point to child abuse.

Even those two studies were a bit shaky, in part because they relied on confessions from adults that lacked key details. The in-depth review of existing research indicates there is almost no true scientific basis for the “science” behind many wrongful convictions where shaken baby syndrome was alleged.

Child Abuse Defenses

If you recently lost a child you have a lot on your plate. You may be suspected by the police of being responsible. The Wirth Law Office can help you understand your legal options. For a free consultation with a Tulsa attorney, call (918) 879-1681 or submit a question through this website.

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