Shaken-baby syndrome: the doubts

by Walter Olson on February 8, 2011

In dozens of prosecutions each year, parents or caregivers are charged after infants who died under their care have been found to display supposedly infallible indicators of abuse — in particular, subdural and retinal hemorrhage with brain swelling. Many convicted defendants stoutly maintain their innocence all along; others are sent to prison on the basis of equivocal “confessions”. Even when (as is common) there is no pattern of previous child abuse, it often happens that authorities remove other children from an alleged abuser’s home as legal action proceeds. Has the hope of using cutting-edge forensics to identify abusers wound up leading the authorities and courts to inflict new injustices? [Emily Bazelon, New York Times Magazine] More: Balko.

{ 7 comments }

1 Le Mur 02.08.11 at 12:13 pm

An unfortunate incident, whatever the real story.
However;
Shake, baby, shake, baby, shake
Until your mamma and your pop come home
Ye-e-e-ah Shake, baby, shake, baby, shake
Until the meat comes off-a the bone
Shake, baby, shake, baby, shake
Well I love your cute little ways

2 Smart Dude 02.08.11 at 5:08 pm

Shaken Baby false convictions are the Day Care devil worship cult prosecutions of the 2010 decade.

Another way for corrupt Prosecutors and Junk Science professional witnesses to advance their evil careers and make money, respectively.

3 Roy Benaroch 02.08.11 at 9:41 pm

Every case of suspected abusive head trauma needs to be investigated using the best science and forensic tools. It is a tragedy when anyone is falsely accused of a crime.

But make no mistake: shaken baby syndrome is real, and it kills. There is a noisy little wedge of professional “abuse denialists” who will defend even the most clear-cut and egregious cases of child abuse. Junk science and evil careers, I am afraid, may be more prevalent across the aisle.

4 William Nuesslein 02.09.11 at 10:08 am

I wonder how commenter (3) Roy Benroch knows that “shaken baby syndrome is real, and it kills.” when the forensic science is questionable. We accepted repressed memory, and that is now completed discredited except by the appeals court in Massachusetts (They are really bad!). And there were those moronic day-care-center cases that resulted from suggestion. And, in my opinion, the entire Priest scandal was a result of bad law and avarice. Don’t forget the vaccine craziness.

5 Ben S 02.09.11 at 5:31 pm

After reading some of the actual (ie. non-media) writing on the subject, while there are questions as to the application of the SBS label, most often abuse actually did happen, just not necessarily by the last person to touch the child.

http://thejns.org/doi/full/10.3171/2009.1.PEDS093

6 Roy Benaroch 02.09.11 at 9:26 pm

I am a pediatrician, and I have taken care of babies who have been shaken to death. In the two cases I was involved with, the perpetrator was either witnessed or confessed, so the question of who was guilty wasn’t an issue. The mechanism of trauma– violent shaking– can kill babies, and has killed babies.

I don’t see why this is comparable to the scandalous history of repressed memory, though I suppose at a stretch you could say that since there have been things that have later turned out to be false, then anything could be false.

7 William Nuesslein 02.10.11 at 11:50 am

To comment 6:

There were trials with witnesses in the day-care-center cases. See Capturing the Friedmans. The police, the prosecutors, and the judge all believed in the ridiculous case.

Suppose a baby in distress. The care giver is frustrated and shakes the baby. The baby dies. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is likely. Care givers are embarrassed or outraged by the violent action. False confession would not be unexpected. False denials would not be unexpected either.

There was a case in Georgia where a father was accused of penetrating his young daughter. He denied the charge; his wife swore that he was with her throughout the night; and the girl said that somebody entered her room through the window and took her out to his car. The officials disregarded these stories. Eventually a man was found who was in the neighborhood at the time of the rape, and DNA showed it was he. This was one of the first DNA cases.

Shaken baby syndrome is not dispositive like DNA, and is subject to biased interpretation (The expert knows that the child died shortly after the shaking.) Rather than being a stretch, it is common sense that ” since there have been things that have later turned out to be false, then anything could be false.”

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