The crush of the stories is getting to me, both the number of them and the cruelty.
Justice Richard L. Buchter in New York drove the point home last week during the sentencing of Hang Bin Li, the immigrant father convicted last month of manslaughter in the death of his infant daughter Annie. According to the New York Times coverage, Buchter called Li’s treatment of his daughter “shocking, sickening, sadistic” before imposing a sentence of 5 to 15 years.
The New York Post reported that Li tried to tell the judge he was innocent, saying, “I didn’t know how or why this happened. I wrote what my statements were to the police, three times of what happened.”
But the judge cut him off. “These are the same lies the jury rejected,” he said.
No one is listening.
And the tragedies keep coming. Jason Curtis in Iowa, for example, was convicted last month of first-degree murder in the death of his son Jackson, 5 months old when he quit breathing during a nap.
Curtis’s story was simple: He was at home with the baby while the child’s mother was at work. He thought Jackson was asleep, but when he checked on him mid-morning, he found the boy unresponsive. He immediately dialed 911.
Doctors found no bruises, abrasions, red marks, or fractures, but bleeding and swelling inside the boy’s skull convinced them he had been assaulted—more than once.
Like many children diagnosed with shaking injuries, Jackson had a complex medical history. He had been prescribed a series of anti-biotics and anti-fungal medications, and he had been hospitalized at the age of three months for failure to thrive. On the day he quit breathing, he was being treated for a respiratory infection. Autopsy revealed a large chronic subdural hematoma and multiple small rebleeds.
“Every time they gave him a new medication, he got sicker,” says Roni Hays, Curtis’s aunt, who also points out that during ten doctor visits over Jackson’s five months of life, not a single medical record noted evidence of abuse.
Even one of the prosecution experts testified that nothing in the child’s brain could “unequivocally” be considered evidence of trauma. Daily trial coverage in the local newspaper, no longer on line, included the testimony of defense experts Dr. Waney Squier and Dr. Peter Stephens, who disputed the abuse diagnosis.
Prosecutor Matt Wilber told reporters after the verdict that his office had targeted Curtis from the beginning, because of a “prior child abuse conviction.” Patty Parham, another of Curtis’s aunts, told me that a couple of years ago both Curtis and the children’s mother had taken plea bargains on the advice of their public defenders, when their four-month-old daughter was found to have a fractured arm and clavicle. Curtis pled guilty to child endangerment and the girl was returned to her parents. (If you assume all plea bargains equal confessions, please see this posting.)
“Jason would never hurt a child,” Parham insists. “If you ever saw Jason with his kids you’d know it. His children are everything to him.” Friends and relatives commenting on his petition site concur. A former supervisor of Curtis’s at an adult care facility wrote that Jason “always gave dignity and respect to our residents.”
In Ohio, meanwhile, another father has been convicted of shaking his son to death, in a murky case full of pre-judgment and miscommunication. Brandon Wilson reported that some weeks before his son quit breathing, the 10-month-old had fallen down several stairs, and then later had fallen from a shopping cart at a local store. The parents had taken him to an urgent care facility because of continued vomiting, but that was still weeks before his medical crisis. In a taped police interview after the child’s death, detectives insisted that something must have happened just before the boy collapsed, and that’s when Wilson “acknowledged that he had shaken the baby.”
The police heard a confession to shaking, but his words as reported sound to me more like an attempt to revive a non-responsive infant. The Portsmouth Daily Times coverage reported this impression from the tape:
Earlier in the interview when Wilson began to acknowledge that he had shaken the baby somewhat, Wilson said – “But I was not shaking that baby to hurt the baby or anything like that. I was just concerned about—you know what I mean? It was just—he was limp. It seemed like he was dead already when he was laying there.”
Later in the interview, he reiterated – “Well, I don’t really know how—I was not shaking him, like, really forcefully, but I was just trying to get him to wake up.”
Experts for the prosecution testified that children do not die from short falls like those Wilson had reported.
But I can’t help protesting: What makes the doctors so sure these parents are lying? Their families seem to believe them.
Hangbin Li’s wife, the mother of his deceased daughter, asked the judge for leniency, calling Hangbin a good father and saying, “I was there that day, I saw everything. He didn’t intentionally hurt Annie.”
I had gotten to know Jason Curtis a little bit, through email, while he was realizing the state was really going to prosecute him for the death of his son. He was polite, thoughtful, and not a bit pushy. I was relieved when I heard that Dr. Squier was taking on his case—and I was shocked when I heard he’d been convicted of first-degree murder. When his family members described him to me as patient and gentle, it only confirmed my impression.
I wish the child-abuse experts would stop and listen to the parents and caregivers, and to the people who know them. I am not saying that children are never abused, or that shaking a baby is not dangerous. Indeed, I’m sure shaking a baby can be fatal.
But I’ve logged my time in the medical library, and in the courthouse, and I know that the pattern of cranial bleeding and swelling that now defines Abusive Head Injury does not prove abuse, even though a number of respected professionals seem to sincerely believe that it does. (See, for example, this article by intensivist Dr. Steven Gabaeff, which comes with a downloadable collection of original sources.) How many more cases like that of Tammy Fourman or Patti Kwan do we need before doctors slow down and listen to the evidence that a number of physiological processes can result in this cluster, not only violent assault?
I’ve seen two important changes in the arena over the past 15 years.
First, physicians and attorneys from outside the child-protection community have been drawn in, as they’ve encountered troubling accusations and convictions in their own practices. The result is a new wave of published research that questions the model of infant head injury that’s been winning for 30 years in the courtroom.
Second, the affected families are finding each other over the internet. Just now they are staggering under the weight of their individual burdens, but together they could become a voice loud enough to be heard.
copyright 2013, Sue Luttner
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma in general, please see the home page of this web site.