“Over time, the truth prevails,” Illinois defense attorney Zachary Bravos promised his audience—parents falsely accused of abusing their children—at the second-ever Evidence-Based Medicine and Social Investigation conference this past weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia.
After 30 years of injustice rooted in a flawed model of shaken baby syndrome, Bravos said, “the legal system is getting to the point where at least it recognizes the legitimate dispute in the medical community.”
At the same time, he conceded, “These cases are still coming in by the boatload.”
As his audience was well aware. Conference organizer Zabeth Bayne and her husband Paul were accused of shaking their infant daughter, only six weeks old at the time, in the fall of 2007. While the Baynes fought the charges, their children spent four years in foster care—except for the youngest, conceived after the accusations, who was taken from his parents at birth and lived his first six months in foster placement.
All four children were finally returned a year ago, after outside experts looked at the medical records and concluded that the girl’s injuries could have been caused by the incident the parents reported at the time: One of the older boys had fallen on the baby. The Bayne children were all present at the conference and noticeably well behaved, the older two helpful.
Bravos said that the family’s experience is not unique, with forced foster placement after any accusation. Family court does not operate on the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but rather on “a preponderence of the evidence,” which takes very little for a finding of abuse. “Once that finding is made, that becomes the reality. If a spouse does not go along with the program, he or she is unlikely to get the children back.”
“I can’t blame anybody in that situation who goes along with the program,” Bravos said, “I can’t blame anybody who accepts a plea bargain. But it then becomes another validation for the theory of shaken baby syndrome.”
He advised accused parents to get “every scrap of paper” relevant to their child’s case, from pre-natal records to ER and nurse’s notes. “Parents can often do this even if the attorneys can’t,” he pointed out.
Bravos also recommended filing a pretrial motion—a Daubert motion in some states, a Frye motion in others—asking to exclude testimony about shaken baby syndrome. “We file in every case, and we have lost on every one of those motions,” he reported, “but that’s not what is important.” Filing the motion preserves the right on appeal, he insisted, “These are flares in the night.”
Bravos is a veteran of the legal struggles over “recovered memories,” in which civil and criminal suits were based on presumably suppressed memories of childhood abuse that emerged during certain types of therapy, often including hypnosis. After researchers demonstrated that such memories could also be planted, those cases quit coming to court.
“We could sue for damages” in the recovered-memory cases, Bravos noted. “We could get money out of people’s pockets and, more importantly, out of their insurance companies’ pockets.” Soon insurance companies quit offering coverage to psychologists using those therapies, and the era faded, at least in court.
“We don’t have that leverage now,” he lamented, still maintaining that child-abuse professionals deserve amnesty for their honest opinions. “I don’t blame them, either,” he sighed, “It’s human nature.”
Bravos explained how the legal system let an unproven theory go so far: Abuse cases are very difficult to begin with, he said, and the evidence can be murky and complex. “When we’re presented with complex problems, it’s really comforting to have a simple answer.” In the case of shaken baby syndrome, that answer is: The last person alone with the baby is guilty.
Bravos also fought against the satanic ritual abuse cases in the 1980s, discussed on this blog at “California’s Nightmare Nursery,” one of the on-line chapters of my book.
His talk wrapped up two inspiring and useful conference days that included presentations by expert witnesses from a variety of specialties as well as social service professionals. I will be reporting on more individual talks as I find the time.
My hat is off to Zabeth, her family, and the team of volunteers who made this conference so rewarding. I am dazzled by the resilience of the parents and foster parents I met there, and the people who support them.