Based on the trailer and publicity posted on the film’s web site, a group of child abuse professionals has written to the Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF) requesting that organizers cancel Sunday’s premiere screening of The Syndrome, a documentary about the debate surrounding shaken baby theory.
KIFF organizers received two letters earlier this week, one from the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (NCSBS) that calls the film’s promotional materials “appalling, inaccurate, and potentially dangerous” and worries that viewers might get the impression that shaking a baby is not harmful, so that “numerous infants could be put in significant danger.”
A second letter signed by 29 child-abuse physicians protests:
“The prerelease materials… clearly state that the film provides a national platform for the tiny handful of well-known child abuse defense witnesses to publicize their fringe message—that shaking an infant cannot cause death or traumatic brain injury.” [italics in original]
The physician letter calls The Syndrome “a gross and deliberate mischaracterization of vital public health and child safety issues,” and the authors seem to be threatening a lawsuit:
“This is a public health matter and as organizers of this film festival we hope you share this concern. Under these circumstances, we also hope that you will reconsider featuring this film as part of your upcoming festival. In the event that you decide to continue with premiering this film, we may opt to pursue additional legal action.”
The letter-writers had threatened litigation earlier, complaining that a news clip in the trailer presented the words of a child abuse pediatrician out of context. Director Meryl Goldsmith says her intention was not to deceive but to include quotes from both sides in the preview. Investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith explains why they edited the trailer: “Instead of hassling with them over a few seconds, we just cut it even though it was exactly how the news clip appeared. We made no changes to the film.”
You can see the letter to KIFF organizers from NCSBS executive director Ryan Steinbeigle by clicking here, NCSBS letter, and the letter from the medical professionals by clicking here, physician letter.
The move to block The Syndrome isn’t surprising, after all the grief the film received from speakers at last month’s NCSBS conference. Political science professor Ross Cheit from Brown University, for example, in his talk “‘Exonerating’ the Guilty: Child Abuse and the Corruption of the False Conviction Movement,” characterized The Syndrome as “a love letter” to three defense experts. He said it was “a defense lawyer’s dream . . . you get to put on your testimony and there’s no cross-examination.” He objected to the term used in the trailer, “shaken baby syndrome industrial complex,” which he said shows “incredible arrogance and remarkable ignorance” on the part of the filmmakers because, “Child abuse is not where the money is. Child abuse defense is where the money is.”
Professor Cheit compared The Syndrome to Capturing the Friedmans, a 2003 documentary that raised questions about a 1980s child sex-abuse case in New York. Prof. Cheit portrayed that film as a whitewash on behalf of father-and-son felons Arnold and Jesse Friedman. Noting that Capturing the Friedmans was a finalist for an academy award the year it came out, Prof. Cheit said he worries about the “gullible acceptance many people have for a movie that’s labeled ‘documentary.'”
Presumably the KIFF organizers and judges made their choices carefully, both when they included The Syndrome in their program and when they nominated it for a jury award. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it addresses some of the troubling questions that have raged around shaken baby syndrome for decades now—and I doubt the take-home message is really that shaking a baby is safe.
As for protecting the children: I am concerned about the infants who are denied the medical care they need when a hasty diagnosis of abuse stops the search for the medical conditions that underlie many cases of brain bleeding and swelling with no outward signs of trauma, as well as the siblings who are torn unnecessarily from loving homes. I am especially concerned about the cavalier opinion that household falls do not cause serious injury or death. I wish that parents were warned not only about shaking infants but also about dropping them. While most falls do not cause major injury, lives could be saved and injuries prevented if we started installing mats under changing tables and padding in play areas. Meanwhile, doctors simply do not know enough about infant neurobiology to support the definitive statements about infant shaking that have been winning in court for 30 years.
Spring 2016 Update:The Syndrome, in now available on demand in North America through Freestyle Digital Media, http://freestyledigitalmedia.tv/the-syndrome/
For my blog posting after the premiere showing of The Syndrome in October of 2014, go to Finding a Voice, and a Community.