The Word Is Out

WashPostTitleAfter 30 years of occasional, isolated coverage, both the national and the local media are starting to take a serious look at the debate about shaken baby theory—even as the accusations and convictions continue.

This past weekend Debbie Cenziper at The Washington Post published what I think qualifies as an exposé of shaking theory, the result of a full year of research that brought together the work of other Post staffers as well as students and teachers at half a dozen universities, including the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University.

Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch

Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch

Shaken Science: A Disputed Diagnosis Imprisons Parents” offers a thorough but engaging analysis of the issues, including  helpful diagrams and the most accessible press treatment I’ve seen yet of the biomechanics. Cenziper opens, of course, with the story of one accused caregiver and interweaves more cases along the way, so that the piece is not only informative but also readable. She also reports the thoughts of several physicians, including Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, the first person to propose in print, in the British Medical Journal in 1971, that shaking an infant could cause subdural bleeding.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (NCSBS) has released a response to the Post piece, listing the professional organizations that have endorsed shaken baby theory and protesting:

 The Washington Post article portrays a “dispute” in the medical community as to the existence of SBS/AHT. There is a very small minority of proponents for the position that shaking cannot harm an infant, but this position is not supported by the science.

Like the letters protesting the film The Syndrome, the NCSBS response to the Post says that critics of shaking theory think that shaking a baby is not dangerous, although I don’t see anyone in the article making that statement. I think the question is whether the presence of the brain injury proves that a child was violently assaulted.

Cenziper’s article has been picked up in a number of regional newspapers, including the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, the Daily Herald in Illinois, and the Dallas Morning News in TexaPBSNewsHours.

Then on Monday of this week, PBS NewsHour ran a segment on the shaking debate, a report titled “A disputed diagnosis that sends parents to prison for abuse.” The piece includes a look at the case of Drayton Witt in Arizona, whose appeal drew Dr. Guthkelch back into the arena, as well as interviews with child abuse pediatrician Dr. Lori Frasier—the author of a book on abusive head trauma written “for clinicians, investigators, prosecutors, and social workers”—and Katherine Judson from the Innocence Network.

Josh Burns with his daughter Naomi

Josh Burns with his daughter

Even before these national treatments emerged, regional news outlets had started giving sympathetic coverage to local cases. Last week in Michigan, Heather Catallo of ABC affiliate WXYZ  led off her video report about convicted father Joshua Burns with images of Burns’s supporters proclaiming their faith in his innocence at his sentencing hearing. The prosecutor argued for a harsh sentence, calling Burns a “danger” and objecting, “He’s not admitting that he did it. He’s still maintaining full innocence.” But the judge handed down the minimum sentence, a year in jail. Yesterday, WXYZ reported that prosecutors say they are not moving to terminate Joshua’s parental rights.

Also in early March, the Bennington Banner in Vermont ran a feature story by Keith Whitcomb Jr. about accused father Russell Van Vleck, found innocent by a jury in 2011 after a two-year nightmare for his entire family. Van Vleck’s son Colin, 5 weeks old the evening he quit breathing while lying on the couch next to his father, had been born with a skull malformation that had complicated his delivery.

TheSyndromeAnd the film exposé The Syndrome, which premiered in the fall of 2014, is being accepted at film festivals across the country (coming up: the (In)justice for All Film Festival in Chicago, April 13, and the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson, April 18), staying in the news and triggering more coverage of the topic.

Outside of the mainstream press, web sites targeted to attorneys are also addressing shaken baby syndrome. On Wednesday of this week, the American Bar Association published an article in its Children’s Rights Litigation section by Katherine Judson at the Innocence Network, titled “What Child Welfare Attorneys Need to Know About Shaken Baby Litigation.” In February, the site, which describes itself as a web journal offering resources for legal professionals, published a valuable review of the debate, “Shaken Baby Syndrome: A Differential Diagnosis of Justice,” featuring live links to court decisions, journal articles, and other resources, by attorney, librarian, and writer Ken Struton, and the National Association of Public Defenders published an essay by public defender Jill Paperno, “Another Step Away From Bad Science – a Review of the  History and Science of Shaken Baby Syndrome in People v. Rene Bailey (December 16, 2014, Monroe County, NY).”

Still, the community of child abuse experts and the justice system remain committed to shaken baby theory. Yesterday in South Carolina, an 18-year police veteran was in court, accused of shaking his 3-month-old son into permanent brain damage. According to the local news report, the prosecutor told the judge that the boy’s injuries “could only have been caused by a violent shaking or by a fall of 20 feet or more.”

oklahomaChildrensIn Oklahoma last week, a step-father was charged with abuse after reporting that the baby fell from a bed. According to the News 9 coverage:

Detectives said they knew [the stepfather] was not being honest about what happened after doctors said the baby’s injuries weren’t consistent with his story. “The baby had to be violently shaken for him to have these injuries,” [Det. David] Thompkins said.

And this week in New York, detectives revisiting an old case charged a mother’s ex-boyfriend with manslaughter for the 2010 death of a 13-month-old boy who suffered injuries “consistent with shaken baby syndrome.” According to the report in The Buffalo News, detectives had acquired a more definitive medical opinion and carried out an additional interview with the suspect:

“In questioning Gonzalez, detectives were able to confirm a few things, though he didn’t confess, but it helped our case,” [Homicide Capt. Joseph] Gramaglia said. “We also obtained a medical opinion that bolstered the case.”

I don’t know what it will take to stop the ongoing tragedy of shaken baby theory in the courtroom. I have taken one small step, though. I’ve signed the Protecting Innocent Families petition, which asks for an objective, scientific review of the evidence behind today’s guidelines for diagnosing child abuse.

If you are not familiar with the debate about shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.

copyright 2015, Sue Luttner


Filed under abusive head trauma, National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

8 responses to “The Word Is Out

  1. Pingback: Good News, Bad News: the Tragedies Continue | On Shaken Baby

  2. Liora

    I requested this through our public library, and they ordered it, just like that. Got to watch it with my mom and oldest daughter. Highly recommend also checking out the blog

  3. I truly fail to understand why people think that not believing SBS exists as a scientifically proven medical diagnosis, (which it is NOT, it was a theory only) means that those same people do not believe that child abuse exists at all, when nothing could be further from the truth.

    Of course child abuse exists, but that does not mean EVERY child with a subdural hemorrhage was abused. Some in the medical and law enforcement communities are way too quick to accuse a parent or caregiver of abuse.

    Jeff Havard is in his thirteenth year on death row in Mississippi for a crime that never happened.

    While lifting a wet, wriggly six-month-old child out of a baby bath within a larger tub, he lost his grip on her and she fell, striking her head on the toilet. She appeared to be fine, not even a bump or bruise on her head, and would have been fine, likely, but for a multifocal cephalohematoma that had not healed from a traumatic vacuum birth. She also had sepsis and a myriad of other medical conditions that can mimic/present as SBS, especially in 2002.

    The child had been put to bed, and by the time they found she had deteriorated, she was blueish and not breathing. When she got to the ER, she was DOA but was eventually intubated and a nurse changing her diaper noted a dilation that occurs naturally during death but which was misdiagnosed as sexual assault. There was no differential diagnosis done, and no one in that ER called in an expert to examine the child. Instead, they immediately called the police.

    The ME did not have the baby’s medical records at autopsy, so while the Sheriff and the DA were crowing that she was a “perfectly healthy child” before the autopsy was completed, they could not have been more wrong.

    The ME told the prosecutor that he found no evidence of sexual assault, yet the prosecutor ignored that and charged Jeff with capital murder, seeking the death penalty.

    The prosecutor stood before they jury and told them that the ME, Dr. Steven Hayne, confirmed that a sexual assault had taken place.

    It was a lie, and he knew it, but the jury didn’t.

    In a death penalty trial that lasted, from jury selection to sentencing, approx. 12 business hours, and a jury that deliberated 36 minutes on Jeff Havard’s life or death, the death sentence was no surprise.

    Not so surprisingly, numerous experts have examined this case pro bono and found the evidence matches Jeff Havard’s account, and not the state’s theory.

    What IS surprising is that after 12 years, the medical examiner came forward and admitted that he had told the prosecution and their office on several occasions prior to trial, that there were microscopic tissues examined and there was no sexual assault. He also stated that due to advances in science, his cause of death was “probably not correct.”

    So, my question is, why are people not screaming from the rooftops about this injustice, and why, in a case where NO child abuse or crime ever happened, is Jeff Havard still sitting on death row?

    • Thank you, Ms. Howard, for this excellent summary of the Jeffrey Havard case. I, too, am baffled both that the State of Mississippi refuses to re-examine this case, even in the light of Dr. Hayne’s amended statements, and that more people don’t seem to understand the enormity of the injustice here.

  4. Gina Thorne

    Keep up the reporting of this travesty of justice. The truth will rise like cream. Medicine is not an exact science, but certainly there is enough evidence (esp. about retinal hemorrhages) to suspect other causes for it besides abusive head trauma. Unfortunately it’s not JUST about a proper diagnosis, it’s also about the doctors reputations and the fact that the people they’ve accused will begin appealing, as is their right. Not to mention the money they’ll lose. Always follow the money. Fewer SBS diagnosis, fewer cash dollars to the hospitals.

    • Peggy

      There is another cause of brain swelling and retinal bleeding that many do not know about and will open another can of worms. That is vaccination. If you have the time look into the Baby Allen case. His father was imprisioned or SBS when in fact the trigger was the DPT vaccine. I cannot remember all the specifics but his conviction was overturned. Apparently the DPT vaccine can cause brain swelling.

      Dr. Harold Buttram and F. Edward Yazbak wrote on the subject of false accusations of SBS and vaccine-induced encephalitis in their paper titled Shaken Baby Syndrome or Vaccine Induced Encephalitis: The Story of Baby Alan.[7]
      Dr. Buttram opens his paper by stating:

      In the following report Dr. Yazbak and myself have reviewed the case of an infant death which we believe to have been mistakenly diagnosed as shaken baby syndrome, the true cause of death in our opinions having been a vaccine-induced encephalitis. Having carefully followed the case and its developments for nearly a year, the report represents untold numbers of hours of study and investigation into the many technical parameters of the case. From this study we have come to realize that this case is representative of an emerging pattern of increasingly frequent vaccine reactions on the modern scene, which are being overlooked or misdiagnosed by our present health-care system.

      You can read the entire paper at

      The Story of Baby Alan is a poignant one, all the more so because it is something that could happen to any young couple or parent. Although the story is necessarily technical, nevertheless we urge that you read it. If you are a young person contemplating having a family, it is something that could happen to you.

      Despite all of this evidence, however, parents continue to be blamed for shaking their babies before all other possible diagnoses have been fully explored.

  5. JON

    It’s wonderful to hear and see that the fallibility of SBS, without corroboration and despite other causative factors in an infant’s history, is finally spreading and gaining trust among the more enlightened and capable litigators and magistrates. I hope it reaches Pierce County, WA in time to prevent further pain and injustice to my son and his beautiful, healthy 28-month-old son – my grandson. My son made the 911-call that saved my grandson’s life, who was suffering complications from a botched vacuum extraction and subsequent emergency c-section. Without any attempt to get and refer to my grandson’s medical history, the first responders and ER doctor labeled my son as an SBS felon and put him and his family in the position where we must ”prove” his innocence. What a sham of a justice system exists in Pierce County where they refuse to educate themselves on the dearth of any hard science behind SBS and the retraction by the doctor who first proposed this ”syndrome”, not a diagnosis.

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