Retro Report Nails the Nanny Story

Louise Woodward, 1997

Louise Woodward, 1997

Retro Report producer Miriam Weintraub, in her recent documentary looking back at the story of “Boston nanny” Louise Woodward, has identified the key fact about news coverage of the case in the 1990s: In its fixation on working parents and teenage nannies, the press missed the real story, the actual medical debate about shaken baby theory.

“But today the shaken baby diagnosis is under increasing scrutiny,” the narrator informs us, cutting to a quote from Dr. Patrick Barnes:

“There is no doubt that errors have been made and injustices have resulted.”

Dr. Barnes, a pediatric neuroradiologist, testified for the prosecution at the Woodward trial but later began doubting what he’d learned from his mentors and peers about infant head injury, as he explains on camera:

“Particularly when I started going to the literature outside of the box I was in, in the child abuse literature box, and looking at the science of traumatic head injury written by true specialists and experts in those fields. Then I began to be concerned that for the prior 15-20 years I may be wrong.”

Prosecutor Martha Coakley, however, stands by the conviction and the diagnosis:

We knew that the injuries this child had suffered, given that he was fine that morning and by the time he was in the emergency room he was on death’s door, those had been inflicted injuries. They were severe, they were acute and they were not accidental.

And Dr. Robert Block, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), says there has been no change in thinking among child abuse experts:

There are a few people who have generated opposing points of view for whatever reason. But, if you talk to child abuse pediatricians who work with these clinical cases all the time you will find that opinion about the presence of shaken baby syndrome or abusive head trauma has not shifted one iota.

At the time of the Woodward trial, the official name of the diagnosis was still Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), as described in both the 1993 AAP position statement and the 2001 AAP technical report. By the time Dr. Block was interviewed by Retro Report in 2015, the AAP had issued its 2009 update, changing the name to Abusive Head Trauma (AHT) with this explanation:

“The term ‘shaken baby syndrome’ has become synonymous in public discourse with AHT in all its forms.17 The term is sometimes used inaccurately to describe infants with impact injury alone or with multiple mechanisms of head and brain injury and focuses on a specific mechanism of injury rather than the abusive event that was perpetrated against a helpless victim. Legal challenges to the term ‘shaken baby syndrome’ can distract from the more important questions of accountability of the perpetrator and/or the safety of the victim.”

I recommend following the link from this quote to the abstract for footnote 17, Lazoritz and Baldwin (1997), “The whiplash shaken infant syndrome: Has Caffey’s syndrome changed, or have we changed his syndrome?,” which documents how far the diagnosis had strayed in 1997 from Caffey’s first definitions. Following some of the further links on that page, to the abstracts for Bandak 2005 (“Shaken baby syndrome, a biomechanics analysis of injury mechanisms”), for example, and Talbert 2009  (“The nature of shaken baby syndrome injuries and the significance of the ‘lucid interval’), illustrates some of the unresolved questions about the condition.

The Retro Report narration identifies the traditional triad as the defining features of shaken baby syndrome at the time of the Woodward trial:

“For decades, when doctors saw a child with a particular set of symptoms known as the triad—bleeding behind the eyes, bleeding on the brain, and brain swelling—they would conclude there was only one possible cause: shaking.”

But Dr. Block says doctors do not rely on the triad:

“Nobody looks at a baby with those three things and says, ah ha, shaken baby syndrome… We go through a very intensive history taking, which involves looking at the last 24 to 48 hours of this baby’s life. And then we do what’s called a differential diagnosis after doing a bunch of laboratory tests. Our job is to make sure that we’ve looked at every other possibility.”

As this blog has reported before, however, in 1998 several dozen child abuse experts signed a letter about the Woodward case that took this position:

The shaken baby syndrome (with or without evidence of impact) is now a well-characterized clinical and pathological entity with diagnostic features in severe cases virtually unique to this type of injury—swelling of the brain (cerebral edema) secondary to severe brain injury, bleeding within the head (subdural  hemorrhage), and bleeding in the interior linings of the eyes (retinal hemorrhages). Let those who would challenge the specificity of these diagnostic features first do so in the peer-reviewed literature, before speculating on other causes in court.

Dr. Block’s parting quote explains his priority in the shaken baby debate:

I think it’s reasonable to worry and be as careful as we can to make sure that people who are convicted are appropriately convicted. But to talk about their conviction negates the fact that we really need to be talking about the children. It’s the children who are affected in each and every case. It’s the children who are devastated or killed.

Quentin Stone

Quentin Stone

The Retro Report documentary also features the case of Quentin Stone in Yolo County, California, who was found innocent by a jury in May of 2014 but is still fighting in family court for reunification with his wife and two surviving sons. “I don’t think there’s really a way to explain what it feels like to lose your entire family,” Stone tells the interviewer.

The Retro Report posting was published in conjunction with a New York Times article by Clyde Haberman that includes two additional short videos, a “mini-doc” featuring professor Adele Bernhard from the Pace Law School Post-Conviction Project talking about the René Bailey case, and an interview with pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, the first person to propose in print that shaking an infant could cause subdural hematoma.

Melissa Calusinski

Melissa Calusinski

In other shaken baby news, the lawyer for convicted day care worker Melissa Calusinski in Illinois has made a small step toward a possible appeal. According to the Chicago Tribune, a judge is considering attorney Kathleen Zellner’s motion for a hearing on what she says is new x-ray evidence in the case. Earlier this week, the judge gave the state 90 days to respond to Zellner’s request. Calusinski’s case moved to the national stage this past winter, when a 48 Hours report, “Blaming Melissa,” raised questions about the evidence and the interrogation that led to a confession she later recanted. Tribune reporter Lisa Black published this article in June about the current motion and the possible new evidence.

3 Comments

Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

3 responses to “Retro Report Nails the Nanny Story

  1. Walgelijk dat de advocaten die dit soort mensen achter de tralies zet dus eigenlijk zelf moordenaars zijn

    • The Google translation tool produced gibberish for this comment, but a native Dutch speaker tells me it says,

      “It’s disgusting that the lawyers who put this kind of people behind bars, are in fact murderers themselves.”

  2. Dr. Block’s comment: “But to talk about their conviction negates the fact that we really need to be talking about the children. It’s the children who are affected in each and every case. It’s the children who are devastated or killed.”

    I have seen him make very similar comments on many occasions. This is the “appeal to emotion” logical fallacy. It is often employed to gain favor for an argument that lacks a factual basis. No one wants abused children to suffer, but children’s safety is not what is being discussed, and need not become part of this specific discussion. The issue is whether or not innocent people being falsely accused and wrongly convicted of SBS en masse. For all I care, they can keep their diagnosis of SBS and can use it to protect as many children as they can. But when it begins to harm the innocent, we have a right, if not a duty, to question the diagnosis to its very foundations.

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