2. “The most incredible thing has happened to my niece”

April 1996                                                                                            Palo Alto, California

The first time I heard about Stephanie’s situation—a few months after her arrest—I had no idea how typical her story was. At the hospital, doctors identified Dinah as a victim of shaken baby syndrome, or SBS, based on the pattern of bleeding and swelling inside her head. Like Dinah, a shaken baby might exhibit no visible signs of assault:  No bruising, no abrasions, no red marks.

Experts agree that the first sign of the syndrome might be vomiting and lethargy, which Dinah had. What brings the child to the emergency room is usually seizures and breathing problems, also like Dinah’s. Caretakers accused of shaking often report an apparent choking, followed by altered consciousness. The experts have concluded that choking is only part of the story, and that fussiness during eating is a common trigger for abuse by shaking.

The numbers vary from study to study, but roughly speaking a quarter to a third of the children hospitalized with the symptoms of SBS die. About half of the survivors, like Dinah Nelson, are left with permanent and often profound brain damage. The remaining third or so recover with no obvious effects.

But I didn’t know any of this the day I heard about Stephanie, on a park bench under the redwoods next to the playground with my friend Judy, while our children chased each other over the plastic-coated tubes and ladders.

“The most incredible thing has happened to my niece,” Judy said, with a scowl that brought out the crow’s feet. “You remember Stephanie, the golfer? Nobody can believe it—she’s accused of child abuse.”

“Oh, no,” I breathed, with a scowl of my own, for the child, for the niece, for the unwelcome topic.

“She has a little boy now, Jason, and that’s a story, too, but this was some baby she was watching.”

Judy explained about the home child-care business, the choking, the resuscitation, the diagnosis.

“Everybody’s nightmare,” I groaned. “It’s exactly what you worry about:  What if something happens?”

“Well, it’s awful. It has her whole life torn up, and she’s just accused, not convicted.” Stephanie wasn’t allowed any contact with her own two-year-old. She and her husband had already burned through their savings and borrowed money from relatives to hire a lawyer.

I’d met Stephanie once—she and her mother had come to dinner at our house while visiting Judy in California one summer. Stephanie was the oldest of five, a new high school graduate, thrilled to be on vacation with only her mother. I remembered an energetic, upbeat girl who held her own in conversation with the adults. We’d talked about the miniature golf course the family ran during the summers, which Stephanie insisted was “a blast.” Kids from school hung out there, she said, so she saw her friends all summer and earned money too. I was impressed: I’d passed through adolescence in the sixties, when the generation gap seemed to yawn especially wide. I’d never known anyone like this engaged, athletic teenager so willing to play and work with her family

Stephanie’s father Larry had always said that his firstborn was going to be a doctor:  She was confident and decisive, good at science, easy with people. With no better plan in mind, Steph had started college as a pre-med, but when she found out about a golf-management program offered at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, she transferred in a flash. She married another golf-management student, and after graduation the two of them worked at country clubs in Florida. Fun job, low pay, long hours.

“You know what it’s like when you have a baby,” Judy was saying, “She didn’t want to leave Jason so much.” So Stephanie and John moved back to Michigan, caretaking her parents’ house while her dad worked out of state. Stephanie started coaching her old high school golf team, a few hours a week, and she could bring Jason along. Judy thought it sounded like a great set-up. “Then she just started babysitting some of the neighborhood kids, like she always did, no big deal,” Judy shook her head, “And now it’s all a mess.”

I had to ask:  “Are you sure she didn’t do it?”

“Of course she didn’t do it! Steph’s great with kids. It doesn’t even make sense.” The child had old injuries, Judy told me, healing fractures and other things. There was a workman there that day who didn’t see anything suspicious, didn’t hear the child crying or anything.

“So they’ll figure it out,” I offered. Easy to say, there in the shade on the bench in the park.

I knew mothers who could cook dinner while nursing an infant in a sling, women who could balance the baby on one hip and spread peanut butter for the toddler with the other, even a writer who claimed to work at his desk with the baby strapped to his chest in a Snugli. I could never do it. A youngest child myself, and a mother only late in life, I was terrified for those soft, bald heads, which I wanted nowhere near the hot stove or the hard tiles or the sharp knife. I was barely in control during diaper changes—four squirmy limbs versus two tentative hands—and I never could manage to work if I was in the same house with anyone who was under 5 and awake.

Before our first son was born, I’d been writing technical manuals on contract from my home office. I thought I’d be able to keep on, at least part time, while the baby napped and cooed in his bassinet. I was wrong. Our first son, highly interactive and alert to every sound, claimed himself a data point way out on the flat tip at the low end of the need-for-sleep bell curve. Previously accustomed to hours alone at my desk, I’d been swallowed by the needs of the most fascinating creature I had ever encountered, who seemed to want nothing more than my undivided attention. I was enchanted, but sleep-deprived and dizzy from the subsumption of self. As Lucas approached six months, I understood that if I wanted the brain time to write anything more complex than a thank-you note for a baby gift, I would need help.

So I’ll always be grateful to Phyllis, the woman who, over time, took each of our sons into her home five hours a day for three years of their lives, six years of mine. In Phyllis’s playroom, I got to watch a woman with a gift for young children. You could tell she enjoyed the little ones, and they trusted her. Weather permitting, she spent afternoons in her front yard with a baby on one hip, while the toddlers poured and pounded at the sand table or circled the driveway on their Big Wheels. Even our skeptical firstborn cooperated with Phyllis, proud to be one of her helpers as he began to discover his own competencies.

Like Stephanie, Phyllis was caring for other people’s children only while hers were young—she would go back to office work later, but for a few key years she wanted to be at home with the next generation. She was reading books on child development and delighting in everybody’s milestones, herself a real part of each child’s life. My husband and I felt lucky to have met her.

By the time I heard Stephanie’s story, our children and Phyllis’s had all started elementary school. Phyllis had remained a family friend, though, and our sons were like cousins to each other. The way Judy told it, Stephanie was like Phyllis, one of those people who resonated with the very young. I didn’t have the knack myself, but I thought I’d seen it.

I asked myself, if someone told me that Phyllis had, in a moment of anger, beaten and battered one of the infants she cared for, what would I say? I knew the answer before I could finish the thought: I’d say that person was wrong.

(c) 2011 Sue Luttner

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