Tag Archives: babysitter accused

Forward, Into the Book Stores

audreyCover

Audrey Edmunds’s book was released in late 2012.

Just three years ago, the only books I could find about shaken baby syndrome told the prosecution’s story: Medical texts offered confident advice about  symptoms and  timing [1]. One  guide for practitioners, The Shaken Baby Syndrome: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach, specifically recommended the kind of seamless co-operation among hospitals, social services, and the police that has been winning convictions in these cases for thirty years and counting [2]. And a number of personal books told the stories of families ravaged by the loss of a precious child to presumed shaking [3,4].

Now the other storyline is hitting the shelves: Two women have already published books about their experiences as exonerated baby-shakers, and more works are on the horizon.

It Happened to Audrey

It Happened to Audrey is the memoir of Audrey Edmunds, a wife, mother, and child care provider who spent a decade in prison before her conviction was overturned in 2008 after an appeal by the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

AudreyQuoteWritten with her friend Jill Wellington, a journalist, the book traces Audrey’s harrowing journey, from her horror and feelings of guilt the day a 6-month-old girl fell unconscious in her care, through the unimaginable accusations, trial, and years in prison for an assault that she knew had never happened. The experience not only shattered Audrey’s world but gave everyone around her a new perspective. In this excerpt, for example, a seasoned reporter sees a new side to the crime beat:

Meanwhile, my journalist friend, Jill Wellington, was working at a television station in Michigan the day after the verdict came in. Her hands trembled as she punched in the phone number for the Dane County Courthouse. “Hello, I’m a news reporter in Michigan and I’d like to get the verdict in the Audrey Edmunds case.”

“Well, of course, she’s guilty,” the woman who answered the phone replied tersely.

Jill was stunned at this abrupt, ill-considered comment. One of Jill’s coworkers knew a producer at Dateline, NBC. Jill called him and asked if he would investigate my case. A week later, she called the producer again and was shocked at his reply.

“I talked to some of the newspaper reporters who covered Audrey’s case,” the producer said. “They all say she’s guilty.”

Anyone who has been falsely accused of injuring a child will resonate with this book.  I hope it’s also read by social workers, investigators, and people who assume that an innocent person cannot be convicted in our justice system.

When Truth No Longer Matters

heather'sCroppedMeanwhile in Britain, accused parent Heather Toomey has written a remarkable account of her historic battle with social services, When Truth No Longer Matters.

Through unwavering focus and the support of extended family, Heather managed to keep herself, her husband, and their two young sons together while she and her husband fought accusations of shaking the younger boy. Seven years later, the child was diagnosed with a bleeding disorder that explained the subdural hematoma behind the original shaking diagnosis.

At the time, however, the Toomey family was branded as child abusers, under constant pressure to “tell the truth” so as to “clear up” what had happened to their baby. They abandon their home and move in with relatives, so as to satisfy the supervision requirements. They struggle to stay ahead of the financial burdens and attend unending court-imposed appointments. They tolerate frequent, intrusive visits; evaluations; interrogations; and bureaucratic hurdles, all while trying to maintain the kind of positive attitude the social workers demand.

“The authorities have taken a capable mother and turned her into a paranoid mess,” Heather writes, convincingly.

Finally, she and her husband give in to the pressure and sign a “threshold agreement,” in which they admit to failing their young son in return for having their case closed. She writes:

We still firmly believe that the cause is medical, but we have no doctor prepared to back up our belief . . .  whichever way we look at it, it is less of a leap to admit to failing him than it is to admit to abusing him.

With the parents subdued, their children’s names are removed from the “at risk” register, and the constant interference comes to an end. They are allowed to return to their own home. “The case conference concludes that there were never any concerns raised about us as parents or about the children’s welfare during the entire time of their involvement,” Heather recounts. “Our children have never been at risk from us, only from those who failed to  investigate anything other than suppositions and accusations.”

heatherToomehyTheir son’s bleeding disorder was diagnosed years later, after they’d been badgered into capitulation—but at least they’d kept their family intact.

Like Audrey’s story, Heather’s from-the-heart narrative will validate the experiences of accused parents and caregivers. Again, I hope the book also finds an audience among social workers, investigators, and prosecutors, who need to listen to the child-abuse experts, but not without keeping an open mind to the bigger picture.

You can read more about Heather’s story on her web site, at http://www.searchfortruth.co.uk/index.html

Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story

Exonerated babysitter Mary Weaver has collaborated with ministerial writer Deb Brammer on a book about Mary’s ordeal, Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Storyscheduled for release in the fall of 2013. Weaver was one of the first babysitters convicted of shaking an infant in her care, in the early 1990s, and one of the first exonerations.

The tag line for the book is:

“When a baby is brutally murdered, an innocent babysitter is accused and uncertainty forces experts to define the edges of truth.”

Fall 2013 Update: Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story is now available. I’ve posted this blog entry about it.

Vaccine-Induced Encephalitis

And a couple of years ago a physician and a journalist together published a book questioning one aspect of shaken baby syndrome, Shaken Baby Syndrome and Vaccine-Induced Encephalitis: Are Parents Being Falsely Accused? By Harold Buttram, MD, and journalist Christina England (AuthorHouse, 2011).

Spring 2014 update:  Law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer has now published her academic treatment of the subject, Flawed Convictions:  “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and the Inertia of Injustice.

copyright 2013, Sue Luttner

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

Footnotes:

[1] Shaking and Other Non-Accidental Head Injuries in Children, by Drs. Robert A. Minns and J. Keith Brown, Mac Keith Press, 2006

[2] The Shaken Baby Syndrome: A Multidisciplinary Approach, edited by Drs. Stephen Lazoritz and Vincent J. Palusci, The Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press, 2001

[3] Grandma’s Baby: A True Story of One Family’s Struggle with “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and what they call “Shaken Family Syndrome,” by Karen Wise, R.N., Trafford Publishing, 2006

[4] What Happened to Christopher? by Ann-Janine Morey, Southern Illinois University Press, 1998

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, Innocence Network, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Old Cases, New Cases, Sad Cases, True Cases

An exasperating series of convictions and exonerations has reminded me both how big a price child-care providers are paying in this arena and how hard it is to pin down the facts about shaken baby syndrome.

Mary Weaver, 41 years old in 1993, when accused of shaking an infant in her care

Mary Weaver, 41 years old in 1993, when accused of shaking an infant in her care

Mary Weaver, Exonerated

If more people had been paying attention in the 1990s, for example, the story of 11-month-old Melissa Mathes would have been a valuable case study in both timing and mechanism.

On a January morning in 1993, care provider Mary Weaver called 911 for help when the infant Melissa fell unconscious after about 45 minutes in her care. Autopsy revealed a healing skull fracture, but doctors concluded the girl had been shaken to death—and based on the common wisdom that the symptoms of a serious pediatric head injury are immediate and obvious, prosecutors targeted the babysitter.

Weaver’s first trial ended with a hung jury, her second in a conviction and a life sentence. Then new witnesses came forward to report that Melissa had been knocked unconscious in a fall at home on the morning of that critical day. Weaver was granted a new trial in 1996, and was acquitted by a jury in 1997.

The case changed the mind of forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent Di Maio, for many years the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology. Called in for his opinion, Di Maio read Melissa’s medical records and realized the common knowledge about timing of infant head injuries was wrong. The girl had been seen by her family doctor three times for the flu in the week before she quit breathing in Weaver’s care.

“That case is very disturbing,” DiMaio told me in 2000, “because everybody agrees that the skull fracture is seven days old, and everybody agrees that the doctor saw this child and thought she looked normal… But we know she already had cortical necrosis [dead brain tissue] and thrombosis [clots inside the vessels]… Whether or not you believe the babysitter killed the kid, you know a serious brain injury went unnoticed by a professional observer.”

The case has not appeared in the medical journals, but Mary Weaver was in the news last month when her name was added to the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions, maintained by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The registry offers a summary of Weaver’s case, and her local newspaper covered the registration story. 2014 update: There is now a book about Mary’s case.

Kelly Kline, Not Guilty

Fifteen years after Weaver’s exoneration, Ohio child care provider Kelly Kline found herself in the same spot, fighting shaking allegations even though the child who fell unconscious in her care had a healing skull fracture revealed at autopsy.

Akron Children's Hospital

Akron Children’s Hospital

Even more remarkable in the case of 15-month-old Ella Young, the treating physicians had a plausible explanation for the fracture:  The girl had fallen down the stairs at her mother’s split-level home a week before developing breathing problems at Kline’s house. Dr. Richard Daryl Steiner, however, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital, concluded that the fracture was irrelevant and Ella had died of shaking injuries inflicted immediately before her meltdown. He and Summit County Medical Examiner Dr. Lisa Kohler both testified for the prosecution at Kline’s trial

Dr. John Plunkett, at the 2012 EBMSI conference

Dr. John Plunkett, at the 2012 EBMSI conference

Forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett testified for the defense, arguing that the fall six days earlier could have set off a slow neurological response that reached a critical threshold without a violent trigger.

The good news is that the jury found Kline not guilty—the Wooster Daily Record, which had earlier published the charges without question, including Kline’s name and address, also covered the not guilty verdict this past fall.

The tragedy is that child protection professionals continue to press these cases. Kline says she understands that she was lucky to be found innocent, but she and her family are still struggling to recover from the financial and emotional costs.

badge“I see a police officer, and I know it’s not rational, but my hands shake. I can’t think,” she said in early April, months after the innocent verdict. She’s trying to shed her anger at the officers and social workers who dealt with her over the year and a half she stood accused. “Not one person ever tried to help me or listen to my story,” she said, “They just accused me and accused me.”

Throughout more than one difficult interrogation, Kline never wavered from her original story, although keeping her head wasn’t easy, she recalled. “Lieutenant [Kurt] Garrison told me, ‘All fingers are pointed toward you. The forensic science says you did this. Dr. Daryl Steiner says you did this. There are no other suspects’ . . . He had me so frustrated the way he was turning it around, he almost made me believe I did something wrong.”

Ashley Howe, from the police interrogation tape

Ashley Howes, from the police interrogation tape

Ashley Howes, Compensated

At 13, Ashley Howes was not an experienced babysitter. She was the daughter of a family acquaintance, expecting to act as a “mother’s helper” for the weekend, playing with a pair of sisters, 5 years and 19 months old.

The girls were having a good time, and on Sunday afternoon Ashley agreed to extend her stay. But then, less than an hour after she was left alone with the sisters, Ashley called 911 for help with an unconscious toddler, her charge Freya.

The shaking diagnosis came quickly. Police picked up Ashley at the hospital and took her to the station, where they interrogated her for a total of 19 hours, turning on the video recorders at about 3 am. You can see what the Seattle police considered to be the damning portion of the interview in the 48 Hours coverage of the case.

Ultimately, Judge Mary Roberts excluded the tapes from evidence, noting that detectives had ignored what she considered Ashley’s recorded invocation of her right to remain silent. With the tapes excluded, prosecutor Kathy Van Olst then asked the court to withdraw the charges, with the argument that the tapes were essential to proving the necessary timeline.

The 48 Hours coverage in 2006, after the charges were withdrawn, offered this background information on shaken baby syndrome:

According to most doctors, the only other way Freya could have sustained these kinds of head injuries would have been from a high-speed car accident or a fall from a great height, two things she was not involved in that weekend…

Dr. Brian Johnston, the chief of pediatrics at Harborview Medical Center, says he thinks Freya suffered an inflicted injury.

“In severe or fatal shaken baby cases, the symptoms would be apparent immediately after the shaking. They have difficulty breathing. They lose consciousness,” says Johnston.

Johnston did not treat Freya that night but has studied shaken baby cases. Does he think a 100-pound child could create enough force to kill a 26-pound baby?

“A 100-pound child is the size of many average-sized grown women. Unfortunately, we know that people that size are capable of inflicting these injuries on children,” says Johnston.

After the charges were withdrawn, the police, the district attorney’s office, and Freya’s family all told reporters for 48 Hours that they still believe Ashley is guilty. Her defense attorney Bryan Hershman, however, said, “I don’t want this little girl to live the rest of her life with people saying she got off on a technicality. She didn’t. She’s innocent.”

IMG_4464Ashley Howes was not convicted, but at the age of 13 she endured hours of hostile interrogations by a series of police officers who insisted she had murdered a little girl. She spent nearly a year under house arrest with an ankle monitor, not even allowed onto her own back lawn, and when she finally returned to school, any hopes of a normal adolescence were put to rest by taunts and jeers at the presumed baby-killer.

Ashley’s story was in the Seattle Times in March when the city reached a financial settlement with her parents, who had filed a civil suit in 2011 against the police for their callous and deceptive treatment of their daughter.

What I wish is that the doctors who make these black-and-white pronouncements about causation and timing would speak personally with the people they’re accusing, and not just send the police in to badger out confessions. I think they are missing out on a lot of valuable information. The police claim that Ashley confessed to “shaking” Freya twice, for example.  One of those two incidents was earlier in the day while she was giving the girl a bath, before the parents left the house.  If Ashley shook Freya violently at that time, and the symptoms are as immediate as Dr. Johnston says, would Freya’s mother really have called Ashley’s mother later in the afternoon and asked to keep her longer? If that “confession” isn’t accurate, what about the other one? I just don’t understand their sureness in the face of these uncertainties and conflicting tales.

Toni Blake and Suzanne JohnsonChristmas, 2001

Toni Blake and Suzanne Johnson
Christmas, 2001

Suzanne Johnson, Supported

Grandmother and child care provider Suzanne Johnson was convicted in 1999, during the first wave of shaking accusations. Counting time served waiting for trial, she is now 15 years into a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life.

Johnson’s conviction politicized her young jury consultant, Toni Blake, who was sure her client was innocent. While studying the medical literature for Johnson’s trial, Blake realized how unprepared most defense attorneys are for infant head injury cases, so she now offers a primer on shaken baby syndrome on the web site for her consulting business, Second Chair Services.

After years of work by Blake and others, the California Innocence Project has now taken on Johnson’s case.

Later this month the project is starting an Innocence March to the state’s capitol in Sacramento, where marchers will ask for pardons from Governor Jerry Brown for 12 convicted prisoners. The first leg of the walk, from San Diego to Ocean Beach, is dedicated to Johnson. Blake reports that Innocence Project attorneys have drafted a habeas corpus brief in the case that will be filed in 2013.

Inspired by the walk, supporters of Suzanne Johnson have started a Facebook page under the name Team Sue, at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Team-Sue-California-Innocence-Project-Innocence-March/479414115446391. You can read more about her story on her Innocence March entry.

Marina England, Convicted

A case of witnessed shaking has led to a felony conviction for aggravated battery in Illinois, where a mother told police she arrived to pick up her two daughters and found care provider Marina England screaming at the 3-month-old and shaking her. 

The child seems to have shown no behavioral changes or diagnostic signs like bleeding or swelling, but Ariel Cheung writing in the The Register-Mail reports that two days after the incident, when the infant was brought in for an abuse evaluation, Dr. Channing Petrak, medical director of the University of Illinois Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria, diagnosed “a mild traumatic brain injury, more commonly known as a concussion.”

I’m not sure what criteria Dr. Petrak used to reach her diagnosis, but according to the news report, her testimony was key to the judge’s verdict.

If you are interested in more on witnessed shakings, please see this blog posting from the fall of 2012. If you know of other witnessed shakings, please submit a comment. If you tell me it’s intended as a private communication, not a public comment, I will not post it but respond privately.

copyright 2013, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the medical debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, California Innocence Project, Falsely accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome