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An unfounded panic leaves some parents shaken

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On Saturday night at Cinema Village on East 12th Street in Manhattan, I met Marine Sgt. Aaron Rasheed. He was up from Virginia with his wife and three young children, including baby Elijah, who cried part-way through the new documentary we were there to watch: “The Syndrome.”

I can’t blame him.

The movie is about Shaken Baby Syndrome—a heinous crime we’ve all heard of. Back in the fall, when Elijah was 3 weeks old, he suffered a seizure. Sgt. Rasheed and his wife rushed him to the hospital. The baby had two hematomas—blood on the brain (or at least it looked like that at the time). How had he gotten them? The desperate parents had no idea.

Tsk, tsk. They must be hiding something. Child Protective Services swooped in and accused Rasheed of shaking the baby. Rasheed was floored. He loved his son! He’d never do that!

“But I think because I had served in Afghanistan,” Rasheed said, the authorities assumed he must be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and further assumed he must be taking it out on his baby. All three children were placed in a relative’s custody and Rasheed faced trial. Frantic, he went online and tried to find any information he could about Shaken Baby Syndrome.

That’s where he found Susan Goldsmith, the researcher behind “The Syndrome.”

A journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in child abuse, her investigative reporting resulted in two new laws protecting children in foster care. She was especially revolted by the idea of anyone who’d shake a baby. I guess we all are. But the more she looked into this crime, the more surprised she became.

It turns out that the constellation of three symptoms that “prove” a baby was shaken (a type of brain swelling, brain bleeding, and bleeding in back of the eyes) can actually be caused by all sorts of other problems, including genetic issues, birth trauma—even a fall off a couch.

And yet, over and over, distraught parents and caregivers with no history of anything other than loving their babies have been accused of shaking their kids to death, simply because their children presented these symptoms—or other unexplained symptoms. To this day, about 250 parents and caregivers are prosecuted for this crime every year.

“The Syndrome” tells the tale of how this new category of crime appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the mid-1990s. Goldsmith found that some of the doctors who had actively promoted the Satanic Panic of the early ’90s, accusing daycare workers of things like sacrificing animals in the classroom and raping the tots in Satanic rites, abandoned that narrative when people started doubting its plausibility.

In its wake, those doctors found a new horror to focus on: Shaken Baby. As Goldsmith puts it, “They medicalized Satan.” Attention, donations, and research money flooded in.

But after Goldsmith’s film interviews parent after parent who brought their ailing babies to the hospital only to find themselves accused of the sickest, saddest crime possible, it turns to the heroes: doctors who gradually started to question the syndrome.

Consider the case of Natasha Richardson, says one of them, neurosurgeon Ronald Uscinski: The actress hit her head in a skiing accident and even joked about it afterward. No big deal! Two days later she was dead.

This happens to children, too, he says. Toddlers toddle. Sometimes they fall. Usually it’s fine, but sometimes it’s tragic. It may be diagnosed as the fallout from a shaking, but here’s the sticking point: If someone shook a baby so hard that its head went flopping back and forth, the neck would show signs of whiplash, right? And yet, the film notes: none of the hundreds of “shaken” baby cases Goldsmith reviewed showed serious neck damage.

Not one.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern law professor interviewed in the film, estimates there are 1,000 people in prison today for a shaken baby crime they did not commit. Rasheed was almost one of them, but he was found not guilty.

The idea that the shaken baby diagnosis may be as unfounded as the Satanic Panic does not sit well with the medical establishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a 14-page document criticizing “The Syndrome.” Three different film festivals were threatened with lawsuits simply for screening it.

But the show goes on. “The Syndrome” is available on demand through iTunes, Amazon, Time Warner Cable—almost everywhere. And Rasheed is hosting a screening back home in Virginia. He knows firsthand how easy it is to end up in the medical establishment or child protective services prosecutor’s crosshairs.

It’s enough to leave anyone shaken.

Lenore Skenazy is author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

Posted 12:00 am, April 21, 2016
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Reader feedback

Sue Luttner says:
Thank you, Lenore Skenazy, for your spot-on analysis of "The Syndrome" and the medical-legal nightmare it exposes.

I have been following the medical literature about shaken baby syndrome since 1997, when the niece of a friend was convicted of shaking a baby she was watching. The Goldsmith cousins are absolutely right. There is no scientific support for the theory. I have personally seen countless cases where a close examination of the medical records revealed a better explanation than shaking for the findings.

For the story of a family torn apart when their son's metabolic disorder was misdiagnosed as shaking injury, for example, please see https://onsbs.com/prologue/
April 21, 2016, 6:52 pm
Joe Burns from Ireland says:
Well done Lenore for this important story. You do realize that you are going against the grain of the Religion of Medicine by taking such an opinion?

It's sad to see that Medicine, and Science in general has degenerated into a Religion based on Faith and Belief. Despite the overwhelming evidence in peer-reviewed studies, "Believers" of SBS are actually killing babies by believing in bad science. There are many documented cases now of doctors dismissing Short Falls as a cause of the Triad; parents are arriving at ER's after baby falls and being dismissed as the dogma of SBS says that short falls cannot cause the Triad, meanwhile Science says the complete opposite.

At least Galileo had a chance at his Inquisition to prove that the Earth was round and rotated around the Sun. With SBS there is no "Pope" to settle the science, very few are willing to have their reputations, or their licence to practice burned at the proverbial Stake by simply asking questions.

Does anyone remember the days of yore when Science relied on questions to bolster a theory? I think they used to call it "Peer Review". Now if you stick your head above the parapet you are a "Denier" or a "Conspiracy Theorist". "Consensus" is the rule and if you are not part of the consensus, perhaps because you are a Biomechanist or a Neuro Scientist who has actually studied the topic, then you are simply mad and not to be believed.

The Goldsmiths hit the nail on the head with "Moral Panics", "if you don't know why your baby is sick then you MUST have abuse them. The social worker manual says "in the absence of another explanation, it must be abuse". Believers of SBS, and Child Protection doctors in general that I have met, have set themselves up as "Protectors of Children" and frequently stray outside their training and experience by jumping to a conclusion of abuse. They set themselves up as heroes because protecting a child is the most heroic act possible.

The sad thing for me in all this is that babies are dying and nobody will get to the bottom of why. Innocent and often grieving parents are wrongly accused of abuse. Parents are arrested and interrogated while their babies lay dying, dying of a condition that is scientifically impossible. If a baby dies of the Triad in a hospital and could not have been shaken, its called SIDS, if the same baby is at home its called murder, even though nobody has ever witnessed a baby being shaken and having even on of the Triad of "injuries".

You have to remember that the Witch Hunters of Salem were otherwise good, God fearing people, they just murdered their fellow citizens because their faith in the Devil equalled their faith in God. Today, the witch hunters are equally good people who deny science and will put to death (quite literally, www.FreeJeffreyHarvard.com) because they are heroes protecting children, it feels good to get revenge against child abusers.

Meanwhile babies are dying and nobody is interested in studying why. It satisfies the egos of the witch hunters, but meanwhile nobody is seriously studying Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which strangely enough, was the reason the original theorist of SBS was trying to get to the bottom of. And there is no cure for a Moral Panic.
April 22, 2016, 5 am
get a grip from Whitestone says:
The one thing repulsive about this article is the author itself---Lenore Skuzzy---a hypocrite and pretender, a faker who wears a mask giving the impression that it cares.
April 22, 2016, 5:27 am

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