Film Frames Shaken Baby Syndrome as Faulty Diagnosis

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | On Saturday night at Cinema Village on E. 12th St., 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 three 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 same 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 neurosurgeon Ronald Uscinski: She 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 a child protective services prosecutor’s crosshairs.

It’s enough to leave anyone shaken.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker who authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com).