On September 29, the Twelfth International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS)/Abusive Head Trauma will take place in the city where nearly 15 years earlier Louise Woodward was convicted of second degree murder in the shaking death of infant Matthew Eappen. The trial made shaken baby syndrome international news. The attention wrought from the media since the trial has focused on a controversy surrounding the SBS diagnosis in the courtrooms despite the SBS diagnosis' acceptance in mainstream medicine worldwide.
"While We Argue, Children Die." That's the title of American Academy of Pediatrics' President Dr. Robert Block's keynote address that will open the conference.
"Regrettably, it's true. While we argue, children are dying," says Dr. Block. "The disagreements lie in the bias and unscientific reporting in law review journals that misrepresent the known science of abusive head trauma and the medical evidence presented in courts that is not always truthfully or completely told."
This disconnect between the legal and medical fields combined with the media's perpetuating a controversy around the SBS diagnosis distracts from the goal to protect our children using science as a guide.
"Courts are not representative of medical and scientific knowledge and experience," says Dr. Block. "Subsequently, doubts expressed in courts about abusive head trauma are misrepresented by media reporters who cannot be expected to understand accurate medical research and clinical work. We need to keep our focus on children who are killed or significantly disabled by caregivers, while working diligently to be sure our diagnosis in each case is accurate."
"The overwhelming majority of clinicians and medical professionals agree that shaking alone can cause serious injury to a baby," says Marilyn Barr, Executive Director of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, the organization responsible for organizing the conference. "The controversy is played out in court rooms where defense witnesses are relied upon to provide alternative diagnoses for the injuries the victim sustained. "
Interestingly, the SBS diagnosis is often questioned even in cases where the alleged perpetrator confesses to the crime. The conference features a keynote address where a panel of experts will review 44 case examples of confessions of SBS/AHT.
"Confessions alone, have never been and should never be the determining factor of guilt," says Tom Fallon, Assistant District Attorney of Dane County in Wisconsin and who will offer his legal perspective on the significance of confessions following the case examples review. "Confessions like all other evidence should be evaluated in the context of all other known evidence relevant to a case. Cross corroboration of evidence is the essential foundation of a prosecution."
While the diagnosis is questioned in the courts and public perception, the real victims of SBS continue to be those not only directly affected by the injuries sustained due to the shaking episode but families who grieved for the loss of a loved one and those continuing to care for survivors.
"The effects are devastating," says Michele Poole, adoptive parent to her twin granddaughters. "Gabbi was shaken violently by my son, their father, and the difference in the girls is staggering." Poole continues, "Shell (Michele) is a smart, beautiful, fun-loving, typical 18-year-old. In contrast, Gabbi can't talk, stand, or even eat without help. She's totally dependent upon her caregivers. Gabbi could have, and should have been like Shell. They're twins after all."
Poole is part of a panel of caregivers presenting at the conference and will describe the challenges of caring for SBS survivors who have survived over a decade. They will talk about the costs of care, challenges in education, strains to family relationships and the sheer joy of knowing their child survived a form of abuse that claims the lives of approximately 1,300 children in the United States per year. Many other families of victims will attend the conference to learn more about caring for their child.
Fifteen years after the international community turned its attention to Boston and the life and sudden death of a baby boy, the focus on what killed him returns to the city. Over 700 professionals will attend this year's conference, among them both Debbie and Sunil Eappen, the parents of that baby boy. This time, the attention won't be on a life left unfulfilled but rather on the extensive scientific research that leaves no doubt that SBS remains a diagnosis grounded in science.
National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome