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One big misconception about shaken baby syndrome

The issue of shaken baby syndrome is nowhere as clear-cut as people used to believe. In fact, it is troubling how many have been falsely accused of shaking their babies and convicted of related charges.

Unfortunately, quite a few people, including those in the law enforcement and legal profession, still have some misunderstandings about shaken baby syndrome. Here is a look at what is going on.

Caregiver guilt is clear and automatic

In the past few years, some doctors have started taking long second looks at the syndrome. Namely, its main symptoms seemed to be hematoma and cerebral edema, subdural hemorrhage or retinal hemorrhage. Too many prosecutions were built on cases in which only one of these symptoms was present. Medical experts testified aggressively against defendants, masking speculation as fact and guesses as knowledge.

Why would they do that? Should they not know better? You would hope so, yes, but the reality is that society wants to protect children (one reason parents sometimes make false abuse accusations in a divorce). If a "medical expert" is told an account of what happens, it can be a brief step to twisting evidence to support what is said to have happened.

The caregiver accused of shaking is automatically presumed guilty in most cases. It is a total reversal of many cases in the criminal justice system where defendants are presumed innocent until it is proven otherwise. Yes, shaken baby syndrome does happen, but it is overdiagnosed.

Overcoming this assumption

The assumption of automatic guilt can be overcome, but it does require that the defense consult with experts of their own and bring them in to testify. Experts who get involved may include pathologists, board-certified pediatricians and board-certified emergency trauma doctors. For example, these experts should be able to differentiate the tissue damage that occurs when a child, while laying down after being fed, regurgitates food that causes hypoxia versus the tissue damage that occurs when a child is shaken. Similarly, neutral experts should be able to tell the difference between an injury sustained from falling versus from being shaken. 

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