By TLB Staff Writer: Christina England
It is a known fact that babies and young children can suffer a head injury after an accidental fall; however, many parents are unaware that even if a child appears to have suffered no ill effects from their injury, this is not always the case.
Over the years, a growing number of parents accused of shaken baby syndrome have reported that their child had suffered a minor fall before they had become ill.
In March 2014, Joshua Burns was sentenced to one year in prison and three years’ probation for shaking his 11 week-old daughter, Naomi, who suffered bruising to the head and ear when she fell off his lap. The couple acknowledged the fact that Joshua grabbed Naomi’s face to stop her from falling and hitting her head on a coffee table but stated that the incident was “an accident” and not child abuse.
Naomi appeared to have suffered no ill effects from after she fell and went to bed as usual that evening. However, over the next couple of days, her conditioned deteriorated, resulting in several trips to the E.R.
On their website TornFamily.com, Mr. And Mrs. Burns wrote:
“Over the next two days multiple trips were made back and forth to the ER and doctor’s office and many calls were made to the family’s on-call pediatrician service. Naomi’s symptoms continued to worsen and eventually became so dire that her parents had to call 911. Naomi was transported via ambulance to the University of Michigan, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Naomi was hospitalized for two weeks during which time numerous tests were performed to diagnose her illness. A serious gastrointestinal virus was suspected to be the cause of her symptoms.
Ten days into her hospitalization, Naomi’s medical nightmare took an earth shattering turn when a doctor informed Josh and Brenda that she suspected Naomi had been physically abused. The doctor contacted Children’s Protective Services (CPS) and local law enforcement. A petition was filed with the court and Naomi was taken from her parents by CPS and placed in foster care with strangers.”
“Naomi remained in foster care for over 7 months. Brenda was granted three one-hour visits per week with Naomi at the Livingston County Department of Human Services office. Josh was not allowed to see Naomi at all. A civil abuse and neglect case was opened by the Livingston County Prosecutor’s office with the ultimate goal of terminating both Josh and Brenda’s parental rights. The prosecutor’s office also had Josh arrested and charged with 2nd degree felony child abuse.”
According to the Livingston Daily, Dr. Bethany Mohr, the director of the child-protection team at the University of Michigan Medical Center’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, who testified for the prosecution, believed that Naomi’s injuries were the result of child abuse. She testified that Naomi had suffered from retinal hemorrhaging in both eyes, which she believed is an indicator of child abuse, as well as the bruising.
So convinced was Dr. Mohr, she reported that she found it highly unusual that a child would sustain an injury from being protected from a fall and she felt that “bruising in any region for an infant less than 4-months is highly predictive of child abuse.”
Whilst I agree that any bruising on a young baby may be a symptom of child abuse and should always be investigated fully, I also feel that doctors examining babies should be open to the possibility that there are many innocent causes of bruising, and therefore, they should examine all possible causes before jumping to conclusions about the parents.
Determined to prove her point, however, Dr. Mohr asked experts to have Joshua demonstrate with a doll what had happened to Naomi when she fell off his lap. Hoping that it would demonstrate his innocence, Joshua agreed.
Although childbirth educators often use dolls that are weighted and proportioned similar to real babies, the child abuse doctor brought in a doll which only weighed a pound or two. As Joshua tried to demonstrate how fast he moved to keep Naomi from hitting the coffee table, the doll went flying. Shocked, Joshua explained that was not what happened and stated:
“Well, it didn’t happen like that.”
Unconvinced, Dr. Mohr used this demonstration as evidence of abuse and concluded in her report that “catching Naomi like that would be abuse.”
Was this Couple Innocent of Any Wrong Doing or Were They Victims of the System?
However, Dr. Mohr’s assumptions may have been incorrect, as evidence has shown that young children can suffer serious or even fatal injuries after a relatively short fall has occurred.
In 2001, John Plunkett, M.D., wrote a paper titled Fatal Pediatric Head Injuries Caused by Short-Distance Falls. The paper examined a total of 18 cases in which children have died after suffering a short fall injury. In each and every case, the child had appeared fine after the injury and had carried on as usual.
Dr. Plunkett wrote:
“Many physicians believe that a simple fall cannot cause serious injury or death, that a lucid interval does not exist in an ultimately fatal pediatric head injury, and that retinal hemorrhage is highly suggestive if not diagnostic for inflicted trauma. However, several have questioned these conclusions or urged caution when interpreting head injury in a child. This controversy exists because most infant injuries occur in the home, and if there is history of a fall, it is usually not witnessed or is seen only by the caretaker. Objective data are needed to resolve this dispute. It would be helpful if there were a database of fatal falls that were witnessed or wherein medical and law enforcement investigation unequivocally concluded that the death was an accident.”
One of the cases highlighted is of particular interest because the family was proven to have been falsely accused of SBS as a result of the child’s injury.
Dr. Plunkett wrote:
A 23-month-old was playing on a plastic gym set in the garage at her home with her older brother. She had climbed the attached ladder to the top rail above the platform and was straddling the rail, with her feet 0.70 meters (28 inches) above the floor. She lost her balance and fell headfirst onto a 1-cm (3⁄8-inch) thick piece of plush carpet remnant covering the concrete floor. She struck the carpet first with her outstretched hands, then with the right front side of her forehead, followed by her right shoulder. Her grandmother had been watching the children play and videotaped the fall. She cried after the fall but was alert and talking. Her grandmother walked/carried her into the kitchen, where her mother gave her a baby analgesic with some water, which she drank. However, approximately 5 minutes later she vomited and became stuporous. EMS personnel airlifted her to a tertiary-care university hospital. A CT scan indicated a large right sided subdural hematoma with effacement of the right lateral ventricle and minimal subfalcine herniation. (The soft tissue windows for the scan could not be located and were unavailable for review.) The hematoma was immediately evacuated. She remained comatose postoperatively, developed cerebral edema with herniation, and was removed from life support 36 hours after the fall. Bilateral retinal hemorrhage, not further described, was documented in a funduscopic examination performed 24 hours after admission. A postmortem examination confirmed the right frontal scalp impact injury. There was a small residual right subdural hematoma, a right parietal lobe contusion (secondary to the surgical intervention), and cerebral edema with cerebellar tonsillar herniation.”
According to reports, hospital staff had been convinced that the child had been the victim of abuse; however, it was the video evidence of the fall that was eventually able to convince the prosecutors that the family was innocent.
Ed Meyer wrote about the case in the Beacon Journal in 2011:
“Forensic pathologist John J. Plunkett of Minnesota, an outspoken critic of shaken-baby syndrome, wrote a 2001 report showing that those findings can be wrong.
Toddlers can and do die from the effects of what is known in forensic science as ”short-fall” head injuries — similar to Calise’s description of how Aaliyah was hurt — according to the report.
Plunkett’s case study involved a 23-month-old girl, the same age as Aaliyah, who was playing on a plastic gym set in the garage at her home.
The child lost her balance on the top rail and fell, head first, onto a three-quarter-inch-thick plush carpet remnant spread out on the garage’s concrete floor.
She was removed from life support 36 hours later.
Plunkett said hospital personnel, “who were convinced without any question that this was shaken baby,” reported the death to law enforcement.
Officers were preparing to arrest the child’s father, Plunkett said, when the 23-month-old’s grandmother intervened, saying she had videotaped the girl playing on the gym set.
“So the cops went over to the home and found the video camera, which she had dropped when the little girl hit the floor, and they played the videotape and went: ‘Oh, my goodness!’” Plunkett said.
The grandmother’s tape showed that the child hit her head on the floor in an accidental fall from a height of 28 inches.
“Prior to publication of my [study] in 2001,” Plunkett said,”the pediatric community said, uniformly, that short-distance falls can’t cause injuries or death. They didn’t say it’s rare. They said it doesn’t occur. Period. And most forensic pathologists, not all, but most, said the same thing.”
Sadly, the original article in the Beacon Journal is unavailable but a copy of the article can be found here.
Dr. Plunkett Does Not Stand Alone
In a paper titled Dynamic Biomechanical Findings on SBS-LMF Chris Van Ee, PhD, made his feelings on the SBS theory abundantly clear, commenting that the mere shaking of a 0-2 year old alone, even in a fit of rage, is unlikely to cause intracerebral trauma.
“Human shaking (id) may cause lethal brain stem and cervical spine injuries in a 0-to-2-year-old child, as the forces necessary for these injuries are well below the level needed for fatal brain injuries and are consistent with the forces that can be produced in shaking. Put another way, these neck injuries would be expected in any hypothetical-superhuman strength case of SBS where superhuman dynamics resulted in head accelerations leading to intracerebral trauma (if SBS were valid, which it is not).”
On the subject of short fall injuries, Dr. Van Ee wrote:
“If a 0- to 2-year-old child accidentally falls from a height of six feet and impacts head-first on a hard surface such as carpeted cement, the sudden impact has the potential to generate sufficient head acceleration to cause fatal intracerebral injuries. Whether any given fall is fatal depends on a host of variables and the fall mechanics which are different in each accident, but the potential head dynamics that result from a 6-foot high fall could far exceed the tolerance associated with fatal head injury.”
“Intentionally impacting a 0- to 2-year-old child’s head against a hard surface could easily cause fatal brain injuries that would mimic those of a fall, and today’s science cannot distinguish accidental from non-accidental impacts of falls of similar magnitude, barring extraordinary signs, e.g. grip marks or eye-witness accounts.”
Sadly, the majority of experts speaking on behalf of child protective services, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, fail to read the science and instead continue to repeat the well rehearsed mantra that they were taught at college.
Sadly, accidents do occur and babies do fall, however, this does not automatically mean that their parents have been neglectful in any way.
It is about time that the medical profession, the judicial system and child protective services began to read the science and explore all possible avenues of inquiry before accusing the parents of such atrocious crimes.