Some of you may have seen the extraordinary long-read article featured in The Guardian last week by Will Storr, discussing the controversy around shaken-baby syndrome and the how many innocent parents are accused and even convicted of causing grievous bodily harm or even murder due to unproven guidelines followed by police and medical professionals.
In 1962, Dr C Henry Kempe published a study, entitled ‘The Battered Child Syndrome’ in Journal of the American Medical Association. In the paper, Dr Kempe described over 300 cases where a parent had intentionally harmed their baby. The term battered-child syndrome was used to describe a collection of symptoms often presented to doctors including fractures, subdural hematoma, failure to thrive, soft-tissue swelling, bruising, sudden death, or situations whereby the degree or type of injury does not match up with the parent’s explanation for how it happened.
According to Will Storr, this study sent shockwaves throughout the medical community, as up until this point, most refused to believe that seemingly ordinary-looking parents could be “violent or cruel”.
Once Dr Kempe’s article was published, there was no going back. The General Medical Council’s guidance states:
“32. You must tell an appropriate agency, such as your local authority children’s services, the NSPCC or the police, promptly if you are concerned that a child or young person is at risk of, or is suffering, abuse or neglect unless it is not in their best interests to do so (see paragraphs 39 and 40). You do not need to be certain that the child or young person is at risk of significant harm to take this step. If a child or young person is at risk of, or is suffering, abuse or neglect, the possible consequences of not sharing relevant information will, in the overwhelming majority of cases, outweigh any harm that sharing your concerns with an appropriate agency might cause.”
Shaken-baby syndrome – the conflicting evidence
For decades there have been three signs to indicate abusive head trauma in infants, namely swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface and bleeding behind the retinas. These injuries can cause blindness, epilepsy, serious disability and even death. This is known as the ‘triad’.
When evidence of the triad is found, police, medical staff and prosecutors have been trained to believe that this is evidence that the baby has been harshly shaken, even if no other injuries such as soft-tissue trauma in the neck or bruising are present. However, sceptics argue that the absence of other injuries does not make sense. Dr Waney Squier told Mr Storr: “If you grip a baby hard enough to shake it, you’re going to bruise it. You’re going to fracture ribs, you’re going to break the neck. When babies in a forward-facing car seat are involved in a front-end collision, they get fractures and dislocations in their neck and back. They don’t get shaken baby syndrome.”
In late 2016, a major review conducted by Swedish researchers concluded there is no solid scientific evidence that a specific pattern of head injuries is incontrovertible evidence on its own of child abuse.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers took 3,700 studies of abusive head trauma in infants and narrowed them down to 1,000 that featured the triad of symptoms. Thirty of these met the strict criteria imposed by the researchers (i.e. having a large enough sample size). Of these, only two studies, both French, contained evidence that the triad of symptoms, free from any other evidence, could have pointed to child abuse. However, researchers concluded that these studies could not provide conclusive evidence that the presence of the triad meant the child had been abused as there was a lack of evidence regarding the parents’ confessions of shaking their baby.
Niels Lynöe, a specialist in general medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and leader of the research team told Newsweek: “Our main finding is that there’s very low-quality scientific evidence for the claim. You can’t use these studies to say that whenever you see these changes in the infant’s brain, the infant has been shaken – it’s not possible according to current knowledge.”
The results of the Swedish study are controversial and difficult to corroborate as the only way to conclusively prove shaking results in the triad is to actually shake a baby.
Child abuse or vitamin D deficiency?
Another controversial area of child abuse which has caught the media’s attention is whereby a child has presented with multiple fractures and the parents have been accused of causing the injuries. In some cases, it has later transpired that a vitamin D deficiency has caused the bones to break.
A lack of vitamin D can cause rickets. Cases of rickets have risen sharply in the last few years, caused by a trend of children being kept indoors and poor diet.
In 2012 the parents of Jayden Wray were cleared of the charge of murder and causing or allowing the death of Jayden, after they were initially arrested for grievous bodily harm in 2009. Rohan Wray and his partner Chana al-Alas also faced a civil action for child abuse brought by local authorities, where again the allegations were dismissed.
Baby Jayden died from severe head injuries. He was found to have been suffering from rickets, caused by a vitamin D deficiency he may have inherited from his mother.
The couple, who lost custody of their daughter for 18 months called for an inquiry into the “agonising” way the police, social workers and medical profession treated them.
“There are medical staff who we believe should be disciplined at an inquiry,” Mr Wray told the Daily Mail. I think these medical experts who judge parents are dangerous people. They base much of what they say on opinion rather than fact. We feel we were treated very poorly by the state authorities involved in investigating our case. We were viewed as guilty from the outset.”
His partner added: “The doctors and the police made allegations against us without any real proof.”
What to do if you are accused of harming your child
If you have been accused by medical staff and/or the police of child abuse you must contact a solicitor immediately. They can assist you with answering questions from social workers and police and can organise expert evidence and witness statements to support your defence. A family law solicitor can also work with you to ensure that if your children are taken into care, they will be returned to you as soon as possible.
Although it is vital that health professionals and local authorities do everything possible to protect children from parents who deliberately cause them harm, many believe the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Innocent parents may have lost their freedom and their children because of the stubborn reliance on inconclusive evidential studies into the causes of serious injuries to infants. The time has come to strike some balance and look at the hard facts before prosecuting parents. Remember, in our society, we are all innocent until proven guilty.
Rosie Bracher are specialist family law solicitors based in Barnstaple. We have the knowledge and expertise to advise you on all matters involving children and family law. Please contact our office on 01271 314 904 and arrange to speak to one of our team.