shaken baby syndrome brain scan
Image: Robin Stein

The billboard along my morning commute between Ballard and downtown caught my eye: “Never Shake a Baby.” On a route known for Pemco ads and bank promotions, a campaign against a particular form of child abuse was unusual, and planted images in my mind that I’d rather not have first thing in the morning.

The sign turns out to be part of a well-developed national program to educate parents, caregivers, hospitals, legal authorities, and anyone else who comes in contact with children. The leading organization driving the issue is the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, a nonprofit whose activism dates back 22 years and which holds conferences, partners with hospitals and law enforcement, and markets brochures, school programs, and even baby dolls used to show that the brains of babies can be damaged by shaking.

The billboard caught my attention for another reason. I’d recently met Heather Kirkwood, a retired Seattle attorney who spends her days defending people accused of shaking babies. Of the estimated 1,200 to 1,400 cases of babies who exhibit signs attributed to shaken baby syndrome every year, a much smaller number—one estimate places the number around 100 to 150—end up in criminal court, where a parent or other caregiver is charged with inflicting lifelong disabilities or even death.

The SBS diagnosis stems from studies performed in the late ’60s to mid-’80s, and for a long time it was believed that the symptoms could only be attributed to the shaking of a baby. More recently scientists have identified other, natural causes of those same symptoms, which means that, however small the numbers, there are people who are wrongly accused and convicted of causing head trauma to a child. It’s those cases Kirkwood takes on, and to say she’s passionate on the subject would be an understatement. 

As Kirkwood can attest, questioning the basis for SBS can be a lonely and uphill struggle. A New York Times Magazine article from February 2011 entitled “Shaken-Baby Syndrome Faces New Questions in Court” drew immediate, vigorous criticism from the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, pediatricians, forensics experts, and others who challenged the premise of the article and accused the author of inflating the problem of wrongful convictions. 

The point is, the emotions surrounding child abuse are powerful and can take priority over reliable science and justice in the courts, and the traditional SBS symptoms alone do not guarantee that abuse has taken place. The feature by James Ross Gardner, “The Trouble with Shaken Baby Syndrome,” details the case of one such family, a story with tragic results.