New documentary questions shaken baby cases

Documentary | <em>The Syndrome</em> examines the questions some doctors are raising about abuse allegations that land parents and caregivers in jail
by Daniel James Devine
Posted 4/22/15, 01:28 pm

Grainy footage of an interrogation room with paint peeling from the walls shows what might have been the worst day of Joshua Couffer’s life.

He and his wife, Samantha McClay-Couffer, had taken their 3-week-old daughter to the hospital with a fever and vomiting. Doctors who examined the baby discovered signs of internal head trauma and said someone had abused her. They reported the parents to authorities.

“These are all classic signs of the baby being shaken,” the interrogator told Joshua. “Someone shook that baby within the last week. … I need you to tell me how that could have happened.”

Joshua insisted he didn’t know, but his questioner persisted: “Somebody did something to her, and it’s either you or Samantha, OK? You need to tell me, Josh.”

“I’m telling you,” Joshua said.

“And I don’t believe you.”

Joshua and Samantha’s baby and 7-year-old son went to live with a foster family while the couple protested their innocence in court. They were ultimately declared not guilty on all counts. The baby’s symptoms were apparently due to other medical conditions, not abuse.

The Couffers are among the families profiled in a controversial new documentary, The Syndrome, now playing at film festivals. The film examines the science of shaken baby syndrome and spotlights doctors who have raised questions about the diagnosis.

Also known as abusive head trauma, shaken baby syndrome is a medical diagnosis doctors often make after discovering a baby with head swelling, bleeding on the surface of the brain, and bleeding in the back of the eyes. The diagnosis has been used to convict hundreds of parents and caretakers of abuse, including Josh Burns. It is sometimes supported by additional evidence, such as skull fractures, though not in every case.

The Syndrome shows how abuse allegations based on shaken baby syndrome occasionally fall apart under scrutiny. Certain illnesses and medical conditions can cause the symptoms often blamed on shaking or head trauma—raising the question of whether some people have been wrongly convicted.

Lisa Stickney, who ran a daycare in Oregon, spent a year in jail awaiting trial on murder charges after prosecutors said she abused a 14-month-old boy. She was later acquitted after a witness said the child had bumped his head against a brick wall.

John Plunkett, a retired pathologist, testified in Stickney’s case and dozens of others. “People are being charged and convicted for crimes that just simply did not occur,” he says in the film. “Married couples, professional daycare operators, everybody.”

The Syndrome makes a compelling case for questioning shaken baby charges. So compelling, in fact, a viewer might go away questioning whether the classic symptoms of shaken baby syndrome are ever indicators of abuse. But that would be going too far: Doctors who doubt the syndrome admit the bleeding symptoms can indicate abuse, but say other explanations—illnesses or accidental injuries—may be to blame.

Another doctor interviewed in the film, Patrick Barnes, testified for the prosecution in the highly publicized 1997 trial of Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British nanny convicted of shaking a baby to death in Boston. “I never questioned the science behind it,” he said. “I followed the line that this had to be shaking.”

But the courtroom experience left Barnes with nagging doubts.

“I’m going to go outside the books and teachers, and I’m going to do my own digging, and see what they’re quoting, what they’re citing,” he decided.

Barnes ultimately became convinced the shaken baby diagnosis wasn’t as straightforward as he’d been taught. He concluded other medical conditions—vitamin D deficiency, for example—can cause classic shaken baby symptoms. “If a physician does not thoroughly investigate all of the various possibilities, he or she will come to a default diagnosis that shaking was involved,” Barnes said. Today Barnes is a pediatric radiologist at Stanford School of Medicine and sometimes testifies in defense of accused parents.

Plunkett, Barnes, and other doubters of the shaken baby diagnosis have endured sharp criticism for their views. Many doctors still consider the science of shaken baby syndrome, first described four decades ago, as firmly established.

The film includes footage of doctors defending the shaken baby diagnosis in TV interviews and at medical conferences. “There is a cult of irrationality that is amongst us,” said Robert Reece, a former child protection program director at the Tufts Medical Center children’s hospital in Boston, in one clip.

The documentary is based on the research of Susan Goldsmith, an independent reporter who began investigating the science of shaken baby syndrome in 2008. Doubts about shaken baby syndrome were so controversial at the time that her former employer, The Oregonian, refused to publish her research.

It is still controversial.

“Festivals have been hesitant to program us,” said Goldsmith’s cousin, Meryl Goldsmith, the film’s director. When the Kansas International Film Festival scheduled a showing for The Syndrome in October, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome sent a letter asking festival organizers to cancel.

“We, along with hundreds of other child abuse prevention agencies, work tirelessly to protect children from this serious form of abuse,” stated the letter, which was obtained by WORLD. “Propagating the messages this film promises to deliver severely damages the prevention efforts put forth.”

The Kansas festival decided to show the film anyway.

“Of course none of us wants children to be abused. It’s a terrible thing, and if you do that, you should go to jail,” Meryl Goldsmith said. But neither does she want to see innocent parents unjustly convicted. “We just want people to get these cases right.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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