SBS: The Horrific Easy Answer

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a form of abusive head trauma inflicted on infants.  At least 1.400 babies die of SBS a year, studies show.  That exceedingly high number doesn’t even account for all the babies that are not killed but will live with the lifelong consequences of their parents’ bad actions.  Nor does it factor in all the babies that are shaken “in secret”, without a subsequent hospital visit, call to the police, etc.  According to the CDC, “Nearly all victims of AHT [Abusive Head Trauma} suffer serious, long-term health consequences such as vision problems, developmental delays, physical disabilities, and hearing loss.”

Just this month, March 2018, at least 3 people have found themselves sentenced to jail for SBS:

  • On March 1, Montana resident Austin Blair Johnson, 27, received a 15-year sentence for shaking his 5-year-old son.  Presumably, Johnson received only 15 years, not the 20-year sentence called for by the prosecutors, because he plead guilty.  Johnson sobbed during the sentencing. However, remorse, for his actions or for the result, doesn’t change that 15 years seems like nothing for someone who gave his son a life sentence.
  • Just this past week, 30-year-old Delavon Domique Johnson was sent to jail for 30 years for inflicting such severe brain injury in his 3-month-old daughter that it caused intracranial hemorrhaging.
  • In Oregon, January Neatherlin was sentenced on March 9 to over 20 years for child abuse.  Though this abuse mostly involved drugging the children and abandoning her daycare facility while children were present, which is in no way better than physical abuse, “One family said their daughter suffered a brain injury, consistent with shaken baby syndrome, while in Neatherlin’s care.”

In 2001, the US government issued a statement, co-signed by Canada, on Shaken Baby Syndrome.  Nearly 20 years later, the statement’s recommendations are just as relevant and important: data collection and surveillance, further research (general knowledge, psychosocial and long-term), prevention, care and treatment, further education (primarily for child protection personnel, police, medical examiners and coroners, prosecutors, lawyers and judges), community response (including services and support) and professional training.  The CDC also notes the need for prevention, providing PDFs on prevention.

In 2014, however, the Washington Post cited a study that questions these almost universal beliefs: “most humans aren’t capable of shaking an infant hard enough to produce the symptoms in SBS.”  (Presumably, this means that SBS must often be accompanied by a secondary injury, such as the head also hitting the floor.)  New scientific research doesn’t prove that SBS is not the cause, just that it may not be in some cases.  Though diagnosing a child’s brain injury as caused by SBS may be a knee-jerk reaction, obvious isn’t always true or correct.  Hopefully, with continued education for both the parents/caregivers and members of the justice system, it will become a less common and a less possible culprit.  More so, hopefully fewer parents will find shaking a legitimate means of punishment.

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