It's never simple when science suffers a shakeup. The road to the truth is littered with fallen experts who were disgraced when they tried to disprove—or prove—the common wisdom, be it that the earth revolves around the sun or that witches float. Today's researchers are fighting to restore logic in the debate over vaccinations, global warming, and the increasingly hazy medical condition called Shaken Baby Syndrome, whose adherents accuse, pursue and prosecute an estimated 250 parents, babysitters and other caretakers each year.
Veteran investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith has spent years examining the medical and legal industry that has arisen to promote its belief that vicious baby-shaking by enraged adults has killed thousands of infants, the subject of the new documentary, The Syndrome, researched by Goldsmith and directed by her cousin Meryl Goldsmith.
“I made a career writing about child abuse,” she says. Her child abuse investigations as a reporter for The Oregonian led to two new laws designed to better protect kids in foster care. Yet, she also sees extreme, unfounded reactions by well-meaning people when children are involved. Says Goldsmith, “When people hear 'child abuse,' all thinking just goes into shutdown mode.”
A diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome was supposed to explain mysterious deaths in babies without bone fractures, bumps, bruises or neck injuries. How did they die? A theory arose that babies were under attack by loved ones. For decades, doctors in the U.S., and dozens of other countries were trained to look for three internal symptoms that experts claimed were proof of a powerful shaking assault on a tiny child: brain swelling, blood on the surface of the brain, and blood behind the eyes. Well-meaning doctors were instructed that these symptoms could only occur due to intense shaking—if a parent or babysitter said the child had fallen or suddenly fell ill, that was a lie.
Proponents of the theory grew so powerful in political circles, where elected officials were keen to show they supported helpless children, that laws were passed across the U.S. requiring a doctor who spotted any of the three symptom to alert authorities. Failure to report symptoms, even if a doctor found the parents' explanation made sense, could result in fines, civil lawsuits, or even jail time.
We've been here before. The Syndrome rewinds back to the 1980s when the big public panic on behalf of children was Satanic Ritual Abuse, a Salem-like national frenzy in which prosecutors and juries in big cities and small towns sent daycare employees to jail for years for crimes as implausible as cutting off a gorilla's finger while at the zoo, then flying the children over Mexico to molest them.
The media leapt on these accusations. Mass paranoia meant massive ratings for Geraldo, Oprah, 20/20 and Sally Jesse Raphael, all of whom hosted fear-sowing TV episodes on the devil worshippers obsessed with America's children.
So, too, did the doctors. “They medicalized Satan,” says Goldsmith. At the Rady Children's hospital in San Diego, Dr. David L. Chadwick held a conference to alert doctors, prosecutors and law enforcement officials to symptoms that might prove a child had been ceremonially tortured.
“[Doctors would] go into court and say, 'Yeah, she's got a Satanic Ritual Abuse notch in her hymen,” says Goldsmith. The Syndrome finds evidence of Chadwick's physician colleagues, Robert M. Reece and Carole Jenny, furthering the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria of that era, writing and editing medical definitions in pediatric manuals alongside bar graphs purporting to show the use of excrement in black magic.
One indicator of Satanic Ritual Abuse: children who are afraid of the dark. The doctors' reports looked legitimate. But, as many duly ashamed news outlets have long since reported, they weren't.
“It was all bullshit,” says Goldsmith. “But they got it publicized in legitimate scientific publications.” In 1994, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect released a report declaring that there was no evidence Satanic Ritual Abuse ever existed. Yet, according to a Redbook survey taken that year after the report was issued, 70 percent of Americans continued to believe it was real.
The consequences certainly were. Dozens of preschools endured accusations that they were centers for devil worship. In 1994, The New York Times cited a survey of 11,000 psychiatric and police professionals who cited more than 12,000 accusations of Satanic sexual abuse — in which not a single investigator could substantiate a claim. Innocent childcare workers lost their businesses, many did prison time or years in jail awaiting bail. In the Los Angeles area, the family operators of McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach spent seven years defending themselves in criminal court and to a spellbound public.
Los Angeles County prosecutors spent $15 million going after the McMartin family for a long list of Satanic horrors against small children, while the Los Angeles Times covered the case with a breathless fervor that implied the accused were guilty.
“The mainstream media just completely fucked it up, like they've done with Shaken Baby Syndrome,” says Goldsmith. “The L.A. Times did such a shitty job on McMartin that their media reporter [David Shaw] later won a Pulitzer prize for exposing what a shitty job they did.”
Dan and Fran Keller—the alleged Satanic gorilla-torturers and child abusers—spent 21 years in prison in Texas. They weren't freed until 2013, when an emergency room physician, Michael Mouw, recanted his testimony that the toddler girl he'd examined had been sexually abused. He claimed he had believed invalid scientific evidence. “I was mistaken,” Mouw said in court. “Sometimes it takes time to figure out what you don’t know.”
Goldsmith claims that three figures in her documentary, doctors Chadwick, Reece and Jenny “never backed down.”
And as devil worshipping charges faded away in the early '90s, the three doctors began promoting a new danger: Shaken Baby Syndrome.
Satanic Ritual Abuse and Shaken Baby Syndrome are more similar than they sound. In both cases, the expert speak for the victim. The discredited Satanic Ritual Abuse cases proved that adults were able to pressure children to swear to all sorts of falsehoods. (One child identified Chuck Norris as his abuser.) The infants and toddlers who are alleged victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome are either dead, or too young to explain what happened. Thus a doctor's educated opinion becomes crucial—even if that doctor is adhering to incorrect “proof” of abuse.
Northwestern University Law Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer estimates that approximately 95 percent of defendants are found guilty once formally accused of maiming or killing babies through violent shaking, and that 1,000 innocent people may be in prison right now. Public belief in Shaken Baby Syndrome is so strong that Congress has long deemed the third week of April National Shaken Baby Awareness Week, and 18 states require hospitals to instruct new parents about the threat to infants from Shaken Baby Syndrome.
In The Syndrome, Goldsmith reveals that the doctors who frothed up Satanic Panic moved on to shape the next crisis. Chadwick, Reece and Jenny have all served as advisors to, or on the board of directors of, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome in Farmington, Utah. They've defined new medical terminology in medical books which they've promoted to doctors, hospitals, and law enforcers. With hundreds of doctors following their lead, Goldsmith's documentary argues, the three helped trigger a surge of Shaken Baby Syndrome prosecutions — convictions now increasingly discredited by multiple media investigations, outspoken scientists and doctors, and attorney-led innocence projects that seek to free condemned baby shakers from U.S. prisons.
“When I put it all together, it was like being electrocuted,” says Goldsmith. “It's pretty damning.”
Why would doctors flog questionable science? It's hard to say for certain, and each of the three doctors has done commendable work in other areas of child abuse. Jenny, for one, has helped statistically disprove the stereotype tying homosexuality to pedophilia. (None would agree to an interview for Goldsmith's documentary.)
Yet, on the stand for an SBS prosecution in Troy, New York, Jenny admitted to charging $3,000 a day to testify in trials against accused caretakers, and Goldsmith notes in The Syndrome that over the last 10 years she's received over $250,000 in grant money to research the bio-mechanical aspects of SBS but has published no new data.
In their 2014 tax returns, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome reported yearly earnings of $2.14 million from grants and purchases of their often state-mandated and trademarked educational materials, such as a $250 CD Rom with slides. That's at least cheaper than the $879 that Realityworks charges doctors for a Shaken Baby Syndrome dummy with light-up sensors in its see-through brain. Notes Goldsmith, “The entire field of Shaken Baby Syndrome is a giant industrial complex with millions of dollars flowing.”
The Syndrome interviews several medical experts who openly dispute the once-undisputed Shaken Baby Syndrome theory. Three major skeptics are Dr. Patrick Barnes of Stanford, who once believed it and now testifies in court against it, Dr. Ronald Uscinski of Georgetown who decries the hysteria as “pure Hell,” and pathologist Dr. John Plunkett, who tested bio-mechanical dummies to determine how much shaking was needed to scramble the brains of an infant or toddler.
Plunkett's findings have sparked a growing acceptance that the thin science underlying Shaken Baby Syndrome theory is wrong. For one, the three hidden symptoms such as blood behind the eyes can't be created without causing whiplash to the neck. Yet, The Syndrome points out that there has never been any serious neck damage in any of the Shaken Baby Syndrome cases, according to records from hundreds of prosecutions.
Further, between a quarter to a half of all infants in America are born with blood leaks in the brain, a condition that can compound injuries that could result when an infant suffers a short, accidental fall—the sort of mishap Chadwick has long instructed physicians to consider a lie.
Goldsmith's film stresses that a short fall can cause 50 to 100 times more trauma to a baby than shaking, and as a reminder, points to the adult deaths of Natasha Richardson and Gary Coleman, both of whom died after innocuous-seeming tumbles. Yet the mandatory requirement that doctors must alert authorities to the three “symptoms” drilled into them since medical school has lead to doctors, consciously or not, to settle on an SBS diagnosis without exhausting accidents and underlying medical problems as causes.
The skeptics have been attacked by Shaken Baby Syndrome advocates. In The Syndrome, Jenny dismisses bio-mechanical research as just “a piece of wood with a hat on it,” and later, in a PowerPoint, Reece compares Plunkett's suspicions to those of a Holocaust denier. When Plunkett agrees to a public debate about SBS, Jenny backs out and her replacement jokes that Plunkett is “an ignorant slut.”
It's important to pin down exactly what Plunkett and the other experts do and don't believe. They do believe that child abuse exists. They do believe that shaking babies is injurious. They don't believe that the definition and diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome is accurate or useful. And they don't believe that everyone convicted of it is guilty, or got a fair trial in court or the media.
Dr. Jenny admits during a lecture in the documentary that “the assumptions we're making really cannot be validated at this time by the scientific literature.” Adds Chadwick, “Let's let it be controversial for awhile — until we find better data.”
But they've had decades to find better data, and prosecutions continue to tear apart the lives of grieving parents and of babysitters and daycare workers, who often have their own children taken away until they can prove their innocence. Now, in footage Goldsmith reveals in the documentary, Reece claims that the best way to prove SBS (now renamed Abusive Head Trauma to distance itself from the growing protestations) is by getting the perpetrators to confess. Many do, but often only after being offered a plea deal that would trade them decades in prison for time served—an offer that's hard to refuse.
The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome has come after Goldsmith and The Syndrome, threatening to sue her and three film festivals that have shown her documentary.
In a letter to the Kansas International Film Festival, the NCSBS requested that the organizers cancel the screening. Their argument misrepresented the documentary's content, warning, “Should viewers leave with the impression that shaking an infant does not cause serious harm that could result in death, numerous infants could be put in significant danger.” The screenings were held as planned.
“We see families now at every one of our screenings,” says Goldsmith. “They'll sometimes be wearing shirts like, 'Free Megan!' and they'll come up to me and say, 'We thought we were alone!'”
Goldsmith hopes that by revealing the direct connection between doctors involved in both the discredited Satanic Panic and Shaken Baby Syndrome, her film can be a tipping point in efforts to correct the hysteria before more innocent people are put in jail. “The lesson for journalists is we need to question everything,” says Goldsmith.
She has help. Former State Medical Examiner of Kentucky Dr. George Nichols, who used to testify in favor of Shaken Baby Syndrome, was quoted in an exhaustive investigation in March by the Washington Post as saying he would now testify for a reversal for all convictions in which he was involved. Nichols called SBS, “a belief system rather than an exercise in modern-day science.” And in 2013, Texas signed SB 344, the country's first “Junk Science Writ,” to aid in the release of people wrongfully convicted by now-discredited forensic science. (California has since passed a similar law, which may help the California Innocence Project's efforts to reopen unjust Shaken Baby Syndrome cases.)
The first prisoners set free by Texas were four women, all caregivers prosecuted in 1994 for Satanic Ritual Abuse. For the San Antonio Four, it took two decades for level heads to prevail. The parents and babysitters currently battling questionable Shaken Baby Syndrome accusations hope sifting the truth in their own cases won't take that long.
The Syndrome will screen at 5pm on Friday April 10 at the Cinema at the Edge Film Festival in Santa Monica.