When cousins Susan Goldsmith, an investigative journalist, and Meryl Goldsmith, a filmmaker, teamed up to make a film challenging Shaken Baby Syndrome, they knew it would be a hard sell. The film profiles a loose coalition of doctors and legal experts who say they have gradually come to see SBS (now typically referred to with the updated, broader term Abusive Head Trauma) as an outdated, and often false, medical diagnosis.
Many of the film’s subjects have dedicated their professional lives to gaining attention to updated research on child injuries, and to defending accused abusers in court. For this, they have faced a huge backlash from the doctors and prosecutors who disagree. The filmmakers knew they’d get swept up in that, too. Many film festivals that considered including the film were threatened with litigation, and accused of promoting child abuse, the filmmakers said in a recent interview.
“This is a theme in our film—how the proponents of shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma have tried to silence their critics,” Susan Goldsmith says. “And that theme is extending to here and now, to our documentary. I was expecting it.”
“We thought we were helping by uncovering these other medical conditions that can look like abuse, but are not [abuse]. It actually threatens the entire shaken baby syndrome working group and industrial complex.”
Those SBS proponents—many of whom are very prominent figures in the medical field, and who hold positions in the American Academy of Pediatrics—did not participate in the film, but when it was about to come out, they were ready. Ahead of the first public showing of The Syndrome last fall at the Kansas International Film Festival, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome sent a strongly worded letter to the festival organizers. The letter called the film “dangerous” and urged them to remove it from the festival. (The film screened as planned.)
“We are concerned that the film contains inaccurate and misleading information about SBS/AHT that may result in serious public health risks,” the letter read. “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.” A large group of pediatricians and neurosurgeons sent another letter to the organizers, saying that the film’s argument was that shaking a child could not cause death or injury.
It’s worth noting that these letter-writers had not yet seen the film, which does not, in fact, condone baby-shaking, or excuse actual child abuse. But what the film does is show how thin the evidence often is, and has traditionally been, in cases like this—and just how many people are in jail today because of it.
For the past several decades, the film demonstrates, doctors and medical examiners have been taught that there are three symptoms that, when they show up in scans of children’s heads, automatically indicate that the child may have been violently shaken: blood on the protective layer of the brain, swelling of the brain, and bleeding behind the eyes. “Shaken baby” cases exploded in the 1990s, and hundreds of parents, babysitters, daycare center workers, and other caretakers have been convicted of child abuse, with no evidence other than those symptoms in the children under their care.
“This is essentially a medical diagnosis of murder,” Susan Goldsmith says. “And medical misdiagnoses happen all the time.”
What the doctors and professors interviewed in the film explain is that science has since shown that there are many other conditions that can cause those same symptoms. Meningitis, hemophilia, bacterial or viral infections, and vitamin deficiencies can cause the same damage, just as suddenly and mysteriously. Among very young children, these doctors argue, accidental falls from a low height and insignificant-seeming head injuries can also lead to fatal blood hemorrhaging that would exhibit the same indicators as a so-called tell-tale shaken baby case.
So why haven’t medical diagnoses kept up with the science? One pediatrician in the film—who used to follow the party line on shaken baby diagnoses until he did his own research—blames an entrenched system that doesn’t want to revisit or revise the received wisdom. He and other doctors in the film say they have been retaliated against and bullied with legal threats by the NCSBS and other organizations after testifying in defense of accused abusers.
“We thought we were helping by uncovering these other medical conditions that can look like abuse, but are not [abuse],” Patrick Barnes, chief of pediatric neuroradiology at the Children's Hospital at Stanford University, tells the filmmakers. “It actually threatens the entire shaken baby syndrome working group and industrial complex.”
If these doctors and scientists are right, the implication for potential exonerations is enormous. As Susan Goldsmith narrates in the film, it’s next to impossible to know how many people have been convicted, or are currently in prison, from cases involving SBS diagnoses. The syndrome itself is not a criminal charge, so it is typically categorized as neglect, abuse, manslaughter, or homicide, depending on the situation. But Goldsmith’s sources estimate that there are hundreds of convictions every year. (Some groups, like the Medill Justice Project and the National Registry of Exonerations, are trying to tally them.)
"When scientific consensus shifts, our system needs to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate these new realities,” says Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at DePaul University (now of Northwestern), at the end of the film. “We don't yet have the mechanisms in place to do that, and that's something that I feel needs to change, if we are to continue to do justice, in shaken baby cases and beyond.”
John Plunkett, a pathologist profiled in the film, agrees. “All of these cases are going to need to be re-opened,” he says, “assuming that we are a civilized society and are willing to do that."
True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.