Rethinking Shaken Baby Syndrome The dispute over the common child abuse diagnosis is a bitter civil war. And now, the pediatric neurosurgeon who is credited with first observing the syndrome is speaking out for the first time about his concerns over how it is used in child abuse cases.

Rethinking Shaken Baby Syndrome

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Joseph Shapiro of NPR's investigative unit has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Dr. Norman Guthkelch gets credited with first connecting head injuries in young children to violent shaking. It's now called Shaken Baby Syndrome. He's 95, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, and he's speaking out for the first time about the syndrome and the legal system.

D: If you get the diagnosis of fatal Shaken Baby Syndrome wrong, potentially, someone's life will be terminated.

SHAPIRO: Recently, a defense attorney asked Guthkelch to look at the records of an Arizona man who's been in prison for 10 years, convicted of killing his baby boy. Guthkelch was horrified by what he read.

D: I think I used the expression in my report: I wouldn't hang a cat on the evidence of shaking as presented.

SHAPIRO: Guthkelch worries that there are too many cases like this one.

D: You may, in your heart, believe that this is a case of shaking. But you've got to prove it just as carefully as any other case.

SHAPIRO: Today, the retired surgeon lives with his wife in a house on a peak in Tucson. He's tall and gets around with a cane.


SHAPIRO: He reads from his ground-breaking paper, published 40 years ago this spring, in the British Medical Journal.

D: It's quite short, the paper. "Infantile Subdural Hematoma and its Relationship to Whiplash Injuries."

SHAPIRO: That research was the first to explain a perplexing brain injury. Sometimes babies and other young children were brought to the hospital with bleeding on the surface of the brain. But there was no sign of the cause: No broken bones, bruises or other signs of physical abuse.

G: Where he lived in northern England, parents sometimes punished their children by shaking them. It was socially acceptable.

D: They had no motive to lie, so the parents told me the truth. Yes, I shook him.

SHAPIRO: But not all experts share his desire for new caution in diagnosing Shaken Baby Syndrome.

M: I truly believe deaths are not being prosecuted anymore because of this.

SHAPIRO: Covington runs the National Center for Child Death Review. It's a research center that helps states investigate child deaths.

M: I have heard many a discussion of reluctance from both law enforcement and prosecutors to even start moving these cases forward in the way that they would have done five, 10 years ago.

SHAPIRO: That's one reason Dr. Guthkelch says it's time to get all sides together and try to agree on what can be said with scientific certainty about Shaken Baby Syndrome. It's a difficult conversation.

D: But I do think that good will come of what politicians, I think, call free and frank discussions when they mean that they're going to half kill one another across the bargaining table.

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.


INSKEEP: For more on these cases, go to You heard this investigation on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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