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While parents are regularly and explicitly warned about the dangers of shaken baby syndrome, it is an unfortunate everyday occurrence. According to the New York Department of Health, there are an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 infants shaken every year. One in four shaken infants will die, and 80% of those that don't die suffer permanent injury.
What makes shaken baby syndrome so tragic is that parents may not mean to harm their infants, but due to their fragile constitution, even a brief shaking can cause irreversible injury and even death. While parents who have had to deal with this diagnosis are usually devastated, the diagnosis usually requires doctors to contact law enforcement, and for law enforcement to investigate if there was criminal wrongdoing.
When are Criminal Charges Brought?
Even if parents don't intend to harm their child, criminal charges can still be brought against a parent that has caused their child injury or death due to shaking. Generally, although there are alternative viewpoints, the medical establishment considers shaken baby syndrome as a product of abuse. When a doctor diagnoses shaken baby syndrome, they must report the event to law enforcement. When law enforcement investigates, officers and prosecutors have the discretion regarding whether the circumstances that led to the injury or death were criminal.
While the situations are incredibly emotional, a parent should be cognizant of their need for an attorney, and the potential defenses, when talking to police about what happened. Parents and caregivers have faced charges ranging from criminal negligence or child abuse, to involuntary manslaughter or even murder.
Changing Landscape of Shaken Baby Syndrome
Over the past decade, researchers have shown that there may be numerous other reasons that a doctor could make a shaken baby syndrome diagnosis that doesn't involve shaking. Even the doctor in the infamous nanny murder trial from 1997 explained that after the trial, he began to question his testimony attributing the infant's death to shaking.
The reliability of the shaken baby syndrome diagnosis has not deterred prosecutions however. As a Washington University law review points out that there is very little data on the subject, though the data that does exist shows that a diagnosis is usually followed by a prosecution.