Shaken baby cases rising

Relates to:
Date: 2003-02-28

Kennebec Journal (Augusta, ME)

Author: JOSIE HUANG, Blethen Maine Newspapers

The state's leading experts on shaken baby syndrome have counted at least three cases this year in which infants were shaken so violently by caretakers that they were at risk of suffering brain damage, blindness, even death.

The number alarms Sandra Hodge, director of the state's Division of Child Welfare, who said the average number of cases runs from three to five a year.

"I'm hoping it's an aberrant year," Hodge said. "With so many already, it's very scary."

Hodge could not comment on any cases, citing confidentiality rules. But police say that 22-month-old Nathaniel Allen died on Feb. 15 from severe head injuries caused by violent shaking. His adoptive mother, Sarah Allen, 29, of Lisbon Falls, was charged this week with manslaughter and is scheduled to appear in court next week.

Nationally, reports of caretakers shaking babies out of anger and frustration - most commonly biological fathers, followed by babysitters and biological mothers - are rising. But Dr. Lawrence Ricci, a child-abuse specialist who tracked seven cases last year, said it is too early to know if Maine is also seeing an increase.

Because of Maine's relatively small population, "we won't know if this represents a trend for another year or two," said Ricci, who heads the Spurwink Child Abuse Program in Portland.

Experts said it is unclear what leads to increased cases, although theories have ranged from a dampened economy that can create financial stress for families, to cold weather that keeps people housebound and makes them more prone to cabin fever.

Pamela Belisle, founder of the Don't Shake Jake campaign in Maine, said a rise in reported cases may signal a greater awareness about shaken babies among hospital workers and emergency workers.

"I find that we will see an increase in the long run as people in the medical field and emergency services are getting the education," she said.

But Belisle, who started the campaign after her infant son Jake was shaken to death by his babysitter in 1998, said that more work needs to be done with parents to identify if they are at risk of abusing their children. Risk factors are substance abuse, domestic violence and child abuse experienced by a caretaker, though they are not always present.

Her group runs on donations and provides limited help, including training sessions Belisle gives to child-care workers and brochures that hospitals include in post-partum packages to new parents.

Belisle hopes to distribute literature to doctor's offices and adoptive parents. "Even though we're working diligently toward prevention, there's still not enough information being distributed," she said.

Despite the higher number of shaken baby syndrome cases so far this year, Lt. Tim Doyle of the Maine State Police said it is too early to be overly concerned. Like homicides, the timing of these incidents cannot be predicted, said Doyle, who investigates child abuse cases within the Criminal Investigations Division in Augusta.

"One case is too many, but I don't think, statistically, that this means we're going to have three times as many," he said.

For more information about shaken baby syndrome, log onto www.don'tshakejake.org. The Web site of National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome is at www.dontshake.com

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