Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project released some of their findings from an investigation into the rate of legal cases surrounding shaken baby syndrome on Tuesday. The Justice Project is an investigative journalism program that researches criminal justice issues, including wrongful convictions.
Project director Alec Klein said the investigation was difficult because few of the crimes had witnesses and because little data has been collected to understand national trends.
The lack of data led the justice center to use information from 3,000 legal cases to create their own database. An analysis of the data shows Utah ranks second in the nation for shaken baby syndrome cases per 100,000 individuals, with Weber County ranking third out of counties nationwide.
Lauryn Schroeder, also with Medill Justice Project, said rates may be influenced by the location of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome’s Headquarters in Farmington Utah.
“The location of an organization like that would make the public more aware of the issue, would make prosecutors more aware of the issue, as well as law enforcement, which could influence the rate and also the number of cases in that area,” Schroeder said.
Other factors that may have elevated rates of criminal cases include an influential hospital system, aggressive prosecutors and how often the media reported on child abuse cases in an area.
Part of the reason the Justice Project decided to look into the issue is a change in how medical experts diagnose the syndrome. In the past, brain swelling, brain bleeding and bleeding in the eyes was enough for a diagnosis.
“Previously, it was more or less an uncontested diagnosis. If the child showed all of these three symptoms…authorities would accuse the last caregiver of abusing the child because they believed that the symptoms were instant,” Schroeder said. “Recent medical studies have shown that the triad can be associated with accidental trauma, such as like when the child falls and other certain medical disorders and there’s also the issue that medical studies have shown that the onset of symptoms isn’t immediate.”
The Justice Center is investigating claims of wrongful convictions in some shaken baby syndrome cases where there are questions regarding the conviction.
Klein said the Medill Justice Project’s goal is to provide the public with a source for information on the issue.
“There’s such a dearth of information about the topic both here in the United States and, frankly, throughout the world. There are literally scores of people annually, here and abroad, who are accused of such crimes, but there has been little information on a macro-level about what’s happening,” Klein said.
Nebraska and Oklahoma were also among the top three states in the nation for rates of shaken baby syndrome.