Experts are citing infants as the newest victims of the U.S. economic recession.
The rate of abusive head traumas in infants has nearly doubled in the past three years, according to a 2010 multicenter study led by Pittsburgh pediatrician Rachel Berger. Researchers believe that financial problems cause stress in families, which triggers the frustration that results in abused infants. In the months after the recession began in 2008, the number of cases jumped 55 percent, the study found.
At Seattle Children’s Hospital – one of the four centers in the study – the number of cases jumped from 16 in 2007 to 31 in 2008, and then fell to 24 in 2009, according to Dr. Kenneth Feldman, medical director of the Children’s Protection Program there.
“What happened in 2008 is the largest number in my memory,” Feldman said in an email. “Most abusive head trauma results from caretaker frustration with infant fussiness or crying. Among the current stressors has been the economic downturn, which seems to be associated with an increased rate of (injury).”
An April study conducted by two children’s hospitals in Cleveland found results similar to Berger’s. By comparing two sets of non-accidental head trauma data, researchers found that incidences doubled during periods of economic recession.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abusive head trauma – also known as shaken baby syndrome – is now a leading cause of child abuse deaths in the U.S. Up to a third of victims die and nearly two-thirds suffer neurological impairments.
During the recession more babies were shaken by biological family members as opposed to caregivers, according to Amy Scanlon of the Children’s Advocacy Center in Pierce County.
“That leads me to believe it’s stress within the home and within the family,” Scanlon said.
Kyle Mitchell is a lucky survivor in Pierce County. When he was 6 months old his biological father shook, threw and repeatedly pushed the baby’s chest in a fit of frustration, causing brain hemorrhaging that resulted in emergency surgery. His mother said the family’s financial issues were one of several stresses that contributed to the attack.
The boy is now considered a “highly functioning” survivor, “one of the very, very few,” said his mother.
Mitchell started the Never Shake Foundation for Washington in 1999. Over time, more advocacy groups have appeared across the nation.
Brandi Whaley, of Twin Falls, Idaho, is another parent-advocate; she started the Shaken Baby Prevention of Idaho organization a month ago and worked to get Gov. Butch Otter to recognize April as Shaken Baby Awareness Month.
Whaley’s daughter Lauren was 5 months old when she was allegedly shaken in August 2007 by a day-care provider. The provider was charged but not convicted.
Critics assert the spike in shaken-baby diagnoses may have been influenced by misdiagnoses and media hype. The most challenging aspect of these cases is the lack of evidence, said Shelley Ajax, a Kennewick lawyer who has represented several defendants.
“When you’re not in the room and you don’t see what happened, you’re taking a leap to say that somebody shook a child,” Ajax said.
Pinpointing the nature and time of an abusive head trauma is further complicated by the fact that symptoms are not always immediate or overt.
Traditionally, doctors looked for signs of retinal hemorrhaging, brain swelling and bleeding to diagnose a child with SBS. Yet these signs may also be present in babies who fall or are accidentally dropped; alone they are not enough to determine abuse, according to many health experts.
The reported increase has resulted in a growing number of education programs for young parents, according to Mary Meinig, director of Washington’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman.
“That’s so important because the results from it are pretty devastating,” Meinig said. “These kids can be damaged their whole lives, if they survive.”
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