No room for failure in child abuse cases

RCMP reserve constable Craig Smith isn’t a small man, so he can put a lot of force into demonstrating the magnitude of violence needed to kill a baby.

The head of a doll the size of a three-month-old gripped in Smith’s hands snaps into its chest and back with every thrust of his arms.

This unsettling exhibition lasts four seconds, but even more disturbing is learning that it takes up to 20 seconds of thrashing a baby’s body like this to cause permanent neurological damage or death.

Smith, Canada’s leading expert on shaken baby syndrome, has given the same demonstration across Canada, the U.S., Australia, the Philippines, India and Singapore to drive home to other investigators that injuries sustained this way didn’t happen through a mere misstep by a caregiver, a child falling out of a crib or an accidental blow with a plastic toy baseball bat from a sibling. It’s the result of a sustained, violent, assault.

“That’s the kind of force we’re dealing with,” Smith said. “The research shows that the child that ends up with severe brain injury or death has been subjected to that for five to 20 seconds.”

Smith specialized in child sex abuse investigations with major crimes units in Edmonton and Calgary before he retired from the RCMP in 2000. In 2010 he moved to Nanaimo with his wife, rejoined the force as a reserve constable and now works at the Nanaimo and Ladysmith RCMP detachments.

Shaken baby cases are fairly rare, but statistics are grim nonetheless. It happens to about 24 to 30 children in 100,000 according to studies done in Scotland and South Carolina.

Most victims are less than one year old, but some are as old as five. Men commit about 70 per cent of the assaults and women account for the remaining 30 per cent.

Abusers are often repeat offenders. Doctors find healing fractures and bruises from previous abuses in about 70 per cent of cases and evidence of previous shaking in one-third of shaken baby cases. About 25 per cent of shaken babies brought to hospitals die.

Smith used to get about one fatal case a year in Edmonton.

“I really didn’t understand shaken baby syndrome and then we had a fatal case, investigated by our office, which resulted in an acquittal for the accused and a lawsuit against everybody,” Smith said.

Smith realized police had to understand the medical science behind shaken baby syndrome cases if they hoped to investigate them effectively and get convictions, so he attended the first shaken baby syndrome conference, held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1996. The conferences have been hosted there every two years since. Smith attended again in 1998, combining his investigative experience with the medical science presented at conferences and elsewhere. In 2000 he was invited back to Salt Lake City as a featured guest speaker.

“By then I’d had more cases and I sort of became the go-to guy for shaken baby syndrome,” Smith said. “I put together the medical and investigative portions, so I teach police officers, social workers, medical people, prosecutors – those are my primary audiences.”

Smith’s investigative guidelines are featured on the National Centre on Shaken Baby Syndrome website.

Precipitating factors that trigger the assaults can be financial or marital pressures, unemployment or exhaustion from lack of sleep due to a child’s persistent crying through the night. Pile on enough emotional tension and even normal child behaviour, such as throwing or spilling food, can be the final straw that unleashes a violent reaction from a parent or caregiver.

Children’s bodies are designed to take a lot of punishment from rough play, falls down stairs, fights, learning to ride a bike, getting hit by a baseball and other mishaps that can send adults to emergency wards. Even learning how to walk is fraught with injury potential.  Built-in features for resilience in babies include soft bones, skulls and brains. Adult brains are firm, but a baby’s has the consistency, Smith said, of “half-cooked Jello.” Baby brains also don’t completely fill the skull cavity. Combined with a disproportionately large head and weak neck muscles, the physics of shaking set up a peculiar set of motions that overwhelm a child’s built-in protective mechanisms that cause specific injury and bleeding patterns detectable in brain scans that allow doctors to make a diagnosis and bring in police.

Children that survive are often afflicted with life-long disabilities.

“And about 50 per cent of them leave hospital with – and I love this term – some neurological deficit,” Smith said. “That can be anything from paralysis to a speech impediment, all the way up to a vegetative state.”

Despite the disturbing nature of the crime and in some cases, virtually irrefutable evidence, getting convictions in shaken baby cases can be tough, especially when the perpetrator doesn’t look like society’s preconceived notions of what a killer’s appearance should be.

“Judges are human like anybody else. They have the same biases and she didn’t look like a child killer,” Smith said.

Knowing such serious consequences are at stake, Smith tells other police officers if a car thief, a burglar or an embezzler doesn’t get caught, crimes have been committed, there are victims of loss of money and property, but life goes on. But they can’t fail to properly investigate child abuse.

“If you’re going to pour your heart and your soul into one investigation, it’s child abuse because we see there’s a very high rate of repeating here,” Smith said. “If that little one goes back to the same environment because you didn’t solve it there’s a real good chance they’re going to come back dead, so you cannot afford to fail. You just can’t.”

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