Shaken baby syndrome is a disorder that commonly causes permanent disability or impairment, such as blindness, seizures, or developmental problems. In some cases, especially if the alleged victim is young, it can result in death. Shaken baby syndrome claims can arise in many contexts and involve healthcare providers, paramours, stepparents, parents, or other people in contact with a child. Sometimes, accusations of shaken baby syndrome can arise in custody battles, possibly resulting in criminal charges.
Regardless of the reason for the accusations, a conviction for causing shaken baby syndrome can have serious consequences. You may face prison time, fines, or hefty penalties to cover the child’s medical care and other compensation. For this reason, preparing an adequate shaken baby defense strategy early on is critical to help set you up for success.
Our Nebraska shaken baby defense lawyers are here to advocate for your interests and help you minimize the impact of these criminal charges. For 58 years, Berry Law has provided outstanding criminal defense representation to those throughout Nebraska.
What Is Shaken Baby Syndrome?
According to the Mayo Clinic, shaken baby syndrome results from infant brain damage from the brain jostling around in the skull. Because babies have weak neck muscles, they cannot support themselves while being moved around forcefully. As a result, when shaken or moved abruptly, the brain moves freely around the skull without any support from the neck, causing the sensitive tissue to suffer damage.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), children under two are most at risk of developing shaken baby syndrome, with infants between three to eight months having the highest risk. But AANS warns that children as old as four or five can also acquire this syndrome, even though it may be more uncommon.
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Common Causes of Shaken Baby Syndrome
As the name suggests, the underlying cause of shaken baby syndrome is violently shaking a baby or small child. The reasons why someone might do this include:
- Frustration with a child who will not stop crying,
- Confusion or misunderstanding about appropriate parenting, punishment, or play,
- Alcohol or drug abuse, and
- Domestic violence.
Usually, playing, jogging, or running with the child cannot cause shaken baby syndrome. The reason is that the force involved in these activities is too weak (in most cases) to result in traumatic jostling of the child’s brain.
The act of shaking the baby violently can cause many underlying physiological changes in the brain, such as:
- Brain bleed,
- Bleeding or fluid buildup between the skull and the brain,
- Brain bruising,
- Lacerations of the brain,
- Brain damage from lack of oxygen, and
- Breaking or tearing of tissue or structures in the brain.
Depending on the severity of the damage, the effects can last a lifetime or cause the child to pass away.
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What Are the Symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome?
Shaken baby syndrome can present itself in many different ways because of the variable nature of the brain. AANS indicates that the outward range of symptoms victims of shaken baby syndrome may experience include:
- Changed states of consciousness,
- Unexplained mood swings,
- Pale or blue-tinted skin,
- Vision changes (including blindness),
- Breathing changes, and
- Posture changes (such as an arched back and neck).
These symptoms can appear immediately after the traumatic event or arise hours later. Once they appear, they are often permanent or result in lasting changes to the child’s physiology or personality. Because there are so many different symptoms of shaken baby syndrome, doctors can misdiagnose genetic disorders or other conditions as being the result of SBS.
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What Treatments Are Available for Shaken Baby Syndrome?
The treatments available to a child suffering from shaken baby syndrome vary depending on the severity and type of injury. For example, if the child suffers from irritability, drowsiness, or other problems because of brain swelling, the doctors will treat the underlying brain swelling to provide some relief. Unfortunately, doctors cannot treat all symptoms directly. For example, if a child loses their sight because of being forcefully shaken, the blindness is most likely permanent and cannot be undone.
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How Long Do the Symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome Last?
The symptoms of shaken baby syndrome are typically lifelong and, in many cases, fatal, according to the AANS. Some symptoms may decrease with treatment, such as correcting a brain bleed or helping a baby start breathing normally. Children who develop a seizure disorder because of experiencing physical trauma as an infant may need anti-seizure medication to help keep the convulsions at bay. Other symptoms, such as blindness, will likely stay with the child throughout their life.
How Do Doctors Diagnose a Child With Shaken Baby Syndrome?
Diagnosing shaken baby syndrome involves performing a complete exam of the child, often using imaging technology. Scans that doctors perform include:
- X-rays of the child’s skeleton to look for fractures, breaks, or other damage;
- Eye exams to discover issues with the child’s pupils or possible retinal bleeding;
- Blood tests to determine if the underlying cause of the symptoms is a genetic disorder rather than shaken baby syndrome;
- CT Scans of the child’s brain and stomach to find signs of injury; and
- MRIs of the child’s brain and spine to uncover signs of brain or spinal damage.
The child’s medical team will also talk to the parents and, if applicable, the caregivers to understand why they believe the child may have shaken baby syndrome. The doctors may also ask about the child’s normal behavior, when the parents noticed the changes, and what types of symptoms they are most concerned about.
What Should You Do If You Are Accused of Causing Shaken Baby Syndrome in Your or Someone Else’s Child?
If you face accusations of shaking a baby, it may be best to talk to an experienced attorney. These charges can be quite serious, and a resulting conviction can negatively impact many aspects of your life. Talking to an attorney is beneficial, so you can create a solid defense to dispute the charges. You can attempt to handle the claim yourself, but it may be challenging to handle the legal and psychological aspects of the case on your own. A lawyer advocates for your interest and handles legal matters while you focus on what is important to you.
Who Can Be Held Liable for a Shaken Baby Claim?
A wide range of individuals may be criminally charged for causing a child’s death or disability because of shaken baby syndrome. Examples of parties that the court may find at fault include the following:
- The child’s mother or father,
- The child’s stepparent,
- A paramour or friend of the child’s parents or stepparents,
- The child’s relatives,
- Law enforcement officers,
- Social services,
- Healthcare professionals,
- Schoolteachers, or
Essentially, anyone who had access to the child when they allegedly suffered harm may be liable. The key questions in criminal lawsuits involving shaken baby syndrome often revolve around what the person did or should have done and whether that caused or contributed to the child’s physical harm.
For example, if two parties were present during the physical trauma to the child, the court may look at the conduct of each person in that context. In that way, even if someone did not cause direct damage to the child, if the court believes they had a legal duty to act and chose not to, they may be held accountable nonetheless.
What Crimes Can You Be Charged With in a Shaken Baby Case?
Prosecutors in a shaken baby case may charge you with a number of crimes arising out of allegedly causing the death or disability of your or someone else’s child. Possible criminal charges include:
- Child abuse,
- Assault, and
These charges can range from a Class I misdemeanor to a Class I felony. The prosecution can charge you with more than one of these crimes simultaneously, and the lesser offense typically merges with the more severe offense. It depends on the law in effect at the time and the applicable facts.
Can You Go to Jail If You Are Convicted of Shaking a Baby?
Shaken baby syndrome may result in a state’s attorney bringing criminal charges against you. If a court convicts you of causing shaken baby syndrome, you may face prison time and fines. The length of the sentence depends on the specific charge (such as child abuse or murder) and the facts of the case.
The court will look at the totality of the circumstances, including the mitigating and aggravating factors, to determine what it believes is the appropriate level of punishment. Additionally, the court usually considers a defendant’s background and the likelihood of rehabilitation. A shaken baby defense lawyer can help you prepare and present a criminal defense to help dismiss the charges or limit the sentence you face.
How Do Prosecutors Prove Liability in a Shaken Baby Case?
The proof that prosecutors need to present to prove someone’s guilt in a shaken baby case depends on the type of claim. In a criminal context, the prosecutor brings the lawsuit against the alleged perpetrator. The parents may serve as witnesses and testify in the case but are not named parties in the lawsuit. The prosecution presents evidence to support the underlying criminal charge, which often ranges from child abuse to murder.
The specific elements to show liability depend on the underlying charge. For example, if the criminal charge is child abuse, the state will attempt to prove that you placed your child in a situation that threatened their physical or mental safety or wellbeing, cruelly punished your child, or committed a similar act. They must also prove that the child suffered serious injury or death because of the alleged conduct.
Nebraska law defines serious injury means an injury that increases someone’s risk of death or which involves the risk of permanent disfigurement or impairment. In the context of a shaken baby claim, the prosecution may try to show the physical harm allegedly suffered by the child was because of the conduct in question.
What Are the Possible Penalties If You Are Convicted of Causing Shaken Baby Syndrome?
The penalties for causing shaken baby syndrome depend on the crime you are charged with, your background, and the circumstances surrounding the case. For example, if you are convicted of child abuse, the penalties typically range from up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of between 20 years to life. There may be situations in which sentencing enhancements apply, which can cause the prosecution to request a higher sentencing range than the statutory minimums.
Additional consequences are having your children taken away from you and being denied the opportunity to care for them. Further, the conviction may prevent you from working with children or infants or working in a place with access to children or infants. Having a felony on your record can also result in barriers to housing, voting, and other restrictions on your liberty.
What Are Common Defenses in a Shaken Baby Claim?
Those charged with causing shaken baby syndrome can refute the claims in several ways. The specific ways they accomplish this depend on the facts at hand. For example, the defendant can argue that the child does not have shaken baby syndrome but has another condition. Or they can say they did not shake the baby with enough force to cause the type of damage as alleged (for example, that they were playing with the child, not shaking them violently). An attorney can help the defendant prepare an appropriate defense and limit their liability.
Contact the Shaken Baby Defense Lawyers at Berry Law for Help
If you face shaken baby charges, acting swiftly to protect your legal rights and preparing an effective strategy to dispute the charges is essential. Our team has decades of experience helping people in your position defend against these types of claims. Clients describe us as “professional, knowledgeable, and compassionate.”
Before transitioning into private practice as a litigator, John Berry, Jr., dedicated 20 years of his life to the United States Army and the Nebraska National Guard. He takes that same level of loyalty, dedication, and vigor involved in fighting for our country to battle for the rights of people throughout Nebraska.
If you are accused of causing shaken baby syndrome, contact our team today by calling 402-682-8172 or using our online contact form to schedule a consultation.
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