Overcoming Hurdles: How The Medill Justice Project Is Creating a U.S. Database on Shaken-Baby Syndrome

National criminal-justice experts weigh in on research approach

Graduate students from Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering (from left: David Cooperberg, Robert Xue, Qifan Wu, and Justin Kim) are working with Medill journalism students to create what will be the first national shaken-baby syndrome database. (Alec Klein/Medill)

Graduate students from Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering (from left: David Cooperberg, Robert Xue, Qifan Wu, and Justin Kim) are working with Medill journalism students to create what will be the first national shaken-baby syndrome database. (Alec Klein/Medill)

By Alison Flowers
The Medill Justice Project

Scores of mothers, fathers, day care workers and other caregivers throughout the United States have been accused of violently shaking children, inflicting head injuries known as shaken-baby syndrome. But little else is known nationally about what has become a major criminal-justice issue.

Last summer, The Medill Justice Project began gathering information on shaken-baby syndrome cases across the country in what is expected to be the first public national database on such crimes. It is impossible to search the public records in the U.S. court system—locally or federally—to identify shaken-baby syndrome. Not even the FBI gathers such data. When people are accused of shaken-baby syndrome crimes, usually involving brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eyes, the charge or charges brought against them do not use the term “shaken-baby syndrome.” Rather, they are accused of first-degree murder, child abuse, assault or some other crime. Only at times does the term “shaken-baby syndrome” appear in court documents, such as in trial transcripts and appellate court records. And the term is evolving, as some in the medical and criminal-justice community now refer to it as “abusive head trauma” or some other variation.

“Trying to get that level of detail about something that could be charged as child abuse or child endangerment or any kind of child crime would be challenging,” said Philip Stevenson, president of the Justice Research and Statistics Association, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that conducts and publishes research, including on criminal-justice issues. Stevenson also is director of the Arizona Statistical Analysis Center, part of a state agency which gathers, analyzes and reports on criminal-justice issues in Arizona. The center supplies information to policymakers, law enforcement and the public, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. “These are important issues, and I certainly appreciate the work Medill has done in this and other areas.”

Because laws vary by state, which affects how shaken-baby syndrome crimes are classified, they are difficult to track, said Mark Myrent, research director at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state agency where he has worked for 25 years. “Shaken-baby syndrome is a medical term, not a legal term,” he said.

The Medill Justice Project, a journalism organization at Northwestern University that examines potentially wrongful murder convictions, has so far obtained information on more than 1,500 cases from all 50 states and Guam, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific.

Working with undergraduate journalism students at The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and a team of graduate students from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, The Medill Justice Project is seeking to confirm whether the cases involved shaken-baby syndrome and verify the details of those cases by running defendant names and other attributes through proprietary legal databases, such as LexisNexis and CourtLink, as well as other online purveyors of court records, including Justia. Information, such as names and charges, are also being cross-referenced with state Department of Corrections records, where available.

More than 30 sources have provided The Medill Justice Project with case information. They include lawyers, doctors as well as family members and friends of victims and those accused of child abuse. Police records, trial court documents, appellate court records, Department of Child and Family Services documents and medical records have also been used.

The Medill Justice Project has become aware of most of the cases through press accounts. Researchers said they consider press accounts an effective way to identify shaken-baby syndrome cases for a national database, given the dearth of public records that flag such crimes.

Stevenson, the head of the national justice statistics association, said press accounts are an important tool for this kind of research. He said he uses press accounts about such matters as deaths that occur during arrests when he submits information to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Janet Lauritsen, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who is a visiting research fellow at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said that using press accounts is a legitimate way to identify cases for research as long as the methodology is transparent. “I think you’re right to start with the press accounts because you’re not going to be able to get them [case information] anywhere else,” Lauritsen said.

The Medill Justice Project is planning to extract random samples from its database of cases and conduct a statistical analysis of confirmed cases, publishing its findings and data in waves.

“Nobody is doing what you’re doing, as far as I know,” Lauritsen said.

According to Gail Hayes, a senior press officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Injury Center, the agency does not track case-level data on shaken-baby syndrome.

Anne Elixhauser, a senior research scientist at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said its data includes shaken-baby syndrome hospitalizations, but does not offer identifiable information, such as infant names. Only limited data is available, including the infant’s age.

Not even the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, data collected by nearly 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies, can detect shaken-baby syndrome crimes, according to Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services, where statisticians compile vast amounts of data and report on crime across the country. Fischer said the Uniform Crime Reporting program has two collection systems: the Summary Reporting System, which provides a general look at crime, and the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which offers information on a more granular level, including specific incidents and arrests. In an email to The Medill Justice Project, Fischer wrote that “one would be able to determine specific instances of child abuse within the NIBRS but unable to determine any instance of shaken baby syndrome. Instances of child abuse cannot be determined within data collected in the SRS.”

The FBI does not track shaken-baby syndrome cases because the charges involved, such as murder, are not federal offenses, according to an FBI public affairs specialist.

The lack of data speaks to a prosecution paradigm in U.S. shaken-baby syndrome cases that has emerged with little notice, according to Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who has written about shaken-baby syndrome and the courts.

“These cases have been prosecuted without a systematic effort to gather the data,” said Tuerkheimer. “It’s just not been out there in any way that’s accessible.”

Several national criminal-justice experts urged The Medill Justice Project not to publish the defendants’ personally identifiable information, such as their names. Recent exonerations of convicted caregivers have shown that some people are innocent of these violent crimes. Others may have been accused and indicted on charges involving shaken-baby syndrome, only to see their charges dismissed.

“My gut tells me no, that they shouldn’t be published because of the controversy over whether those cases are diagnosed properly,” Lauritsen said.

“You don’t want to punish someone twice,” said Stevenson, who for six years worked with the Global Privacy and Information Quality Working Group, a federal justice department program that addresses information-sharing issues. Stevenson maintains that researchers and journalists alike should weigh the public policy benefit of publishing the national database—such as the potential impact on U.S. criminal-justice proceedings—against the risk of causing harm to individuals.

“If the goals of the database are independent of any individual’s name, then why do it [publish the name]?” Stevenson said.

Northwestern Professor Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project, said the plan is to not include individual defendant names in the database; the goal is to identify national patterns and trends, such as the extent to which men and women are accused of such crimes, to better understand the forces shaping prosecutions.

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