The Gender Gap

Study Shows Men Far More Likely Than Women to Be Accused of Violently Shaking Infants

Results mark first finding from The Medill Justice Project’s long-term U.S. database research on shaken-baby syndrome cases

By Megan Thielking
The Medill Justice Project

Men are nearly three times more likely than women to be accused of violently shaking an infant, according to an analysis of cases gathered nationwide by The Medill Justice Project into this largely opaque criminal justice issue.

Out of nearly 3,000 cases, 72.5 percent of those accused of shaken-baby syndrome crimes are men, while 27.5 percent are women, The Medill Justice Project discovered in its first published finding in more than a year of research on this national concern. Shaken-baby syndrome crimes involve caregivers who are accused of inflicting severe head trauma on children, typically under the age of 2, causing a triad of symptoms—brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eye.

Experts interviewed for this article found the disproportionate number of accused men perplexing because so many daycare providers and stay-at-home parents are women. According to a Pew Research Center study published in March, mothers spend about twice as much time caring for children than fathers. Most childcare givers are women, according to the nonprofit National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies in Arlington, Va. The U.S. population is nearly evenly divided between men and women.

Gender differences in shaken-baby syndrome cases infographic

Experts, such as Diana Grant, a criminal justice authority and associate professor at Sonoma State University in northern California, said there is a need for this kind of research project to better understand why men are accused more often of such crimes. “It’s hard to sort this out because [infants] can’t speak” for themselves, she said. “That’s what makes it such an important project.”

Working with undergraduate journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, The Medill Justice Project identified and confirmed more than 3,600 cases of shaken-baby syndrome by running defendant names and other identifiers through proprietary legal databases, cross-referencing them with police, appellate court and medical records, where available. More than 30 sources provided The Medill Justice Project with case information.

The Medill Justice Project database research builds on previous studies on this topic. Among these was a study, last updated in 2008, by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, a nonprofit in Farmington, Utah, which produced similar a finding. Its database, which isn’t available to the public, was about the same size as The Medill Justice Project’s. The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome tracked abusive head trauma cases, which included shaken-baby syndrome cases, but also encompassed cases of blunt force trauma, said Amy Wicks, a spokesperson for the center. The Medill Justice Project study, which focused on shaken-baby syndrome alone, intends to make most of its data available to the public. The plan is to exclude individual defendant names from the database in line with the recommendation of several national criminal justice experts. That’s because, for instance, recent exonerations of convicted caregivers have shown that some people are innocent of these violent crimes. The goal is to identify national patterns and trends.

The Medill Justice Project and the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome identified most of their cases through press accounts. Criminal justice and statistics researchers said they consider this an effective way to identify shaken-baby syndrome cases for a national database, given that there is no way to track such cases through the U.S. court system where they are identified by terms other than shaken-baby syndrome. Not even the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, data collected by nearly 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies, can specifically identify shaken-baby syndrome crimes. For The Medill Justice Project’s research, the gender of most of the defendants was verified using a database provided by David Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and Orrington Lunt professor of education and social policy and of economics. Figlio ran the names through a data set of about 2 million birth certificates from Florida. Any name with an empirical probability of .95 or greater of being male was confirmed to be male. The gender of nearly 3,000 of these defendants was confirmed, and only those cases were used in compiling The Medill Justice Project’s data.

Prevention efforts

With new national data on gender, hospitals and other advocacy organizations may be better equipped to provide “very important” shaken-baby syndrome prevention information to men as well as women, said Elizabeth Mustaine, child abuse expert and professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida.

Only a handful of major organizations target men and women differently in their shaken-baby syndrome prevention efforts. Many organizations, such as the Shaken Baby Alliance, created by women whose children were victims of shaken-baby syndrome, and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, do not provide gender-specific resources for shaken-baby syndrome prevention on their websites. The Shaken Baby Alliance provides tips for coping with a crying infant, for example, while the CDC provides downloadable radio public service announcements on the syndrome.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome does offer gender-specific information, with “Dads’ Materials” available for purchase, including a poster which reads, “Are You Tough Enough to be Gentle?” and a “Dads ‘Time Out’ Card,” which “reminds fathers to take a break when becoming frustrated with infant crying and also the dangerous consequences of shaking a baby.” Abby English Waldbaum, research and prevention coordinator at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said The Medill Justice Project’s finding demonstrates that it is crucial to educate men about coping strategies as many don’t have the “experience and knowledge that babies cry and they cry a lot.” Children’s Hospital Colorado, Kohl’s Department Stores and the Colorado-based advocacy group the Kempe Foundation for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect launched two shaken-baby syndrome prevention campaigns in 2006 tailored to men and women separately. Since then, the number of shaken-baby syndrome crimes has dropped from 32 cases in 2007 to 14 last year in Colorado, according to the program.

Shaken-baby syndrome prevention efforts

Only a handful of organizations target men and women differently in their shaken-baby syndrome prevention efforts.

Many injuries and illnesses are treated at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Waldbaum said, and only “a small percentage of them are 100 percent preventable. Shaken-baby [syndrome] is one of those. This is something we can prevent with education.”

Debate about causes

Interviews with a range of experts point to more than one cause for why so many more men than women are accused of shaken-baby syndrome crimes.

“Either you have men being exceptionally violent or you have a bias in who [police and prosecutors are] looking at,” said Heather Kirkwood, a Seattle attorney who consults on shaken-baby syndrome cases. Kirkwood said it was “an astonishing finding” that nearly three of four people accused of such crimes are men, adding, “Something’s wrong with this picture.”

Grant, the criminal justice expert, said she was not surprised by the finding. Men are “disproportionately involved” in violent crimes and behavior, she noted. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1980 to 2008, 89.5 percent of all homicides in the United States were committed by men. Last year, 93 percent of inmates in federal or state prisons in the United States were male, according to the bureau.

Contributing to the gender discrepancy is the difference in the way men and women learn to be parents, said Mustaine, the child abuse expert.

“I think that new fathers are not as comfortable with the raising of very small infants,” Mustaine said. “That’s just not part of their socialization. So the incessant crying of infants is much more frustrating than it is for women who are socialized to care for an infant.”

Mustaine also said women, since they give birth, are more likely to attend childcare classes and receive information on shaken-baby syndrome. Men, she said, are less likely to “know that something like that would happen if they shook the baby.”

Such was the case with an Illinois man who was convicted of shaking and killing his 5-month-old son in 2009. He admitted to shaking his son, telling prosecutors he didn’t know an infant could die from being shaken. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Gender bias?

Unraveling the discrepancy in the number of accused men and women is complicated by some shaken-baby syndrome prevention efforts that may be biased, said Kirkwood, the Seattle attorney who has consulted on such cases. She said, for instance, shaken-baby syndrome prevention videos often portray “a furious man who looks like he’s about to go into the boxing ring.”

Kirkwood added, “Every time I’ve seen them showing anyone shaking, it’s always been a male figure. It may have been a process of implanting that [in police and prosecutors]—that it’s what guys do.”

Jury expert Toni Blake, who has consulted on many shaken-baby syndrome cases, said the criminal justice system isn’t biased against men in shaken-baby syndrome cases. When doctors identify brain and retinal bleeding in an infant who has allegedly been shaken, police typically investigate the last caregiver—man or woman—with the child, given that the injuries are often believed to manifest immediately. “I don’t think it’s the hospital or the police” who are exhibiting a gender bias, Blake said. “I think there’s something out there we’re still missing.” She said she is unsure of the root of this gender discrepancy.

Other studies

Other researchers have conducted related small-scale studies, seeking to better understand the differences between men and women accused of abusive head trauma crimes. In a study published in Pediatrics journal in 1995, 127 abusive head trauma cases were identified in Denver. Of these, 68.5 percent of perpetrators were male, 31.5 percent female.

In a study of 327 cases of abusive head trauma in children less than 36 months old in Pennsylvania between 1996 and 2002, the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center found that 70 percent of identified perpetrators of abusive head trauma were male.

In 2011, Pediatrics published another study which examined 34 cases of abusive head trauma in New York and found that 17 men and 17 women were accused of shaking children.

The Medill Justice Project plans to make its national shaken-baby syndrome database available to the public. With the help of a team of engineering graduate students at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, The Medill Justice Project database is tracking and confirming nearly 40 categories of information on thousands of cases, with gender being the first. After another category is confirmed, the first phase of the database will be released on its website for researchers, journalists and others as a public service.

Suyeon Son contributed to this report.

The Medill Justice Project wishes to thank the Alumnae of Northwestern University’s Gifts and Grants Committee, which awarded a generous grant to support our research on the creation of our national database on shaken-baby syndrome cases.

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