A new play about a baby who is shaken and sustains injuries while in the care of her parents has been written by a family court judge.
The play, which will be freely available to watch next month, features a sensationalist opening scene described as “graphic” by an article in Family Law Week, and is said to last for around 40 minutes.
The baby’s parents are portrayed as suspects, who are going through care proceedings in the family courts.
But the play, which aims to “show the social circumstances, so frequently encountered in criminal and family proceedings, which lead to this sort of injury” hinges on a largely discredited piece of science, known as shaken baby syndrome (SBS).
According to the Mayo Clinic, Shaken baby syndrome — also known as abusive head trauma, shaken impact syndrome, inflicted head injury or whiplash shake syndrome — is a serious brain injury resulting from forcefully shaking an infant or toddler.
An article in Slate published in 2017 which described the case of a father who was wrongfully imprisoned for the death of his daughter (and later exonerated) offers a very helpful explanation of the background to this syndrome and why the science has lost credibility:
“There used to be something close to a medical consensus that certain patterns of injuries can only be caused by shaking. In particular, a “triad”—swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas—was believed to be solid proof that a baby had been abused in this way. The theory was put forward in the early 1970s by doctors trying to explain the deaths of infants and children with no outward signs of abuse. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and has since been used to convict hundreds of people of harming or killing children.
But over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents—including short falls—can produce the same constellation of injuries. As a result, faith in shaken baby syndrome is unraveling.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2009 that doctors stop using the term. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post found at least 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that have been overturned.
Scores of other cases that collapsed before trial because of the doubts around the “triad” as evidence. One of those cases was another Sacramento County father convicted of killing his 4-month-old son.
Dr. Norman Guthkelch, a pediatric neurosurgeon who was one of the first to advance the hypothesis behind shaken baby syndrome, recently stated that it is “high time every case of a parent in [prison] for this had his or her case reviewed” because “we went badly off the rails … on this matter.””
The California Innocence Project, which helped to free the father in the story, say that the science behind the syndrome has never been validated. The project’s most recent article on the matter, published in 2019, explains that In 2016, a group of independent experts appointed by the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services published findings that SBS evidence was “insufficient” and unreliable. (In the interests of balance, this is a piece of research which criticises the findings and argues that SBS is real).
In the UK, experts have warned that at least half of all parents tried over shaken baby syndrome allegations are wrongly convicted. In the US, there have been more than 3,000 shaken baby syndrome criminal cases over the past 20 years, with hundreds of parents and caregivers being prosecuted every year.
The play has been written by family court Judge Stephen Wildblood, who has in recent years tried to raise his profile through television appearances and newspaper interviews.
Wildblood angered parents around the country in 2018 — who were unconvinced by his claim that he cried after removing children from families — when he spoke on a programme for the BBC about Britain’s family courts. Showing what appeared to be complete denial about the state of the family courts he told viewers:
“I don’t think the system is broken, and the judges wouldn’t allow it to be broken. Whether the overall process is fair, that people are coming to court on their own, is not really for me to say. That’s for others to judge.”
Wildblood has now become better known for his use of the media to hunt down mothers and their children (accompanied by publicly broadcasted photos of the children) who “disappear” shortly after being joined to care proceedings in England and Wales.
Wildblood has also been critical in the past about councils who behave negligently.
In a judgment published in 2017, he criticised a council for illegally removing a child from her parents. The failings were so serious that Wildblood set out 9 critical concerns in his judgment and said that Gloucestershire county council had acted with ‘subterfuge and immediacy’.
At the time, Wildblood said: “In my opinion it is clear that the local authority acted in a way that was contrary to case law and in breach of the article 8 rights of both parents and the child.
The very basis of the original care proceedings was that the mother is an emotionally fragile and socially vulnerable woman… Therefore, for her to have faced the issues that arose on her own is manifestly unsatisfactory.”
Wildblood returned the child to her mother’s care.
The play is going to be followed by a talk by consultant paediatrician Dr Imelda Bennett, who will explain the kinds of injuries associated with shaking a baby. She will be followed by DCI Kristina Windsor who will talk about about the criminal procedures involved. Closing the event, Wildblood will set out the Family Court procedures involved in these cases. Attendees will able to send in questions using the Teams chat function.
We hope the play and the speakers for the event approach this topic with sensitivity, address the need to support parents who may be struggling rather than demonise them, highlight gaps in shaken baby syndrome and remind event goers that only highly trained medical professionals can diagnose non accidental injuries, which are exceptionally hard to detect.
The real debate though, isn’t whether parents harm their children — we know from research that this can and does happen, though it is rare — the real issue is spotting genuine instances of abuse, and not mistaking accidental injuries for non-accidental ones.
The play will be aired on Thursday 4th November 2021 at 7 p.m., and the whole event is expected to last 1½ to 2 hours.
Details for the event are added below:
Judge Wildblood’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The event organisers have asked anyone wishing to attend to send a brief email to Stephen on the above email address.
If anyone is turned down, please do let us know.
This event has been designed to raise awareness about how these cases affect everyone involved. Having parents who have been accused of hurting their children at the event can only enrich this learning experience for professionals.
Organisers have also asked that attendees join by 6.45pm on the day so that if there are difficulties with your link, you can email the judge for help before the play starts.
Microsoft Teams meeting
Join on your computer or mobile app
Click here to join the meeting
Join with a video conferencing device
Video Conference ID: 124 901 523 8
Alternate VTC instructions
Or call in (audio only)
+44 20 3443 8791,,967692441# United Kingdom, London
Phone Conference ID: 967 692 441#
We are adding a polite reminder to readers not to use Wildblood’s email address to send rude or aggressive messages. We have every sympathy for families going through this terrible system, but if you decide to use this address in one way or another we would encourage you to be constructive in your feedback.