Medical Conjecture that Good Parents Snap

Among our cases at the Marshall Defense Firm are those in which a medical diagnosis is the only evidence that an infant’s injuries were caused by child abuse. In some of these cases, the accused parents have stellar records of patient, loving nurture and no history of violence against anyone. An outstanding example is the couple I identified as Connie and Barry Bennett in my account of their legal ordeal and ultimate triumph.

My thoughts turned to parents like Connie and Barry again when I read Exploring the Controversy in Child Abuse Pediatrics and False Accusations, a new article by emergency medicine physician Steven C. Gabaeff. Dr. Gabaeff presents a history, beginning in the 1970’s, of the current dispute whether certain medical findings can only have been caused by child abuse. (Dr. Gabaeff is one of the few American physicians brave enough to testify in child abuse cases against physicians who have diagnosed child abuse based solely on medical findings.)

In the article Dr. Gabaeff presents the explanation of violent child abuse by good parents that he sees routinely provided for the prosecution:

The caregiver is assumed by the child abuse pediatricians to have ‘‘snapped” under the speculative stress of common childcare occurrences (often with zero evidence of prior such behavior).

In spite of no real evidence of ‘‘snapping” occurring among experienced or loving caregivers in the social science literature . . . the concept of snapping [has] continued to go unquestioned by authorities, even those who normally [demonstrate] better informed investigative instincts (e.g. the police). Social histories of defendants who [are] exemplary for love and caring [are] considered irrelevant; ‘‘anyone can snap” [is] the rationale.

Child abuse physicians help prosecutors gather evidence for “snapping.” In my cases, I have read medical reports showing this. The physician writes in his report that he asked the distressed parent at the hospital whether she found it challenging to care for an infant. Caring for an infant, of course, routinely means not getting enough sleep and frequently facing such stresses as the inability to console a wailing child. Yet when a parent or other caregiver admits that, yes, caring for the baby has been trying, the physician pounces on that as explaining how this normally-good person assaulted a tiny child.

My client Connie Bennett had the ideal occupation for countering such an explanation: pediatric nurse. One of Connie’s fellow nurses testified that she was kind, compassionate, and extraordinarily patient in dealing with difficult children in her hospital. One of Connie’s supervisors also testified to Connie’s outstanding nursing of children. The state social workers who testified for the prosecution had no evidence that Connie or her husband had been anything short of excellent foster parents before their foster son’s medical emergency.

The judge in that case was not swayed by medical conjecture of “snapping.” He ruled for Connie and ordered the Washington Department of Social and Health Services to reinstate Connie and Barry’s license as foster parents “without any legal blemish whatsoever.”

A record of good parenting needs to mean something in every court. It needs to mean a lot more than a child abuse physician’s conjecture about snapping.