The following opinion by Lenore Skenazy was published by the San Gabriel Valley (CA) Tribune on February 14, 2011.
SHAKEN baby syndrome.
It's a horrible term most of us are familiar with, even though it only came to public consciousness maybe 20 years ago. And now, as it turns out, many people may be in prison because we got it wrong.
A recent New York Times Magazine story by Emily Bazelon, "Shaken-Baby Syndrome Faces New Questions in Court," is a shocking look at how our desire to save the children - and be ever on the alert for child killers - may have led us astray.
The main thesis is that the symptoms that indicate a baby has been severely shaken don't always show up immediately after the shaking. We used to think they did. So some caregivers who went to prison because they were the most recent people seen with the babies were perhaps wrongly convicted. The babies could have been hurt hours or perhaps even days earlier - by other people - and just happened to succumb while in their care.
It's even possible that in some cases the "shaken babies" weren't shaken at all but suffered a stroke or manifested the "shaken" symptoms after a concussion that may or may not have been inflicted deliberately. In other words: We don't know enough about this syndrome to be certain about whom to sentence.
Yet off to prison the caregivers went, for two reasons. First, of course, we THOUGHT we had the scenario right. Arrest the caregiver at the scene of the crime.
But the other reason is our absolute willingness to engage in "worst first" thinking.
That's my term for our current tendency to jump to the very worst possible conclusion first, no matter how unlikely it might be. In the case of shaken baby syndrome, many of the caregivers were considered kindly, patient women. They had spotless records. They never had been seen hurting any kids before.
But because we have been conditioned to believe that perverts, predators and baby killers are always hiding among us (like Salem's witches), it was easy for us to ignore all the positive evidence about these women and instantly embrace the idea that they were monsters.
This is the same mentality that led a nation to believe the worst of three generations of caregivers at the McMartin preschool in the 1980s. That was when a series of children testified, after lots of "repressed memories" were dredged up by a zealous social worker, that the McMartin family members working at the school not only molested them but also dragged them into secret tunnels, flushed them down toilets, lopped off the ears of bunnies and sacrificed a giraffe - wild stuff.
"Worst first" thinking meant that rather than assume "these kids have let their imaginations run wild," the public thought, "Just goes to show you that our kids are always in danger! Those MONSTERS." And off to prison those caregivers went, too.
We seem to lose our critical faculties when we contemplate children in danger, not only because our love overwhelms reason but also because we have been told over and over again that it is SMART to be SUSPICIOUS. Why does that old man want to give cornet lessons? Why does that executive want to be a Boy Scout leader?
This explains why so many schools now require background checks for volunteers. (Why do they REALLY want to help out?) It explains why many Sunday schools require two teachers in a classroom.
This eagerness to think the worst of anyone having anything to do with our kids is making us paranoid. Far from making the world safer, it also seems to be putting some innocent people in prison. It's time to take a deep breath and think the worst ... later. A lot later. Only after facts and reason have weighed in first.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know -- But Can't Remember Right Now." She is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.