Victims of tunnel vision

Pam
Pam Frampton
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By sharing their stories, two women hope to spare others from being wrongfully accused of child abuse

Tunnel vision

Last in a three-part series

 

Audrey Edmunds knows what it’s like to be wrongly accused.

On Oct. 16, 1995, she was a happy suburban housewife in small-town Wisconsin, caring for her two daughters — then 18 months and four years old — and pregnant with her third. A loving wife and mother, she often looked after neighbours’ kids as well, and on this particular day was babysitting a toddler and a seven-month-old baby girl.

Sixteen months later, she was sitting in a courtroom reeling with shock, facing a sentence of 18 years in prison. The infant in her care that day in 1995 had fallen ill and died. An autopsy showed she had traumatic brain injuries and Edmunds was convicted of having shaken her.

Edmunds’ daughters were ages one, three and five when she was led off to prison in handcuffs. The oldest, Carrie, was in kindergarten. By the time Edmunds was released, her marriage had crumbled and Carrie was graduating from high school.

Edmunds spent 11 years in prison, branded a baby killer.

 

Audrey Edmunds’ story was a source of hope and strength for Sharon (not her real name), a mother in her 30s from the St. John’s metro area who lost custody of her infant daughter in 2011 when medical and child protection staff suspected she had shaken her.

She insisted she had not.

Edmunds went to jail and missed out on many opportunities — raising her children, enjoying married life, contributing to her community, grieving with her family at her father’s death, building a career.

Sharon was never charged with a criminal act, but she might as well have been. Because in the process of establishing her innocence — despite the absence of any evidence of guilt — she ended up bankrupt, off work on medical leave and emotionally drained. She says she was grateful to have the support of her partner during many sleepless nights and grief-stricken days.

Like Edmunds, she held steadfastly to the truth for strength and guidance.

•••

Sharon has read Edmunds’ book, “It Happened to Audrey, It Can Happen to You,” co-written with Michigan journalist Jill Wellington, and hopes to meet her in person at next year’s Evidence-Based Medicine and Social Investigation Conference — an annual event that focuses on medical misdiagnosis, particularly as it relates to suspected child abuse.

It was at that conference in 2011, in British Columbia, that Sharon first learned she was not alone in finding herself trapped in the nightmare of having been wrongly suspected of harming her child.

Indeed, she came to an interview at The Telegram armed with newspaper and magazine articles. The headlines demonstrate just how often people are falsely accused and how common it is for “shaken baby syndrome” to be the default diagnosis when a child has bleeding on the brain.

A February 2011 issue of The New York Times Magazine carried an extensive report titled “Has a flawed diagnosis put innocent people in prison? A re-examination of shaken baby syndrome.”

In April 2012, The Daily Beast carried a story, “Parents wrongly accused of child abuse struggle to get kids back.”

Britain’s Mail Online from October 2012 describes a “Judge’s joy at reuniting family torn apart by false cruelty allegations.”

And there are many other stories.

As Edmunds’ book title so aptly points out, “It Can Happen to You.”

•••

Google “rethinking shaken baby syndrome” and you’ll get more than 24,000 hits, including an article from National Public Radio in the States from June 29, 2011 that states, “Norman Guthkelch, the pediatric neurosurgeon who is credited with first observing the condition in young children, is speaking out for the first time about his concerns regarding how that diagnosis is used. He worries that it is too often applied by medical examiners and doctors without considering other possible causes for a child’s death or injury.”

Audrey Edmunds and Sharon are living proof that’s the case, and both have spoken out to let people know that brain injury can be caused by many things, and that the whole notion of shaken baby syndrome is flawed.

In many court cases, lawyers for the prosecution have described how a baby was shaken with the force equivalent to having been dropped from a two-storey building or having been in a violent car crash. And yet in cases where caregivers or parents have been falsely accused, often the child who was injured or died showed no sign of neck injury, severe bruising or spinal fracture, which you would expect from such a forceful shaking.

Neither the baby in Edmunds’ care nor Sharon’s daughter had any of those injuries.

In Edmunds’ case, the prosecution’s account of events was embellished over the course of the trial to the point where Edmunds was accused of having grabbed, shaken and then thrown the baby in her care. In actual fact, medical experts testified the bleeding on her brain was likely caused by an ear infection that had spread.

In sentencing Edmunds to 18 years in prison, Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser said she would not be “released from custody prior to her mandatory release date until and unless she unequivocally confesses to this crime and makes it known to the victims.”

Edmunds refused to confess to something she had not done, even though it would have moved her release date up by a year.

It took the persistence of the Wisconsin Innocent Project — an organization of law students who review questionable convictions in an attempt to get at the truth — to have Edmunds finally freed from jail after having served 11 years of her sentence.

It took Sharon’s considerable tenacity and strength and her family’s support to prove she had not harmed her own child.

“You’d be amazed at how many people have been wrongly accused,” she said.

•••

After fighting for two years to regain joint custody of her daughter, which she shares with the child’s father, Sharon is struggling to rebuild her finances and her life.  

Edmunds faces similar challenges. And both women stressed that the people who make and prosecute wrongful allegations need to be held responsible.

 “I think one of the biggest points is that just because someone has been charged, all of the investigation and facts have not always been researched, thus blame happens, not truth,” Edmunds told The Telegram via email.

“I am very thankful for the many doctors, neurologists, pediatricians, attorneys, pathologists, and more who are studying and working on the reality of misdiagnosed (shaken baby syndrome) cases. Wrongful convictions can happen to anyone, and they unfortunately do happen. I do not wish it on anyone, but when someone has been wrongfully charged there needs to be more accountability for those who wrongfully prosecute the case.”

A relative of Sharon’s, who acted as her advocate during her custody battle, agrees.

“(Sharon’s baby) had a recognized condition and had been sent for occupational therapy,” he said. “None of this was ever considered in relation to her condition at admittance to hospital. … Her premature birth was also a factor.

“At court, the experts testified that the MRIs showed old bleeds, with new bleeds over them. The Janeway (hospital) saw new bleeds only. You cannot accurately date when they happened. They took the baby from the mother because she was the last one to have the baby, when the bleeds could have happened anytime in the months prior. The cops and Child, Youth and Family Services just don’t care. … Medical research shows that shaking doesn’t cause those bleeds.”

•••

Sharon’s daughter is now a happy, healthy three-year-old with a fondness for singing and button accordions. Medical experts suggested the bleeding on her brain might have been triggered by trauma sustained before and during her birth, not from shaking, which can cause permanent brain damage.

“The fact that she’s a healthy, bright child is our best evidence (that she was not shaken),” Sharon’s advocate says.

Both Edmunds and Sharon hope some good will come of the hell they’ve endured, and that their stories may spare someone else from being wrongfully accused.

“We have to keep the faith, not live each day dwelling on the past — just as when you drive your car, you don’t drive down the road just looking in your rearview mirror,” Edmunds says.

“I am so thankful for all the connections that I am having from this horrible experience. ... Good prevails.”

 

Pam Frampton is a columnist and

The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at

pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: New York Times Magazine, Google, National Public Radio Youth and Family Services

Geographic location: Wisconsin, Michigan, British Columbia Britain

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Recent comments

  • FINTIP
    July 01, 2013 - 23:52

    Like Mary, I am worried about innocent parents.....but I'm even more concerned about innocent children who are neglected, physically and sexually abused, and murdered. I don't envy the job of those people who must decide when to act. When you have injuries medical experts feel are consistent with child abuse - but no smoking gun - what do you do? What exactly do you or Ms. Frampton want these agencies to do? Medical science - like the justice system - is not infallible. Sometimes they get it wrong. The only things we can insist on is that they use accepted standards of forensic analysis and that they act in good faith. When a child is taken in care, the system is well aware it might be called on to defend that decision in a court of law. People like Sharon should be afforded every opportunity to challenge an action that separates them from their children. And if Sharon wants to publicize her story - as a cautionary tale - with Ms. Frampton's help, that's fine too. But they shouldn't expect intelligent, fair-minded readers to share their criticisms and condemnations of the existing system based on the sparse, often contradictory and highly subjective picture painted in her columns. But as Ms. Frampton herself emphasizes, she is a columnist - not a reporter - and that, as such, we should not look for objectivity in her work.

  • ally
    July 01, 2013 - 15:25

    Im from ireland and my four month old grandson was taken into care as the doctor said it was shaken baby not fact it was her opinion and not a mark on the external and he is now a healthy two year old and his two brothers were also taken as nobody could exxplain his internel injuries we are still fighting but the laywers were no good they covered up alot what a living nightmare only people who have walked this path really understand

  • mary
    July 01, 2013 - 12:00

    Wow,it just blows my mind what is happening to the innocent parents and their child or children.My heart goes out to the families who have endured all this grief because of lack of misdiagnosis. Another thing I totally disagree with concerning Sharon is that according to the 2nd article " Justice at a heavy price" Sharon has to pay child support to the father of her child for the time that they had taken the baby from her(2 plus years)!!!! What is up with that......How much more does this mother have to go through.The doctors/medical people/family services are the people that should be paying for this and replacing every material thing she has lost. Shame on Them.