Justice at a heavy price

Pam Frampton pframpton@thetelegram.com
Published on June 23, 2013
Justice at a heavy price
— Illustration by Robert Simon/The Telegram

"Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both."

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Part 2 in a three-part series

Before her baby was taken from her, Sharon kept vigil at the little girl's hospital bed, all the while living in the ugly shadow of being suspected of having shaken the infant, causing bleeding on her brain and behind her retinas.

But Sharon (not her real name) was adamant she had done no such thing.

And she worried that medical staff and Child, Youth and Family Services social workers had decided she was guilty and that was that, without considering the circumstances of her daughter's difficult birth and pre-existing issues with pressure on her brain.

This is Sharon's story - an account of one parent's struggle against a system created to safeguard children, but not necessarily those who care for them.

When Sharon's five-month-old daughter had an episode of sudden lethargy, similar to the one that led to her being admitted to hospital in the first place, she quickly called for help. Her sister, a pediatric nurse, was with her.

By the time the hospital nurse got to the room, the baby had come around again, just as she had during the initial episode.

"I was getting miffed, because I was accused, and here there was something clearly wrong with her," Sharon said. "The pediatrician told us it was reflux, but a child's head doesn't go limp from reflux."

A week later, her daughter was plucked from her arms and taken away.

Sharon would not see her baby daughter for 10 inconsolable days.

The cloud of suspicion would loom much longer - two whole years.

Sharon soon found herself mired in a catch-22 of bureaucracy - she needed her daughter's medical records to prove her innocence, but she did not have easy access to them because she was under suspicion.

It's a system where the well-being of the child is paramount, and that's as it should be. I don't envy the doctor or social worker who has to make the call as to whether or not a child has been abused or neglected.

The problem is, once a parent or caregiver has been labelled a child abuser, tunnel vision seems to take hold.

They are deemed guilty until and unless they can prove otherwise. And proof comes at a heavy price.

So, for two years, whenever Sharon was permitted time with her daughter, she was watched like a hawk.

° ° °

Sick with worry, Sharon started the process of trying to regain access to her child. It took more than two months just to get before the courts.

She had gone from being a primary caregiver to being relegated to six hours of access a week.

"Six hours a week in an office with a supervisor, with maggoty floors, nowhere to change her, no hand-washing facilities, food ground into the floor," Sharon recalls of the grungy surroundings.

"It was so dirty, I wouldn't let her play with the toys - I brought my own stuff. I asked the doctor for followup imaging for her (to see if any further bleeding had occurred during the child's hospital stay) and was denied."

Sharon kept fighting for more access and was eventually allowed 12 hours a week. She had to drive three hours, return trip, three times a week to see her daughter for a four-hour period, with the child asleep for half that time.

If she hadn't been off work on medical leave, she would've been hard pressed to keep those appointments.

Once, like any parent with an interest in their child's development, Sharon brought some mashed boiled egg for the baby, who was by then nine months old and eating solids.

Even though Newfoundland and Labrador health guidelines recommend waiting until a child is a year old before introducing eggs, Sharon's research told her otherwise. Eat Right Ontario, for example, says children between six and nine months can eat cooked eggs.

"She loved them," Sharon said.

Then she got a call from the social worker.

"No more homemade foods. Everything had to be brought in sealed containers. We, and my lawyer, met with social workers and they admitted they suspected I was trying to poison my child. Mom was not allowed to feed her Tim Hortons porridge because I was with her."

And yet Sharon was never charged with any crime.

"The police told social workers they thought I did it, but that they didn't have enough evidence," she said.

It seems incredible that no one considered the possibility that there wasn't any evidence.

° ° °

It took Sharon a full year to get copies of all her daughter's medical records. She couldn't make her case without it.

"Eastern Health threw up roadblocks," she said. "Everywhere we turned, there were roadblocks."

And then, in August 2011, there was a glimmer of hope. A friend told Sharon about an Evidence-Based Medicine and Social Investigation Conference being held in British Columbia.

She attended and was stunned to meet other people who had also been falsely accused of shaken baby syndrome, all based on the flawed hypothesis that if there is brain and retinal bleeding in a child that's not caused by an obviously accidental injury, then the child has been abused.

And woe betide the last person who had the child in their care.

In June 2012, Sharon finally got the last piece of medical documentation she needed to muster her defence.

Her family hired an American lawyer to work with local counsel and found medical experts in the United States who were familiar with similar cases.

"Only for poor old Mom - if Mom hadn't have been there, I don't know what I would've done without her," Sharon said.

"We used all her retirement savings. Financially, it drained everybody. I was fighting to get my daughter back at my house. I fought for overnights. I didn't get them until I presented supervisors to the court who I wanted - Mom and a couple of my friends. My friends were approved, but not Mom - a nurse her whole life. Even then it didn't happen very often, because I preferred to have time with (the baby) when she was awake."

Sharon's sister took leave from her job on the mainland so she could offer support.

"I had to have 100 per cent supervision," Sharon recalls. "It went from four hours a day to eventually eight hours a day. My sister made a huge sacrifice - she gave up her income and took a leave of absence for a year. She ended up losing her job."

Sharon hadn't been charged with anything, but no one seemed willing to consider any other possibility except that she had shaken her baby, even though the child's illness could be logically and medically attributed to the circumstances of her birth.

The stress on the family was intense.

"We were paying big money," Sharon said. "We went through two lawyers. We flew in doctors as experts and had to pay for airfare to get them here, and hotels and some meals. I had been off work for two years, at that point."

Sharon sold some of her furniture to try to make ends meet. But the ends did not meet. Her disability pay hardly put a dent in the cost of her defence; court cases are rarely cheap for either party.

I can't quote from the judge's decision because the case was heard in Family Court and is subject to a publication ban, but the outcome is clear: there was no conclusive proof that the child had ever been shaken.

Sharon regained joint custody, which she shares with the child's father.

She has to pay child support for the period of time when she was denied access to her daughter. She's also repaying her mother.

She lost her house and the tens of thousands of dollars of equity she had invested in it. She has temporary accommodations, but doesn't know where she'll be in the fall.

"I've declared bankruptcy," she said flatly. "The bank is taking the house. Altogether it's cost me about $200,000, all for bringing her to the hospital to get help, and there's nobody to say, 'Sorry, we've made a mistake.' But I am thankful that she's healthy and alive."

Next week: tunnel vision

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton