The Tragedy of Shaken Baby Syndrome

It doesn't take more than four or five seconds to injure a tiny brain seriously, and as many as 1,400 babies die each year from this devastating form of child abuse. Skipper Lithco was one of them.

Introduction

Peggy Whalen had no reason to think anything was wrong when she left her job on a crisp afternoon last November and headed toward the baby-sitter's house to pick up her son. Her husband, George Lithco, an attorney, had dropped off George "Skipper" Lithco about six hours earlier, just as he'd been doing five days a week for the past six weeks. The 11-month-old baby had been bright-eyed and bubbly when he waved bye-bye to his dad.

As Peggy, a 40-year-old elementary schoolteacher in Poughkeepsie, New York, approached the baby-sitter's home, she noticed police cars and emergency vehicles parked at the end of the road. When she got out of the car and a paramedic addressed her by name, she realized that something terrible had happened. "He told me Skipper had had a febrile seizure and had left minutes before in an ambulance," she says. "My heart started pounding. I was terrified."

At the hospital, she found her son in critical condition in the emergency room. "They were doing tests and wouldn't let me in to see him right away, but I could hear him crying," Peggy says. "At that point, the nurses still thought he'd had a seizure, so they said crying was a good sign." George, 51, arrived shortly afterward. "By then, Skipper was only semiconscious," he says.

The baby's condition continued to deteriorate, and he was transferred by helicopter to Westchester Medical Center, a large research hospital in a neighboring county. There, doctors performed a CAT scan, confirming that the baby's brain was swollen and bleeding. They told his parents there was only one likely explanation for such injuries: Skipper had been violently shaken, which had caused his still-fragile brain to slam against his skull. "We didn't believe it," Peggy says. "There was just no way that he'd been with anyone who could have done that."

As they sat by their son's bedside, Peggy and George desperately tried to think of other possible scenarios. Skipper had just started walking; perhaps he had fallen and hit his head. Another child the sitter cared for, a 2-year-old, liked pulling their son around in a small red wagon. Maybe it had tipped, causing Skipper to fall out and hit his head. The parents even asked the doctors to investigate whether the baby's injuries could have been the result of some undiagnosed genetic problem. "But when we suggested other possibilities, the doctors were skeptical," Peggy says.

George and Peggy's anguish was compounded when investigators from Child Protective Services arrived to interview them about Skipper -- a routine procedure in cases of suspected child abuse. "I understood why they needed to treat us with such suspicion, but it made the whole thing even worse," Peggy says.

Meanwhile, the Poughkeepsie police talked to baby-sitter Lynn Matthews, the 51-year-old woman who had been taking care of Skipper. Initially, Matthews denied doing anything that could have hurt the baby, but detectives weren't convinced, and they persisted. Upon further questioning, she admitted that she had grown frustrated with Skipper's crying that afternoon and had picked up the 23-pound child and violently shaken him until he quieted down.

Skipper remained unconscious and on life support through the weekend. Sadly, there was nothing the hospital staff could do. He was pronounced dead at 5:25 p.m. on Sunday -- just three weeks before he would have turned 1. "I had so many dreams and wishes about how we would celebrate Skipper's first birthday," his father remembers. "I never thought that we'd be taking a cupcake, a candle, and a dozen blue balloons to a cold and windy cemetery."

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