A Random Act
The most chilling aspect of SBS is just how randomly it can occur -- a fact starkly illustrated by what happened to Skipper Lithco. "I've gone over it in my head a million times," Peggy says. "I keep asking myself if there was anything to indicate that this kind of thing could happen, any clue I missed, and I can honestly say there wasn't."
The new parents had been more than conscientious about finding child care for Skipper when Peggy decided to resume teaching after her maternity leave. Lynn Matthews, whom Peggy found through a classified ad in a local newspaper, seemed ideal. She'd raised children of her own, had four grandchildren, and had been watching kids in her home on and off for the past ten years. When Peggy and George met her, she was taking care of her 2-year-old grandson and was soon to take another toddler into the home she shared with her daughter and son-in-law. The couple interviewed Matthews for almost two hours, and their initial impression was that she was loving, caring, and enjoyed being around kids.
"She seemed very gentle, and Skipper took to her right away," George recalls. Peggy telephoned her two references, "and both of them gave the sitter unqualified praise," she says. "There was nothing at all that raised a red flag."The first week Skipper spent with Matthews, George's sister spent a day helping the baby get acclimated to his new surroundings. George and Peggy routinely stayed at the house for half an hour or so when they dropped Skipper off or picked him up.
No one is certain exactly what happened on November 30, 2000, the day that Skipper was fatally shaken. According to police, Lynn Matthews reported that the baby had been crying a lot that afternoon. The two other toddlers were coming down with colds and may have been cranky. At about 3:30 p.m., after being fed, Skipper spit up. "Matthews apparently grew frustrated, lost control, and began shaking the baby," says Detective Frederick Jankowski, one of the police officers who investigated the case. "Afterward, when she realized he was slipping out of consciousness, she called EMS."
Lynn Matthews knew at the time she shook Skipper that the action could have potentially fatal consequences, according to Marjorie Smith, an assistant district attorney for Dutchess County, who prosecuted the case. The sit-ter admitted she was familiar with the risks of SBS and that she had just "lost it" that day with Skipper. "Matthews may not have been intending to kill the baby, but she was aware of the danger and she disregarded it," Smith says.
In April, Matthews pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and is currently serving a 3 1/3- to 10-year sentence in a maximum-security women's prison. Neither she nor her attorney responded to repeated requests for an interview by Parents. But in court transcripts, the baby-sitter expressed remorse for her actions. When she found out that Skipper had died, it was as if someone had "pulled my heart out of my chest and stomped on it," she said. "I am tortured daily by what happened. I can only hope that the Lithcos have some measure of peace knowing that I will always bear this horrible pain."