The young mother of twin baby girls was changing the diaper of one when she heard a thud from across the room. She turned to see that her other 8-month-old daughter, who had been playing nearby, had fallen and bumped her head.
The child didn't have any bumps and bruises, but she grew concerned when the girl began to act fussy and started throwing up. She eventually wound up in the hospital, but recovered quickly.
Still, our D.C. criminal defense lawyers understand the two girls were promptly removed from their parents' home and shoved into foster care. The police launched an investigation and the parents were placed on the city's suspected child-abusers registry.
Police never found any evidence of abuse and no arrests were ever made. Still, the case is not closed for the couple. That was nearly six years ago, and the fight continues, most recently with the couple having filed a $1 million lawsuit against the Child and Family Services Agency for the way it has handled the case.
The primary reason CFSA got involved was because the girl's injuries from that fall included a retinal hemorrhage. That is consistent with an injury that one might see from shaken baby syndrome.
But shaken baby syndrome is a condition that has been broadly applied in criminal investigations launched when children have become injured or, worse, have died. However, many of the symptoms that accompany shaken baby syndrome are also consistent with other childhood injuries and conditions - for example, falling and bumping one's head. This is something children do all the time.
Certainly, there is a need to protect children from parents or caregivers who are abusive or neglectful. However, child protection agencies, law enforcement and prosecutors have become overzealous with their application of the law. In some cases, convictions were secured and parents were sent to prison - only to have it later revealed that the child was injured or died from other causes.
The couple in this case say that while they understand the need for an initial investigation, child service workers and at, first, law enforcement seemed to ignore the fact that there was no evidence whatsoever that they had harmed their child or to show that they were a threat to their other daughter.
D.C. has a very broad statute with regard to what constitutes as child abuse or neglect. The standard of proof in these cases is a preponderance of the evidence. That is, your child can be removed from your home without authorities having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you harmed him or her.
D.C. Code 16-2301 holds that abuse should be defined as the infliction of mental or physical injury on a child or the sexual exploitation or abuse of a child. A parent may discipline his or her child, but that discipline may not include:
- Biting, cutting or burning a child;
- Striking a child with a closed fist;
- Inflicting injury to the child by kicking, throwing or shaking the child;
- Any non-accidental injury to a child younger than 18 months;
- Taking any action that could interfere with a child's breathing;
- Threatening or using a dangerous weapon on a child.
Cases involving infants are particularly difficult because they are generally unable to communicate how their injuries occurred. That means you will need a strong legal advocate on your side.