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Child abusive head trauma is 100% preventable, Wausau family seeking to end it

Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 6:27 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Every year in Wisconsin anywhere from 50-70 children are victims of shaken baby syndrome, or what child protection experts and pediatricians call abusive head trauma. Nationally, it affects 1,300 children annually. About a quarter of children die, while another 80% have lifelong disabilities.

Anyone can be a perpetrator, but it is almost always a parent and after that a caregiver. More often it is males over females who do it. Those with mental health issues also have a higher likelihood.

In Marathon County, there are about 3-4 substantiated cases of abuse head trauma every year. The difference with this problem compared to other problems, the number of instances could be zero because it is 100% preventable.

Sometimes nothing seems to calm a crying baby after checking all of the logical possibilities like hunger, pain, the need for a diaper change, or gas. Rebecca Murray, the executive director of the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Board said likely, there is nothing wrong with them.

“Your kid is going to cry,” she said. “This is normal child development, just like a 2-year-old is going to try to get into things you don’t want them to, right and there are stages where they’ll put things in their mouth, right? And in their adolescent ages, they stop listening to you.”

Scientists and doctors do not know why babies get colicky, but the most common time for children to cry for seemingly no reason is around six weeks old. It can last for several weeks and Dr. Kylene Draeger, a pediatrician with Aspirus in Wausau said it often happens in the evening.

“Usually crying can be on average for two hours at a time, which is a very long period to be dealing with it,” she empathized. “And moms and dads coming home from work, they’re exhausted. They may have other children that they’re trying to feed and get ready for bed. So, it’s a very tough, trying time and then you throw in the pandemic where lots of families don’t have the support that they had before and it just becomes a real dire situation.”

A dire situation because those uncontrolled screams for hours on end mixed with parent or caregiver frustration, Christa Jensen the child protective services supervisor for Marathon County said is the leading cause of parents or caregivers shaking a baby.

“It doesn’t take very long to do a lot of damage to occur to a little one,” she said. It only takes a matter of seconds.

“The most common thing that doctors will find in the hospital is blood in the back of the eyes or blood in the ears showing that there’s been some signs of trauma,” Dr. Draeger stated. “Babies can end up with seizures. Babies can end up with cerebral palsy down the line where they didn’t have enough oxygen to those parts of the brain and then the most concerning thing is death.”

It can also lead to a fractured skull. There are often bruises around the ribcage and other physical signs of abuse.

Child advocates urge parents and caregivers to put the baby down in a safe place, like in a crib with no pillows or blankets around them, and then walk away.

“If I could tell people one thing, it’s OK to put your baby in their crib and let them cry,” Jensen said. “Take a breather. Call somebody who’s supportive for you. Listen to some music. Grab something to eat. Just do anything to kind of take your mind off of it and get yourself regrouped.”

Seventeen years ago Alyssa Jennings’ father did not make that choice.

“My mom was upstairs,” said her mother, Jennifer Jennings. “All he would have had to do is take her upstairs and say ‘hey, please take her.’ It would save a lot of lives.”

Alyssa’s father was caring for her as Jennifer went to class at UW-Eau Claire.

“An hour or so later, my friend came and found me and said Alyssa was at the hospital in the emergency room,” she said. “She was very critical. We didn’t think she was going to live. She had multiple, multiple seizures. She was in a coma for 10 days.”

It took a few days, but Alyssa’s father ultimately admitted to police that he had shaken and hit 2-and-a-half-year-old Alyssa. For about a month, even after the confession, Jennifer did not have custody of her baby.

“The reason that I couldn’t touch my child, hold my child was because someone else hurt her,” she cried.

Alyssa’s father spent four years in prison. Alyssa was never the same. Jennifer will have legal guardianship over her for the rest of her life.

“She is fairly high functioning,” Jennifer began. “She reads at about a fourth-grade level. She has pretty severe ADHD.”

They go to a psychiatrist to regulate her ADHD medication, but because it is due to a brain injury the medications are not very effective. She also has cerebral palsy and has to have botox injections every six months to keep her left-hand functioning.

Alyssa does not really know life before her injuries and said she does not notice the things she cannot do, like drive a car. She said she has a pretty happy life. She enjoys bowling, hanging out with family, riding her bike, the Wausau Police Department, particularly the K9s. She also likes her job cleaning the Aspirus Wausau Hospital through Project SEARCH.

“It feels good because it needs to stay clean,” Alyssa smiled.

Jennifer has made sure that Alyssa could do the things she wanted to do.

“She may have done things late, but she didn’t let it stop her from doing things.”

In 2020, Alyssa graduated from Wausau West High School, something Jennifer said is not always possible for survivors of shaken baby syndrome.

While they stay positive, they do not wish this trauma on anyone else.

“Together we want to fight to make sure it doesn’t happen to another child.”

As of 2006, Wisconsin law requires that parents receive information about shaken baby syndrome before leaving the hospital with their new baby, as well as required training for child care providers and schools. The Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Board is funding the Period of PURPLE Crying program helping to get child abusive head trauma prevention resources in places like libraries, hospitals, county social services agencies, churches, and other interested organizations. The Raise Great Kids in partnership with the Marathon County Early Years Coalition also has online training available with a gift card incentive for those who complete the training.

Advocates urge parents to share these resources and information with anyone who would care for their children so no one is missed and anyone can handle a baby’s uncontrollable crying.

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