DOWNTOWN — A Santa Monica man is expected to be arraigned today on murder charges in connection with the death of his 2-month-old stepdaughter, the possible victim of a form of child abuse known as “shaken baby syndrome,” police said.
Donald Hillman, 33, was arrested Monday in North Hollywood by Santa Monica detectives and transferred to the Santa Monica Jail, where he was held on $1 million bail. Hillman was placed under arrest after a Los Angeles County Coroner’s report found that his stepdaughter was the victim of a homicide.
Hillman brought the baby girl to a local hospital in the early morning hours of Oct. 4. The girl was in full cardiac arrest and was not breathing, police said. Emergency room staff was able to resuscitate her twice and placed her on a ventilator. She was taken off life support per a court order on Nov. 22.
A coroner’s report three days later found evidence that was consistent with a previous medical finding that the baby was the victim of shaken baby syndrome.
The arrest of Hillman is shedding some light on a form of child abuse that is little known, experts in the field said. The abuse usually occurs in the home with few if any witnesses, and involves an infant that cannot properly communicate to officials about their injuries.
Child advocates hope the arrest raises awareness and leads to more accurate reporting of future incidents.
“I think it is pretty much common knowledge that you do not shake a baby because you can cause harm to a child, but I don’t know how well parents are equipped to handle some of the frustrating behaviors that may cause them to lose control and shake a child,” said Amy Wicks, information and research specialist for the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (www.dontshake.org).
Shaken baby syndrome is a term used to describe the signs and symptoms resulting from violent shaking and impacting of the head of an infant or small child.
An infant’s brain is not fully developed and they have relatively weak neck muscles to support their relatively large heads, which can account for 25 percent of a baby’s weight, Wicks said. Because the neck muscles are weak, they cannot control movement when a child is shaken, causing the brain to move violently back and forth. Brain tissue is damaged, leading to severe physical and mental disabilities, even death.
It is estimated that 25 percent of children abused die immediately while the rest live with varying degrees of injury.
The first articles to address the syndrome were published in the early 1970s, Wicks said. As medical technology advanced, physicians were better equipped to make a proper diagnosis, leading to more reports of the abuse.
Today, there are somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 reported cases per year, “but that is probably low because there are quite a few cases where the child doesn’t suffer a loss of consciousness or seizure activity and may not be taken in for medical attention,” Wicks said.
Because the victims are most likely infants, county officials must rely on medical experts before classifying cases as shaken baby syndrome. Sometimes there is not enough evidence to lead to that conclusion.
In the case involving Hillman, a medical professional at a local hospital felt there were signs of abuse. The SMPD was notified along with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
Susan Jakubowski, the public affairs manager for family services, would not comment on the Hillman case but said in general when there is a report of an abuse child welfare officers immediately remove the child from the home and do their best to place them with family members. If siblings may be in danger, they are also removed until the case is resolved.
Wicks said there is no concrete data on the outcomes of baby shaking cases so it is hard to tell if it is more difficult to get a conviction when compared to other murder or abuse cases.
“It does seem like it is somewhat harder for people to believe that a parent would do that to a child,” she said. “That, combined with the fact that often times there are not witnesses, makes it difficult.”
While it is pretty much common knowledge to not shake a baby, some do not have the tools necessary to deal with stress and frustration that leads to abuse.
“It seems like parents are more and more frustrated and may have more outside stressors at work or finances and everything else going on in the world,” Wicks said. “And when a baby is crying inconsolably, that may be just enough to trigger someone to lose control.”
To help parents cope, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome offers 20 tips to control stress and frustration.
• Feed your baby. Hunger is the main reason a baby will cry.
• Burp your baby. Babies do not have a natural ability to get rid of air built up in their stomach.
• Swaddle your baby. Learn more about swaddling by clicking here
• Give your baby a lukewarm bath. A great soothing technique, but remember to never leave your baby unattended.
• Massage your baby. A gentle massage on a baby back, arms, or legs can be very comforting.
• Give your baby a pacifier. Use sparingly, because if used when your baby isn’t crying, it may prove to be ineffective.
• Make eye contact with your baby and smile. Eye-to-eye contact with your baby when they are crying can distract and comfort them.
• Kiss your baby. This can help lessen the tension during fierce crying episodes.
• Kiss the bottom of your baby’s feet. A baby’s feet are one of the most sensitive spots on their body, light kisses on their feet can help turn a challenging situation into a happy one.
• Sing Softly. Lullabies were created because of their effectiveness at calming crying babies.
• Reassure your baby with soft words like "it’s OK.” This can help comfort you and your baby during a difficult crying episode.
• Hum in a low tone against your babies head. Dad’s usually do this soothing feature best.
• Run a vacuum cleaner. The noise from a vacuum is referred to as white noise which is any sound produces a loud, neutral, masking sound. Babies find these noises hypnotizing.
• Run a dishwasher. Dishwashers have different cycles of white noise which some infants find soothing.
• Take your baby for a ride in the car. The vibrations from a car have a sleep inducing effect on babies. Always make sure your baby is secure in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat.
• Rock your baby in a rocker. Rocking your baby in a chair can be very relaxing for you and your baby.
• Push your baby in a stroller. A stroller ride is the next best thing to a ride in a car.
• Place your baby in a car seat on top of a running dryer. This is a classic soothing technique, but use caution. Never leave your baby unattended.
• Put your baby underneath a lighted mobile. The sounds, lights and movements of a mobile can be very amusing and entertaining for a baby.
• Dance Slowly. Dancing can be fun for both you and your baby and allows for a variety of soothing movements.