Assumptions About Shaken Baby Syndrome Now Being Questioned

Yadira Ramos and Mauricio Perez burst through the emergency room doors of Paradise Valley Hospital with their unconscious 13-month-old son early one evening, late in the summer of 2009.

Mauricio Jr.'s small body was stiff, his teeth clenched. His head was swelling and it seemed to his parents that he was struggling to breathe. His mother feared the worst as ER doctors whisked the child away. The young parents — Ramos 19, Perez 21 — paced the waiting room for about an hour before hospital officials told them the baby was being transferred by medical helicopter to Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Ramos climbed inside the chopper next to her son, who was strapped down to a stretcher, still unconscious, with a small oxygen mask covering his face. The whirling blades cut through the night air, rushing toward a team of specialized pediatricians.

See also: A Look at Exonerations in Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases

As surgeons operated on her son to relieve pressure on the brain, Ramos explained to hospital officials that the baby had fallen off the bed in the two-bedroom apartment in East Phoenix she and Perez shared with five other people. An interpreter was attempting to translate, but hospital and court records show the Spanish interpreter and, thus, doctors had trouble understanding the Guatemalan immigrant's dialect. 

Perez joined Ramos at Phoenix Children's Hospital after he briefly stopped at the apartment, gathered extra diapers, clothes, and formula and dropped them off with them a family friend who was watching their 2-month-old daughter, Kimberly.

Later that night, police arrived at the hospital and started questioning the couple separately. Ramos told them the same thing she'd told doctors — that her son fell off the bed. She said Mauricio Jr. might have hit a dresser on his way down, but she said she wasn't sure; she hadn't seen him fall because her back was to the bed he was laying on with his dad. She had been lying with them, watching the 5 p.m. news on Univision, but got up when Kimberly started fussing in her bed. It was a tight fit. The queen-size bed occupied most of the small room; a two-drawer dresser about two feet from the bed doubled as a TV stand. Kimberly's small, white bassinet took up the remaining space. 

Perez was on the phone talking to his uncle in Guatemala. He said he didn't see the baby fall, either.

Ramos told police she heard a thud on the tile floor. She scooped up her son and screamed when his body stiffened and he stopped breathing. She recalled that his arms froze at 90-degree angles, as if he were a plastic doll.

"My baby's dying!" she cried, handing him to Perez so she could call 911.

The dispatcher didn't speak Spanish. Ramos couldn't wait. She hung up, and she and Perez banged on their roommates' doors and asked for a ride to the hospital, about seven miles away from the apartment. 

On the way, Perez tried to administer mouth-to-mouth and massaged his son's chest. He didn't have any training.

Ramos and Perez told the same story to hospital social workers, state child-welfare advocates, and the police detectives investigating their son's injuries. In fact, their story was the same in all the records New Times reviewed, and even years later during half a dozen interviews, their story doesn't change. 

Both consistently describe an accidental fall — not discipline or shaking. 

But even as they were in the midst of recounting the events on the night it happened, a pediatric specialist examining the baby scribbled into his medical chart "shaken" and what appears to be the word "severe."

Pediatricians found a skull fracture and a triad of symptoms — subdural hematoma (blood pooling between the skull and the brain), retinal hemorrhage (bleeding of the eyes), and brain swelling — that signaled to them that the injuries were intentionally inflicted.

Shaken baby syndrome. It's a condition we've all heard of — the stuff of Lifetime TV movies and Law & Order episodes. First diagnosed in the 1970s, it has led to hundreds of prosecutions and helped medical and law enforcement personnel better reveal cases of child abuse. 

Or has it?

Phoenix police detectives who investigate abuse believed the accounts of the cooperative parents and the roommates who were in the apartment when the baby was injured. They determined that the event was an accident and never pursued criminal charges. 

But doctors and social workers — and, later, state child welfare workers — weren't convinced. They repeatedly urged Ramos and Perez to come clean about what had really happened.

"Why do they want us to make something up?" Ramos tells New Times. "We told them what happened. He fell off the bed. We didn't hurt him."

Either way, it's all but certain that Yadira Ramos and Mauricio Perez will never see either of their children again. 

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo