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Family puts focus on shaken babies

| November 15, 2010 8:00 PM

IDAHO FALLS (AP) - Bright blue eyes and a mischievous smile made Hannah Covington the star of any room she entered.

The strawberry blonde's fiery personality drew those around her in close as she easily wrapped them around her finger.

The precocious toddler ruled the roost at her house. Family members laughed watching her patter from room to room, on "fat little feet," while stuffing refrigerator magnets under the kitchen appliances - a favorite pastime.

By all accounts, Hannah was a happy, healthy child.

"She was really smart," said her mother, Diana Empey. "She had so much personality and she was confident. She would do stuff just because she knew it would be funny."

Today, Hannah would be 3 1/2 years old, but she never lived to see her second birthday. On Nov. 26, 2008, Empey left Hannah and her then 4-year-old brother, Brody, in the care of Learn and Grow Daycare outside Rigby. Hours later Hannah was dead.

Hannah died as the result of a violent shaking at the hands of child care worker Patricia Widerburg.

"You don't expect this to happen," Empey said. "You never think you have to pick out a headstone (for your baby)."

Hannah's father, Al Covington, said investigators told him the violent trauma to Hannah's brain was consistent with what they would have seen had the girl fallen from a four-story building.

At least eight cases of shaken baby syndrome, including Hannah's, were reported in the last 10 years in eastern Idaho. In each case, the child either died or was severely injured.

The National Center of Shaken Baby Syndrome reports that between 12,000 and 14,000 cases are reported each year, with one in four children dying from the trauma. The children who survive typically must receive long-term medical care.

Dr. Shannon Jenkins, a neonatologist at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, said his "gut feeling is that (shaken baby syndrome) is very under reported" because parents or guardians are reluctant to admit they have hurt their child.

"If you did something to your baby, you don't want to get caught," he said. "You only bring (the baby) into the doctor (when the child's symptoms) are severe."

EIRMC staff has seen cases of shaken baby syndrome that resulted in death, Jenkins said, as well as life-changing injuries such as blindness, brain damage, deafness and other physical handicaps. The trauma usually happens at the hands of parents under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Jenkins said, or parents who aren't the child's primary caretakers.

Baby sitters and boyfriends of the child's mother, Jenkins said, also can be prone to shaking babies.

The majority of shaken baby syndrome cases reported in Bonneville County ultimately are taken to court, Prosecutor Dane H. Watkins Jr. said.

"I see (the reasons for prosecution) as two-fold," he said. "Justice requires that accountability and, second, you do it for that child."

Watkins said some cases are easy to prosecute due to substantial evidence. Others pose challenges because the evidence is lacking.

Widerburg, who entered an Alford Plea on Oct. 18, is serving three- to seven-years in prison with a retained jurisdiction for the involuntary manslaughter of 20-month-old Hannah. Under an Alford plea, a defendant maintains his or her innocence while understanding there is enough evidence for a conviction.

Karla and Mary Covington, Hannah's grandmother and aunt respectively, said Hannah's death devastated the family. That is why they're raising awareness about shaken baby syndrome.

"(Sadness and anger are) either going to destroy me or I'm going to take control of this and do this for Hannah," Karla Covington said.

They want laws changed to help prevent future deaths and injuries.

First, Covington said, state laws need to be consistent when prosecuting those who shake babies.

In one county, a death caused by shaken baby syndrome might only garner an involuntary manslaughter charge. In another county, however, the same crime results in a first-degree murder charge.

"You can shake a baby in Idaho and kill them, and, depending upon what county you are in, (that will determine) the consequences," she said.

Second, Covington said more education is needed.

Parents are taught to immunize babies and place them in child safety seats, Covington said, but few learn about the harms of shaken baby syndrome. There also are few resources available to parents or guardians dealing with stress aggravated by a crying baby.

"We don't want to talk about the fact someone can be capable of shaking a baby to death," she said. "Everyone is capable of losing their cool at some moment."

Until her infant was shaken, Brandi Whaley of Twin Falls had no clue about the problem. Now, she's pushing hospitals statewide to implement the "Period of PURPLE Crying" program. It provides scientifically based instruction to help parents and caregivers avoid abusing children.

The program helps them understand how an infant's crying can build frustration and trains them how to react to such stress without taking it out on the child.

Nine Idaho hospitals, including EIRMC, offer the program.

"To me it's horrible, but if we don't talk about it's going to get worse," Whaley said. "My goal is to get shaken baby to the forefront."

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