Should testing for EDS IV be considered in all cases concerning suspicions of non-accidental shaken babies?

Richard Wainman, solicitor in our High Wycombe Office, acted on behalf of the child through her Guardian in the case of Buckinghamshire Council Council v Andrews and Stillwell [2017] EWFC B19 which, has opened an important new area of investigation with regard to explaining possible ‘shaken baby’ cases.

In April 2017, HHJ Venables sitting at Milton Keynes Family Court unusually gave an open Judgement at the request of Carla Andrews and Craig Stilwell, the parents of baby girl, Effie Stilwell, who had been taken away from them following suspicions of non-accidental injury.

The background to the case was that in the early hours of 15 August, 3-month old Effie was admitted to A&E at her local hospital after she had become stiff and had had difficulty breathing in the night.  In hospital, it was found that she was suffering from acute internal bleeding in the head.  The parents were separated from their daughter due to concerns that one of the parents may have shaken Effie; something they both denied adamantly. The Local Authority (Buckinghamshire County Council) subsequently instigated care proceedings, and Effie was placed in foster care whilst further expert medical investigations were conducted.

After Miss Andrews raised questions about her own medical health, genetic tests were undertaken which resulted in Miss Andrews being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type 4 (EDS IV): a rare condition that impacts on the formation of bodily tissue.

Roughly 1,500 cases of EDS IV have been identified in the USA, but there are no official figures for its prevalence in the general population. The syndrome is associated with thin, translucent skin and easy bruising and rupturing, which may occur spontaneously.  As a result of her mother’s diagnosis, Effie was also tested for EDS IV, and was found to have the syndrome.

The expert evidence of 6 professionals instructed within the care proceedings suggested that if Effie had experienced bleeding at birth (as a sufferer of EDS IV), there was an increased likelihood of her bleeding spontaneously, and that this could even occur in the course of normal handling. This information, combined with the perplexing lack of external injuries associated with baby shaking found on Effie, was found to be significant.  Given the expert views that EDS IV might properly explain the internal bleeding suffered by Effie, and having regard to the appropriate, reasonable co-operation of the parents, the local authority took the decision to withdraw its application for a care order, and Effie was returned to her parents’ care.

Effie has recovered fully from her traumas and her parents are being given expert help and guidance on how to treat a child with such fragility.

The implications are clear that had the diagnosis of EDS IV not been made there would have been a real risk that her parents could have been found to be responsible for the injuries sustained by Effie. It is imperative that those acting for parents in cases involving these kinds of allegations give consideration for testing for EDS in its various types, so that other families don’t come as horrifically close to being permanently torn apart as Effie’s did.

For more information about this issue, or about care proceedings in general and how we might be able to help you, please contact our family law specialists at your local office.