Fresno County mothers who have just experienced the joy of a newborn's arrival now get a sobering lesson on how fragile their child is before they leave the hospital.
The Fresno Council on Child Abuse Prevention rolled out a new educational program on shaken baby syndrome this month at the county's six birthing hospitals with hopes of encouraging mothers to protect their children.
California law encourages counties to establish such programs, but few have done it. Fresno is the fifth county in the state to adopt one. Its program called Adam's Project highlights the story of a Fresno baby who nearly died in 2004 after being violently shaken.
Esther Franco, the council's executive director, said it took two years to get her program started. It's modeled after an upstate New York program that has seen a significant reduction in shaken-baby incidents, Franco said.
Hospital staffers are required to show new mothers a video about shaken baby syndrome and give them handouts with tips on dealing with a crying baby and preventing child abuse before they are discharged.
"If we can save one life, it will be worth it," said Maryann Baird, a registered nurse with Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno. Kaiser gave the council a $7,500 grant for the project, Franco said.
It's part of the routine at Saint Agnes Medical Center, too. "We recognize the importance of sharing this information with new moms," hospital spokeswoman Kelly Sanchez said.
Shaken baby syndrome describes the violent shaking of an infant. Studies show that about 1,200 infants nationwide suffer severe or fatal trauma from this form of child abuse, Franco said.
Franco said she researched similar programs in Sacramento and Stanislaus counties to create Fresno County's program. A key part is a video that features Adam Carbajal, who was 1 year old when he was severely shaken and beaten by his mother's then-boyfriend, Ramon Curiel. The attack on Adam happened seven years ago today.
The seven-minute video has a simulation of what a baby's brain goes through when the child is brutally shaken and shows photographs of Adam hooked up to hospital machines and confined to a wheelchair.
Adam, now 8, isn't getting better, said his grandmother, Maria Alvarez-Garcia. He still can't walk or talk or feed himself, and suffers multiple seizures every day, she said.
Fear that Adam will soon die drove Alvarez-Garcia to participate in the video, she said. "I have to do something," Alvarez-Garcia said. "I don't want my mijo to be forgotten."
Adam's Project is paid for with $35,000 in grants, including the one from Kaiser plus money from First 5 Fresno County, the Fansler Foundation and the In-N-Out Burger Foundation, Franco said. Hospitals in Reedley, Selma, Clovis and Fresno are participating.
The video will be played in the mother's hospital room right before she is released. The timing is important, Franco said, because the father of the child or another caregiver is usually at the hospital to pick up the mother.
Fresno County has 17,000 to 18,000 births each year and about 18,000 reports of child abuse annually, Franco said.
Destiny Moore, who gave birth to her fifth child, Damien, on Wednesday at Community Regional Medical Center, saw the video last week. She said every mother should watch it.
"It's kind of upsetting and heart-breaking," said Moore, 28, of Fresno. "But it's a good reminder to take a step back whenever you get frustrated."
Fresno pediatrician Dr. John Scholefield, a member of the Fresno council, has been studying shaken baby syndrome for more than a decade. He credited Franco's persistence for getting Adam's Project into the local hospitals.
"It's hard for hospitals to change the way they do business," Scholefield said. "But this is a cost-effective program. It's going to have a positive impact on Fresno County."
Research shows most shaken baby incidents involve parents or caregivers who drink alcohol, use illegal drugs and have anger problems, Scholefield said.
Though only one or two fatal cases are typically reported each year in Fresno County, Scholefield said, it's the children "in the shadows" that the public should be worried about.
These children are shaken as infants, but their brain damage isn't enough to kill them, he said. But as these children grow up, they experience seizures and have trouble focusing in school and thinking. They end up in hospitals more often, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat them, he said.
Sheila Boxley, president and chief executive of the Child Abuse Prevention Center in Sacramento, said studies show that for every case that is reported, 150 cases remain undiagnosed.
Boxley said her county's program, which began in 2005, has reduced the number of shaken baby syndrome incidents significantly. Sacramento had one of the state's highest incidences of shaken baby cases before it started to teach new parents about the syndrome, The Sacramento Bee reported in 2008. The county had eight shaken baby deaths in 2005, and only one in 2006, the Bee reported.
In Sacramento County, new mothers watch a video about shaken baby syndrome and sign a pledge to take care of their babies before they leave the hospital. The baby's footprint is imprinted on the pledge form to seal the agreement, Boxley said.
Franco said studies show that a crying infant increases the likelihood that a parent or caregiver will commit child abuse.
Adam's Project tells mothers to take a break when they get frustrated or angry with a crying baby. Getting a backup caregiver also will help prevent child abuse, she said. At the time of discharge, new mothers also are given a brochure about Adam's Project and tips that can hang from a crib or a bedroom door that tells them what to do when a baby cries and the best way to help their child sleep.
"Everyone knows raising a child isn't easy," Franco said. "But we want mothers to know that there is help for them."