Rare form of abuse may define trial

Shaken-baby syndrome — in which an adult violently shakes a baby or toddler — may become the focus of an anticipated murder trial of a 50-year-old Daly City man accused of killing his 18-month-old son.

Jury selection began Wednesday for the trial of Pedro Joaquin Olivas, who prosecutors say killed his son, Fernando, in April 2004. Olivas was supervising the boy while his mother was at work. He has claimed that Fernando fell from his bed, but prosecutors say an autopsy revealed otherwise.

“The crux of the case is that the injuries can’t be explained by the defendant’s version of events,” Deputy District Attorney Al Giannini said.

The circumstances are rare in that the type of suspected abuse — shaken-baby syndrome — is reported about once a year in San Mateo County, said Anand Chabra, the county’s maternal, child and adolescent health director. He said it is different from other types of child abuse because the abuser is seemingly oblivious to his or her actions. Children sustain injuries such as brain damage, retinal hemorrhaging and leg fractures — and can die if the abuse continues.

“In general, it’s not an intended act,” he said. “It’s more based on extreme frustration, particularly when you have an infant who cries nonstop. It’s not always the case, but in many instances you have people who just can’t believe what they did.”

Chabra said that data on shaken-baby syndrome is less concrete than standard child abuse.

In San Mateo County, there were 854 substantiated cases of child abuse in 2006, or 5.1 children per 1,000 according to the UC Berkeley Center for Social Services. That is far less than the state average of 11.1 children per 1,000. In 2005, there were 4.6 cases per 1,000 in San Mateo County, compared to 11.4 statewide.

But the data does not mean abuse is not a problem in the county, Giannini said.

“It is a problem everywhere,” he said. “There’s no personality profile that I am aware of, and it is not confined by socioeconomic class. It runs across the board.”

Giannini revealed Wednesday that Olivas’ wife will testify on her husband’s behalf to defend him, something that is “100 percent typical” in cases of child-abuse homicide, he said. Olivas’ attorney, Scott Furstman, did not return calls for comment. Olivas is in custody on $3 million bail. Giannini expects opening statements to begin Aug. 6.

San Mateo County’s child abuse hotline is (888) 220-7575. For information on shaken-baby syndrome, visit the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome at www.dontshake.com.

bfoley@examiner.com

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