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Abandoned by the state

fifteen years ago, a father shook a crying baby and — in a single moment — changed a family.

The baby's sister grew up in the shadow of death, her earliest memory the baby's funeral. The baby's mother divorced the father and battled depression.

And the baby's grandmother? Well, Janet Goree did what many who grieve over senseless loss do. She devoted her life to educating others.

During the past 15 years, Goree has emerged as a national figurehead for the movement to educate new parents and caregivers about shaken baby syndrome. She has helped hundreds of families across the country who are coping with injured babies. She has even gotten two Florida laws passed: one that requires hospitals to educate new parents about shaken babies and another that mandates training for child care providers.

But this past week — the 15th anniversary of the week her granddaughter was shaken — Goree became the latest to face the heavy hand of state budget cuts this year. There would be no funding for her shaken baby prevention program.

And so, Goree made another change. She found a new job.

Now, instead of training nurses about shaken babies, she'll be training dog owners how to handle their puppies.

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• • •

Last year, a health teacher at Pinellas Park High School started talking to a roomful of students about shaken baby syndrome.

He flipped off the light and started a video.

There, in front of student Kayla West was her grandmother, Goree, talking about her sister, Kimberlin.

"It made me cry really bad," said Kayla, 17.

But it also made her realize something about her grandmother's influence. Goree's lessons about shaken baby syndrome have come to hospital birthing centers and youth boot camp classrooms. She has organized a vigil at the Capitol in Washington and watched former Gov. Jeb Bush sign the Kimberlin West Act, requiring hospitals to give brochures about shaken baby syndrome to new parents.

Last year, Goree was at a conference in San Antonio, Texas, when a woman from Alabama approached her and said she uses Kimberlin's story to teach people about shaken baby syndrome.

"Janet is one of those who's been unwavering in her commitment to preventing it from happening to other families," said Amy Wicks, 33, of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome in Ogden, Utah.

But Goree is tired. Tired of fighting for money when there is none. Tired of pushing to educate people about the damage shaking a baby can do and still seeing so many die. Between 1,200 and 1,400 new babies are shaken every year.

• • •

Kimberlin was fussy that day.

Her mother, Nicole, had taken the baby for her 6-week-old shots on May 5, 1993. Nicole had to work the late shift at a convenience store in Chesapeake, Va.

The baby's father, Chris West, told investigators he was only trying to "quiet and calm" the child when he shook her, according to court records. Medical experts concluded the injury destroyed 67 percent of Kimberlin's brain.

West, who now lives in North Carolina, acknowledged he "acted improperly by using inappropriate force," and pleaded guilty to a criminal charge, court records say. He received one year probation, which was extended to five years after he failed drug tests.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times in 2000, West said he shook Kimberlin lightly because she didn't seem like she was breathing. He insisted he didn't hurt the baby.

After Kimberlin's injury, Nicole moved the girls to Clearwater to live near Goree. In 1996, at age 3, Kimberlin died.

"She taught a lot of lessons about unconditional love to a lot of people," Goree said.

Nicole has battled depression and would say only for this story that she hopes someone finds a way to keep educating people about shaken baby syndrome.

Most summers, Kayla spends four weeks with her father up North.

"Of course," she says, "I always have a part of me that's upset with him because of my sister."

• • •

Goree wavers. She wants to stay involved. She wants to step back.

She will continue to support her network of families across the country, but perhaps it's time to do something else.

Perhaps it's time to hand over the reins.

Rachel Sumner, a Sarasota woman whose 10-month-old baby, Madilyne, died three years ago after being shaken by a caregiver in Oklahoma, could be the one.

Sumner, 25, organized a recent vigil in Siesta Key. She started a family support organization that she hopes will get private grants to support the kind of shaken baby education that Goree does.

Goree, 51, looks at Sumner and sees the kind of energy she once had.

"I still have the passion but I don't have the energy," she says.

And Goree needs another source of income to keep her household going. So this week, she started a job as a dog trainer at PetSmart.

She prowls the dog aisles of the pet store, selling harnesses and leashes and looking for potential training customers. It's different, but in a good way.

"If someone takes home a puppy that doesn't behave, they may take them to the pound," Goree said. "So if I can teach them to have a loving and fruitful relationship, it's still meaningful. Maybe it's not the same, but it's still meaningful."

Patsy Buker, 58, president of the nonprofit Help A Child Inc., hasn't given up hope. She's searching for funding for Goree's program in other places, but so far nothing.

"She needs to be able to continue this work," Buker said. "Frankly, she's saving lives but we don't know which ones."

Goree points out that if one child is saved, it can save the state millions of dollars in medical expenses. Kimberlin's medical bills topped $1-million, covered by Medicaid.

"I know in my heart I've prevented one," Goree says.

Last week, in one of her last shaken baby training sessions, Goree trained a dozen birth nurses from three hospitals in a county she won't name. Though the Kimberlin West Act of 2002 requires nurses to hand out a brochure to new parents, Goree trains them to also talk with the parents. Pamphlets tend to get lost.

But not one of the nurses had heard of the law.

Times staff writer Dave Scheiber and researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com.

About the program

The Department of Health set aside $79,500 of its budget for Janet Goree's shaken baby prevention program in the 2006-07 fiscal year. For the 2007-08 fiscal year, the department allotted $10,000 and the Northeast Exchange Club of St. Petersburg donated another $5,000. Goree's funding runs out next week.

Abandoned by the state 05/14/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2008 11:25pm]
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