Notre Dame research: Handheld bruise device could detect child abuse

A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds in the U.S. and more than five children die every day as a result of child abuse. Most kids are under the age of four.

As tragic as those numbers are, proving child abuse often not easy until after death.

But, Notre Dame researchers, along with a renown children's hospital, believe that by literally shedding light on a bruise, they can give doctors and police a new tool to fight child abuse.

The recent death of Tramelle Sturgis, 10, of South Bend who was duct taped, burned and beaten to death by his father in the basement of their home is a reminder of how we, as a nation are failing our children.

It is the deaths of innocent children like this that University of Notre Dame Dean of Science Greg Crawford said led to Notre Dame research on pediatric bruising. It’s research that they say could change suspicion into proof.

“Kids may come into the emergency room or a doctor’s office and a physician may suspect child abuse and had to kind of access the bruise and then correlate it to the story of the parent or the guardian or whoever may have brought them in to the office, “ said Crawford.

In reality kids do fall and play rough, so it can be hard to know when to believe the stories. Most children will not tell someone they are being beaten.

The research involves what is called Optical Spectroscopy.

Using fiber optic technology, Dr. Crawford and graduate research student Collin Line showed NewsCenter 16 how it works.

First, they shine a white light on non bruised and then bruised skin. A spectrometer takes in the data and moves it into the computer where a mathematical model helps them.

“Then it goes into a case which actually separates out the colors and puts it on a detector such that we can then image those colors, and those wave lengths to determine where they actually are at with respect to the bruise,” said Line. “With this technology we can actually age the bruise so the physician, the doctor knows right away how old it is, and can question then the guardian or the parent or the person who brought the child in. “

Line explained the entire process:

”The blue line shows unbruised skin adjacent to the bruise and we have a large curve that is caused by our broad spectrum light source,“ Line said. “Within that, we get subtle changes like these two little dips here.”

“And that's caused by the hemoglobin that's within the blood like capillaries and blood is where it's supposed to be. Then, if we switched to the bruised skin, where we see the two little bumps before, now we have a much larger drop,” he said.

“Every difference to that normal skin is a way in which we age it,” said Crawford.

But they aren't doing this research alone. They have partnered with Hasbro Children's Hospital in Rhode Island which has several child abuse specialists working in their ER.

“We're very optimistic that we're going to have something that's very valuable for the police and social services in about a year to come,” said Crawford.

They hope to turn the machine in the lab into a hand-sized device that will give doctors, social workers and police the answers they need in seconds.

It is technology that might make abusers think twice about raising their hand or belt to a child, and saving children like Trammelle from years of abuse, possibly saved his young life.

The study is being funded by a name known well to parents worldwide. The Gerber Foundation, from the makers of Gerber baby food are paying for it.

While the painstaking research taking place at Notre Dame and Rhode island is nearly over, Crawford says that once a doctor is able to use a handheld device at the hospital or in the office, they will have their answers about the age of bruises in seconds.

Hoping that a dream they have developed in the laboratory can become commercial. Plans now may include working with Notre Dame’s Innovation Park to come up with that handheld device.

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