The tragic death of Evee Clobes: How antivaxers recruit grieving mothers to their cause

There are many sacred cows in the antivaccine movement. One of the most inviolate is that you do not question the stories and anecdotes of mothers who believe that their children became autistic after vaccines. If you do, you will be portrayed as callous, uncaring, and as calling the mother a liar. Of cours, as science advocates, we are neither callous nor uncaring, nor are we calling mothers liars. What we question is not what the parents have experienced, but rather the inferences they draw from their experience, namely that vaccines caused their child’s autism. Of course, human nature being what it is, parents who believe that vaccines caused their child’s autism view any questioning of their conclusion that vaccines caused their child’s autism as questioning their story or even as accusing them of lying. I’ve seen this dynamic so many times over the last 15 years that I can’t really even estimate how many. I start out with this observation because I want you to keep it in mind as I discuss a news report about a case that I had been meaning to write about, namely that of Evee Clobes.

Evee Clobes was (note the tense) a six month old girl who tragically died. The antivaccine version of her story, as told by her mother Caitlin Clobes, is that she died 36 hours after a well child visit in which she received several vaccines. The actual version of the story, as determined using evidence, is unfortunately quite different, as you will see. What pushed me to write about this case is a surprising story on NBC News by Brandy Zadrozny (a fellow Polish-American!) that does something I’ve never seen a story in the mainstream press do before, take on Sacred Cow #1 of the antivaccine movement. No, that particular sacred cow isn’t the claims by parents that vaccines caused their children’s autism. Rather, it’s even worse than that. It’s the weaponization of grief, the grief of parents who have lost a child and blame vaccines. Brandy Zadrozny’s story is entitled How anti-vaxxers target grieving moms and turn them into crusaders, and its subtitle is: Anti-vaccine advocates find women whose babies have died unexpectedly and convince them vaccines are to blame. Reading the story, I could not believe that a mainstream news outlet had had the intestinal fortitude to produce a story deconstructing and debunking a story like Caitlin Clobes’ narrative. It’s really amazing:

Since her death in March, Evee has served as a literal poster child for the anti-vaccination movement. Her face and chunky legs — adorned with Band-Aids from her shots — are featured on anti-vaccination websites and billboards. The story of her death is told at protests, read aloud at statehouses, and offered up by her mother and other activists as proof of the horror vaccines can bring.

Evee’s story, as her mother Catelin Clobes tells it, is of a healthy 6-month-old who died 36 hours after a checkup where she got several vaccinations. Clobes and an army of online activists now say the vaccines caused Evee’s death. That belief, and Clobes’ willingness to make Evee part of a national media campaign, have turned the grieving mom into a rising star in the anti-vaccination world. Her Facebook posts draw hundreds of thousands of views, and multiple fundraisers set up by anti-vaccination activists on her behalf have raised tens of thousands of dollars. She has become a champion of other anti-vaccination parents around the country.

But there’s a problem with the story at the heart of this crusade, and with Clobes’ new role as an anti-vaccine heroine. Her local medical examiner has ruled that the evidence — collected in an autopsy and by first responders — shows Evee accidentally suffocated while co-sleeping with her mother.

This story was reported by Brandy Zadrozny and Aliza Nadi, and what makes it highly unusual, perhaps even unique, is that it’s the first story in a mainstream news outlet that I can remember in quite some time—perhaps ever—to critically examine such a story. For instance, even I had hesitated to discuss this case, although it was more because I wasn’t sure of the facts than fear of antivaxers. After all, the same sort of dynamic occurs with families of the victims of cancer quacks, and that’s never stopped me from writing about, for instance, the victims of Stanislaw Burzynski or Clínica 0-19. It’s true, though. The Evee Clobes story has become a cause célèbre among antivaxers, who take it as Gospel that the vaccines the child received before her death. The NBC News story features a billboard with Evee Clobes’ face on it and the slogan “Healthy babies just don’t die” and a link to an antivaccine group, Health Choice Minnesota, which relates the Evee Clobes story this way:

On Wednesday, February 27, 2019, Catie Clobes of Howard Lake, Minnesota brought her normal, healthy 6-month-old baby girl Evee Gayle Clobes to her well-baby checkup, whereupon the pediatrician declared her to be in “perfect health” with no problems or concerns. After Evee was examined by her pediatrician, the nurse administered the standard 6-month doses of Pertussis, Tetanus, Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Polio, and Pneumococcal vaccines via Prevnar and Pediarix injections. On the evening of Thursday February 28th, Evee was unusually sleepy when Ms. Clobes put her to bed on her back, and checked her at approximately 11:00 p.m. On Friday March 1st at 7:00 a.m., Ms. Clobes discovered her daughter on her back, lifeless and not breathing, and called 911. Evee was rushed to Buffalo Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival.

The story, as told by this antivaccine group, continued, saying that the Anoka County Medical Examiner assured Ms. Clobes that “every test” would be performed and that the “vaccines administered approximately 36 hours prior to her death would definitely be investigated as a possible cause.”

Then this happened:

When Ms. Clobes followed up with the Medical Examiner’s Office in subsequent weeks to confirm that necessary tests were being performed to definitively confirm or rule out vaccine injury, including tests to measure critical proteins, enzymes, serum levels of adjuvants, and markers for inflammation, she was told that “it’s not medically necessary, there is no medical reasoning, and it’s not medically approved.” She was informed that vaccines are not a “medically accepted” cause of death and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, defined as the unexplained death of an otherwise healthy infant) would appear on Evee’s autopsy report as the determined cause of death.

Evee’s family found this determination unacceptable in absence of complete data.

Of course, the medical examiner was correct. Vaccines are not an accepted cause of SIDS. Indeed, the scientific evidence strongly shows that SIDS is not associated with vaccination. Indeed, if anything, the evidence is suggestive that vaccines lower the risk of SIDS. The problem was that Ms. Clobes, who had already demonstrated that she was susceptible to antivaccine blandishments by requesting that the medical examiner investigate them as a cause of her daughter’s death, had apparently already made up her mind that vaccines must have been responsible.

No one doubts that Ms. Clobes loved her daughter or that Evee Clobes’ death was tragic. Any time a baby dies, it’s a loss that devastates a family. The problem is that antivaxers know that and use it, along with the very human need to have some sort of explanation, a defined cause, for a loss as horrific as the loss of a child. Ms. Clobes had lost a daughter, and she needed to know why. Unfortunately, she latched onto a reason, just as antivax parents with autistic children latch onto the same cause: Vaccines. Worse, encouraging parents of children with SIDS to come to the conclusions that vaccines had killed their child is a feature, not a bug, of the antivaccine movement, as Zadrozny and Nadi report:

Anti-vaccination activists have long targeted their message to parents of autistic kids. They have also, however, pursued another vulnerable population of parents searching for answers — mothers and fathers of babies who have died unexpectedly, especially when the deaths are linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. At a time when the U.S. faces the largest outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses in decades, a network of activists is finding new recruits to the anti-vaccination cause by raising questions about the sudden deaths of several dozen babies and young children.

That network includes discredited physician-turned-anti-vaccination celebrity Andrew Wakefield, whose retracted study popularized the false belief that vaccines are linked to autism; Del Bigtree, a former “Dr. Phil” producer who runs the country’s most well-funded anti-vaccine nonprofit, Informed Consent Action Network; and social media activist Larry Cook, who hosts the largest and most active anti-vaccination community on Facebook.

Since 2018, Cook has published at least 20 different articles alleging a baby’s death was the result of a vaccination — despite official, medically supported explanations that include SIDS, pneumonia and accidental asphyxiation. Clobes joined Cook’s group after Evee died, and her story is among Cook’s 20.

Larry Cook, as you recall, runs Facebook’s largest antivaccine page, Stop Mandatory Vaccination. Before we get into how Evee Clobes’ story spread, first, let’s note how the antivaccine version of the Evee Clobes’ story differs from what actually happened:

The day after Evee died — before the medical examiner had issued any findings — Clobes started pouring out her heartbreak and confusion on Facebook.

“This feeling of pain is indescribable,” Clobes wrote next to a video of Evee laughing that has now been viewed over half a million times and attracted 3,000 comments. “The unanswered questions of how or why make it worse.”

Clobes’ grief and Evee’s giggle were like a siren, attracting dozens of family and friends, and then hundreds and thousands of strangers offering condolences in the comments.

Within hours of her post, some had answers.

“Vaccine injury is real and a movement is spreading across the nation,” one woman wrote. “Organizations are filled with people and parents who understand what you are going through and can help offer guidance and support to you.”

I’ve written about this phenomenon before. Antivaxers have long weaponized grieving mothers, just as cancer quacks weaponize the families of cancer patients with terminal disease. The reason? If you dare question their stories, you can be portrayed as heartless, “attacking” a massively sympathetic figure. They take advantage of the human tendency of parents who suffer a tragedy as painful as the sudden and unexpected loss of a child to need an explanation, a “why.” Antivaxers are masters at this. Antivaxers bait their hook with a seemingly reasonable explanation for the child’s death, and the parents’ hunger for any explanation leads her to take the bait and be reeled into the movement, usually through social media and other online discussion forums. It’s a process that John Laidler, who once believed that vaccines cause autism but eventually saw the light and became a skeptic, has described before.

After being reeled in, grieving parents receive empathy aplenty and a new, powerful social support network to help them through their grief. After all, to antivaxers they’re martyrs who unknowingly “sacrificed” their children to the “vaccine god.” That same grief is then weaponized, forging these surviving parents into human shields against critics, and a powerful “in” to gain access to lawmakers and powerful people. Who would turn down a meeting with a grieving mother? Who wouldn’t give her a respectful hearing? What reporter would risk appearing callous reporting on such parents? What parents wouldn’t feel their pain?

Of course, that empathy and support also serve to pull the parents deeper and deeper into the antivaccine mindset. In the case of Evee Clobes’ mother, this meant:

The next week, a local activist helped Clobes set up a fundraiser through GoFundMe with the goal of raising $5,000 for a “private autopsy” and other expenses related to Clobes’ quest for answers. (Clobes has received more than $22,000 and has raised the goal to $40,000.)

For the autopsy — more precisely, a study of tissue samples retained by Wright County — Clobes’ lawyer hired Dr. Douglas Miller, a clinical professor of pathology at the University of Missouri and one of the few mainstream medical professionals anti-vaccination activists seem to respect. He has served as an expert witness for parents who filed lawsuits claiming vaccines triggered SIDS in their children. Clobes said on social media that Miller would be doing the study.

I’ve mentioned Dr. Miller before in the context of a SIDS case that was incorrectly ruled on by the Vaccine Court. He seems to have a nice little side business testifying as an “expert witness” in SIDS cases in which the parents blame vaccines for their child’s death, charging $500 an hour. Do you want to know how weak the Evee Clobes case was? Even Dr. Miller wouldn’t take it:

Miller said his investigation found no evidence that vaccines had contributed to Evee’s death. He said he told Clobes of his conclusion, and had declined to support her case in the federal government’s National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, known more commonly as Vaccine Court. He declined to name the factors that led to his decision, citing concern for Clobes’ privacy.

Online, however, Clobes claimed Dr. Miller’s report offered “proof” that Evee had suffered “a cellular infiltration triggered by an immune response from the vaccinations.”

According to Dr. Miller in the news story, the “neuropathologist Clobes referred to ‘was not me, if he or she actually exists,'” and added, “I did not tell Ms. Clobes of any such finding, and I did not provide her or her attorney with any report which alleged any such finding.” Whom to believe? If Caitlin Clobes had Dr. Miller’s report, she could simply have produced it for the reporters. She didn’t.

Worse, now Ms. Clobes is going beyond Evee. She’s become a committed activist. Evee Clobes has become the face of a Health Choice Minnesota’s branding campaign, and Ms. Clobes has appeared on Highwire with Del Bigtree:

In September, Clobes appeared on nationally known anti-vaccination advocate Del Bigtree’s online talk show, “The HighWire.” Clobes hinted she might sue the Wright County medical examiner over a “cover-up.” Bigtree interspersed his interview with Clobes with home videos of Evee and a re-enactment of her death.

In an interview with NBC News, Bigtree dismissed the suggestion that claims like Clobes’ deserve extra scrutiny.

“All I’m doing is letting her tell her story,” said Bigtree, whose nonprofit brought in $1.4 million in revenue in 2017— more than any comparable group. He compared his work to media coverage of the #MeToo movement, in which women have made sexual assault allegations against powerful men. “Are we not supposed to listen to the women?”

God, I so detest Bigtree. Here he is trying to liken the antivaccine movement to the Me Too movement. They are not even remotely the same. No one says we shouldn’t listen to parents like Evee Clobes’ mom. Here’s the difference with the Me Too movement. Me Too is not about concluding some sort of scientific causation. Stories like that of Evee Clobes are about promoting a narrative concluding that vaccines kill children. We can believe Caitlin Clobes’ story that she found her daughter dead after co-sleeping with her; there is no reason for us to accept Ms. Clobes’ conclusion that it was the vaccines, not SIDS likely due to co-sleeping that resulted in her daughter’s death.

Another tidbit from this report is that sometimes antivaxers co-opt dead babies to use in their messaging, even when the parents do not want them to. For instance, a mentioning Nicholas Catone, a 20-month-old who died suddenly in 2017 and whose parents think vaccines that he had received three weeks earlier were what killed him, the reporters recount the case of Sophia Cooney, whose father Mark most definitely did not want her death used that way. It was a truly tragic accident, in which the baby’s mother Laura Stanard, was lying on the couch breastfeeding Sophia and fell asleep still holding her. Also, the Stanard had been smoking weed earlier in the day. So this was clearly a case of accidental asphyxiation of the infant due to co-sleeping., and, even though Stanard had been careless, I still have enormous sympathy for her, just as I do for Clobes.

Did the fact that Sophia’s death was clearly not due to vaccines stop antivaxers? Nope. Did it stop Caitlin Clobes? Sadly, no. She was on a mission:

On the six-month anniversary of Sophia’s death, Cooney saw that a stranger named Catie Clobes had posted a GoFundMe campaign to Facebook, asking for donations to help Stanard with “bills and expenses” after Sophia’s death. Sophia is one of six babies in as many months whose deaths, without medical evidence, Clobes has promoted to her 10,000 followers and various Facebook groups as vaccine-related. Articles about Sophia soon followed on websites like Stop Mandatory Vaccination, which posted the story with the headline, “Infant Dies 14 Hours After Receiving 8 Vaccines.” The article is one of the site’s most popular this year, getting some 57,000 Facebook likes, comments and shares, according to a Buzzsumo analysis.

When he saw the posts, Cooney said: “I couldn’t breathe. It’s like someone was making a mockery of my precious little Sophie.”

Cooney asked Stanard, Clobes and then GoFundMe to take down Sophia’s campaign, and when those requests were ignored, he contacted the Fort Collins police, who opened an investigation into the GoFundMe account. After Cooney, friends and family loaded the campaign’s comment section with complaints, it was taken down, having raised just $225. No charges were filed.

Sophia Cooney’s death was even more obviously not due to vaccines than that of Evee Clobes. In a way, I can understand Laura Stanard’s reaction. Her negligence had led to the death of her child, and she knew it. She had even admitted it to the police! The guilt must have been staggering, almost impossible to bear. Naturally, one way to alleviate that guilt would be for her to convince herself that it wasn’t her mistake that had led to Sophia’s death, but vaccines. If that were the case, then Stanard could view herself as blameless. I can easily understand how a human being would grasp at straws to relieve such oppressive guilt. I can actually understand Caitlin Clobes’ reaction, too, as a manifestation of the same sort of guilt.

Indeed, it’s not just grief, but guilt, that antivaxers are excellent at using to recruit parents like Clobes and Stanard:

Stanard said in a brief conversation over Facebook Messenger that she had approached Clobes after seeing her story on Facebook. “I chose to reach out because who wouldn’t reach out to someone who went through the same thing?” Stanard said. “Everyone just wants to find someone to relate to and I finally found someone who actually believed me.”

Who better to recruit a grieving mother than another grieving mother, who just happened to have used her grief to turn into an antivaccine activist?

I must say that Cooney’s reaction is more level-headed than mine likely would have been if I had had the misfortune to experience what he did:

Cooney doesn’t blame his ex for convincing herself that vaccines killed Sophia, but he is angry just the same.

“I just want the truth out there: Babies asphyxiate, this happens,” Cooney said. “These anti-vaccination people are continuously contacting parents who have lost children, giving them false information and false hope. This stuff is wrong.”

Cooney is, of course, absolutely correct.

Worse, Caitlin Clobes is using her daughter to endanger public health:

Clobes calls Evee a “superhero” for her posthumous role in the anti-vaccine movement. On her Facebook page, Clobes posts screenshots of messages from parents who, she says, have seen her story and been persuaded not to vaccinate their children. The Catones post similar images along with the hashtag #onestarfishatatime, a reference to an inspirational story in which a boy, faced with a beach of dying starfish, saves as many as he can, one by one.

While it’s impossible to measure the impact of these stories on vaccination rates or public opinion, it’s safe to say they’ve been seen and shared millions of times.

Yes, Clobes is actually proud of using Evee’s story to dissuade parents from vaccinating. That’s how radicalized she has become. After all, she believes that vaccines, not SIDS/co-sleeping, killed her baby. How radicalized would you or I become if we suffered such a loss and somehow came to believe that?

Finally, this story helps illustrate just why antivaccine warriors like Caitlin Clobe are so powerful, using her interaction with Senator Pan over SB 276 and SB 714 as an example:

Last week, California state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician who led the bill’s push, got into a Twitter spat with the actor Rob Schneider, who argued against the legislation by sharing Clobes’ post.

“Catie has my sympathy for the loss of her daughter Evee,” Pan replied to Schneider on Twitter. “Blaming her death on vaccination requires proof.”

Pan’s remarks were seized on as heartless by Clobes’ supporters, who accused him of attacking a grieving mother.

I wouldn’t have said it quite the way Senator Pan did. I probably would have said something like, “Ms. Clobes has my sympathy for the loss of her daughter Evee, but there is no evidence that vaccines were responsible.” I know, I would have gotten the same reaction, but how I would have handled it just sounded better to me. Be that as it may, this is the power of mothers like Caitlin Clobes, who have lost a child to whatever cause. (I’ve documented teens who’ve died suddenly, whom antivaxers have used to demonize the HPV vaccine, for instance. With older children and teens, it’s almost always the HPV vaccine, too, but that is a topic for another day.) These mothers’ loss and grief are their shields, and their motivations are pure, at least in the beginning, making it easy to portray anyone who questions their belief that vaccines killed their babies as heartlessly attacking a grieving mother. Unfortunately, antivaxers know this, which is why they continue to approach them and try to recruit them. It’s also why antivaxers so furiously attack the mothers of children who have died of vaccine-preventable diseases and take the brave step of publicizing their stories in pro-vaccination messaging. Antivaxers recognize a threat when they see one.

Read the whole story. I’ve excerpted somewhat liberally, but it’s long and worth reading in its entirety. Also, Dorit Reiss posted a good discussion at Skeptical Raptor.