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Departments : Think It Through

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

A baby is reported dead in his crib of unknown causes. How do you respond?

March 03, 2016  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Photo: iStockphoto.com
Photo: iStockphoto.com

In every call for service, you should think things through before you begin your response. Each call can be broken down into three phases: pre-response, response, and post-response. The following scenario is designed to help you think things through rather than give you a specific way to handle the call.

Situation

Dispatch advises that a 1-year-old was found dead in his crib. The mother's boyfriend routinely takes care of the child while she works midnight shift at a local restaurant. The boyfriend stated that the baby has had a cold and acted fussy last night but finally went to sleep around 22:00. When he went to check on him at 05:00 this morning, he was not breathing and cold to the touch. The mother is racing home, and there are other people in the house. It is 05:20 when you get dispatched.

Initial Thoughts

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is one of those heartbreaker types of calls, especially if you have children of your own. You know from past training that SIDS generally affects very young babies, strikes without warning, and is only diagnosed after all other causes are ruled out. Normally the threat of SIDS peaks between the age of two and four months and starts to decline thereafter. SIDS normally doesn't occur after a child turns one.

Because the child in this case was at the 1-year-old mark, the death raises your suspicion. You also know from your training that all suspicious deaths are treated as homicides at first until you can prove otherwise. Taking the higher standard prevents things from slipping through the cracks and allowing murderers to get away clean. Your criminal investigation division (CID) will need to be notified, and the sooner the better.

Pre-Response

Think It Through Questions:

  • Is it SIDS or possibly a death by shaking case?
  • What was the baby's medical history?
  • What type of person is the boyfriend and does he have a criminal history?
  • Do I notify CID now or wait until I get more information?

Since you find out the boyfriend is not doing CPR, you tell dispatch to advise him not to touch anything and try to keep everyone who is there away from the baby's room and to stay near the house. You also confirm that EMS is on the way. You are going to need help so you make sure you have backup and that your supervisor is notified. You hope that your supervisor will meet you there and not handle this from his computer.

Your primary concern is trying to lock down the potential crime scene as quickly as possible and keep everyone who was there close by. You prepare yourself mentally for the emotional firestorm you might be walking into.

Response

Think It Through Questions:

  • How do I control the small crowd that will form upon arrival?
  • How do I balance my need to conduct the investigation with being understanding to those involved?
  • What's the best way to protect the scene?
  • How can I keep everyone segregated?

The mother beats you to the scene. She is in the baby's room crying and arguing with the boyfriend. She is so angry and in shock that she can't bring herself to be near the baby. When you arrive, you meet them and ask to speak with the boyfriend alone while one of your backup officers stays with the mother. You get his account of what happened. It's pretty much what he told dispatch, and he is not giving you many details. He tells you nothing about being angry with the baby and makes it sound like another normal babysitting day. You notice he is upset but not in the way you have seen other grieving caregivers behave. He appears more concerned about what's going to happen next than anything else.

You get everyone outside of the baby's room and move into the living room nearest the front door. You explain to the mother what's going on and that she will have time to spend with her child once the preliminary investigation is done. She tells you she has a terrible feeling that her boyfriend did something because he has zero patience with the child. She confirms that the baby has been sick but not anything to suggest something stronger than a cold. There is also nothing alarming about the child's medical history.

You have an officer tape off the scene and start a crime scene log. You have another officer start getting witness statements from the other residents of the house (visiting friends and family of the mother). EMS responds, runs an EKG strip, and confirms the baby is deceased. They note nothing unusual during that process.

After getting all the statements together, the witnesses all agree that the baby had been fussy, that the boyfriend got upset and yelled at the baby two or three times, but that the baby had finally gone to sleep without further incident. They went to bed and thought nothing more of it. When CID gets there, you turn the call over to them. You stay to help with anything they might need and start your initial report.

After a few hours of CID's investigation, the boyfriend finally admits to getting upset at the baby's incessant crying. He says he shook the baby a couple of times and that he stopped crying. He didn't think anything more of it. That's when he put him to bed and went to bed himself.

The reason the baby stopped crying was that the boyfriend had caused a severe brain injury, resulting in the baby's death. It was never a case of SIDS but one of SBS, Shaken Baby Syndrome. CID gets a confession and awaits the medical examiner's report. Your last act is to ask the mother if she needs any of your agency's services (chaplain, victim advocate, etc.). She says no, and that she will contact her pastor.

Post-Response

Think It Through Questions:

  • Could I have done anything better?
  • Should I have asked if the victim's mother needed any help sooner?
  • What's the best way to handle the investigation and keep your humanity?
  • SIDS has been out of the news for years; is it time for refresher training?

This call is handled like any other suspicious death investigation. The only difference is that it involves an infant, so emotions can get in the way and cloud judgment. You have to fight the temptation to be too compassionate and possibly screw up the criminal case.

Final Thoughts

Being a father and grandfather, these types of calls always cut me to the bone. I have to remind myself not to get caught up in the emotion. For those of us who have already been through these types of calls, it behooves us all to teach and mentor those who have not.

I always hated these types of calls and never went to one that ended up being a legitimate case of SIDS. It always revolved around someone losing his or her patience and doing something stupid.

There are always multiple possibilities and potential responses. Thinking it through now saves you time later.

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida and is a longtime contributor to POLICE Magazine.


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