As a homicide detective with a Ph.D. in human behavior, Thomas Streed was loaned out by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to agencies throughout the country during his 24-year career. During this time he was involved in more than 2,000 death investigations.
Streed says it’s often more difficult to get information from people in child death investigations than in other cases. If there’s a bar fight, road-rage incident, or another one-on-one incident involving adults, everyone wants to tell their side of the story, Streed says, but that’s not usually the case when a child dies.
He says it’s also difficult to find valuable DNA, fingerprint or trace evidence because these things will naturally be found at the scene. Child death scenes will often be more contaminated because caregivers call for help, and people, who are legitimately concerned, enter the scene, trying to help, he adds.
“It’s a nightmare of an investigation compared to a typical circumstance where someone commits a robbery and shoots the clerk — no one wants to go near that crime scene,” Streed says.
Wisconsin Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation (DOJ-DCI) Special Agent James Holmes coordinates the WI DOJ-DCI’s Annual Two-Week Death Investigation School. The school includes a block on child fatality investigations and a day on crime scenes, which includes crib deaths.
Holmes, the northern regional director on the board for the International Homicide Investigator’s Association, teaches investigators to “think dirty” in death investigations.
“I always say treat an infant death like you would treat a 24-year-old female who was stabbed to death,” he says. “Treat every child death like a homicide until proven otherwise. A lot of times, babies found deceased don’t have outward signs of injury. Until an autopsy is done, you don’t know what happened. If you treat every baby death like it could be a homicide, you’re going to limit your mistakes. You’re going to do detailed interviews, you’re going to do great scene investigation by taking a lot of photos. And you’re going to have an autopsy done.”
Holmes organizes child death investigations into four parts:
1) Caregiver interviews: Determine the history of the child in the past 72 hours minimum. If the child’s death is a homicide, chances are good the person who did it is one of the people you’re talking to at the crime scene.
2) Scene investigation: Conduct a thorough investigation. Ask the person who placed an infant in a crib to show you how she or he did so using a doll. Ask the person who found the child to show how the child was found. Take photographs and video.
3) A forensic autopsy: Request a forensic autopsy.
4) Medical history: Obtain all medical records associated with the child. This allows investigators to learn what kind of injuries the child has had in the past. If investigators are seeing old injuries and they’re not seeing the caregiver take the child for a checkup, Holmes says that’s a concern. Also, how did caregivers act when they interacted with medical staff?
Start interviews at the beginning
The initial responder has the responsibility of freezing the crime scene and extracting very basic information during an interview, which Streed says should not be an interrogation. He has found most investigators tend to want to start in the middle, with what happened, and go from both directions. “That’s wrong because it gets confusing and it’s easy to overlook things,” he says.
In the Interviewing Psychology module of the CDC’s student guide for the “Sudden, Unexplained Infant Death Investigation Specialist,” published in 2005, Streed talks about an efficient template for imposing guidance and structure on an interview. The three E’s include: the entry phase, the event phase and the escape phase.
Streed explains: “You start the investigation with trying to determine how all the players got together, how the witnesses came in contact with the victim, and how the victim and witnesses came in contact with the suspects. The second part is the event: What happened when everybody got together? That’s how the fatal blow was struck. That’s how witnesses happened to see what they saw. The third part is what they did afterwards. Did they try to conceal evidence? Did they try to orchestrate an alibi? Did they try to blame someone else?”