Child death investigation training

Because unexplained child deaths are not common, law enforcement must rely on good training and good tools

Innocent people do not try to orchestrate an alibi, he adds. “Innocent parents whose youngsters have suddenly died want to tell you everything they can possibly think of because they want you to figure out what happened, why it happened and how it happened,” he says.

Lt. Clay Jansson of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan and a child death scene expert emphasizes, “A death investigation needs to be thorough. You cannot assume a death is simply an ‘accident.’ We sometimes have to ask uncomfortable, hard-hitting questions.’”

Jansson says officers may be afraid to ask some of those questions because caregivers have been through a lot with the death of a child. He reminds them “Nothing we can do is going to be any worse than them losing their child. They’ve hit the most traumatic spot in their life. Our goal is to get those answers not only for ourselves, but for the parents so if the cause of death is accidental and they have another child, they don’t make some of those same mistakes.” To prepare for these interviews, Streed says law enforcement should learn to interpret the responses they might encounter from grieving caregivers.

Tools & training

To make sure investigators don’t forget something, and to help ensure an investigation is properly done, many law enforcement officers use checklists. The CDC has one. States sometimes have their own.

In November 2010 Tri-Tech Forensics Inc. came out with a detailed Infant/Child Death Investigation Kit with forms and instructions to assist law enforcement and medicolegal investigators. The kit includes customized information specific to the common types of deaths of infants and minors, as well as the necessary authorization for release of information and demographic forms so that relevant records can be obtained.

Although Holmes uses checklists, he emphasizes they don’t make or break a proper investigation. A checklist is nothing more than boxes investigators check to make sure they’ve asked all the questions, Streed says. If there’s a question that is not relevant, he says, “you indicate that and go on.”

Corey, however, mentions that since child death investigations are relatively rare, it helps to have a checklist to remind investigators of the what makes child death investigations unique. After working countless child death cases Jansson continues to use a checklist.

Child death investigation (who should be called and initial scene investigation) is taught in North Carolina’s Basic Law Enforcement Training, and a module is being created as an option for the 4 hours of in-service training law enforcement officers are required to have each year. Those are in addition to the two-day child death investigation training Mayhew does for local and state agencies 20 to 24 times a year by request, and through the North Carolina Justice Academy. Mayhew also offers training outside of North Carolina through Tri-Tech Forensics. Scene reconstruction training is especially encouraged when the child who died is under one year old.

Caregivers show how they put the baby down and how they found the baby. Medical examiners can then look at pictures and video of the reconstruction when they do an autopsy. “It’s made a huge difference in our ability to distinguish what could be a natural death and what could be accidental,” she says. Mayhew encourages officers to do reconstructions as soon as possible. If the investigator’s approach is right, she says they should get full cooperation.

“If an investigator’s approach is disrespectful or insensitive, they’re probably not going to get the caregiver to do the reconstruction,” says Mayhew. “I’ve never heard of anyone refusing to do a reconstruction. Parents want to know how their child has died. If they think this is the way to find that out, they’ll do it. It’s all in how it’s handled — and that should be with respect and sensitivity.”

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