The death of an infant or child is never easy for anyone involved. Even with the death of a terminally ill child, there is rarely any comfort, sense of timeliness or justice – rather there exists only pain, despair, and guilt.
I came to understand that for a parent, in the death of a child, age is incidental; most parents simply do not expect to outlive their children. This chapter, however, is about my experiences with the deaths of infants and very young children.
From a knowledge standpoint, I was fortunate to gain the experiences I had. I had the distinction of being the infant and child death specialist in our office. I served on the Child Death Review Team for the county, which provided one of the few proactive outlets I had as an investigator; this was good.
From a mental health perspective, however, fortunate is not the most accurate descriptor. I would not erase or alter these trying experiences. The long-term effects for me, the consummate introvert, arrive belatedly, though, so truly “dealing” with tragedy – be it peripheral or first-hand – is a prolonged and complicated process. In other words, I left my position in forensics in 2001, and only after several years did the proverbial ghosts begin to manifest. I do not think I am balancing on the cusp of lunacy (or if I am, it is not because of working with the dead), but I am self aware enough to know when an exorcism is in order.
For death investigators, there are always cases that test our limits and push relentlessly into the wounds of our weaknesses.
During my first month at the office, a colleague and I were called to a scene where a deceased newborn was found wrapped in plastic and stowed in a cooler in the attic of a family home. The child was well preserved but had obviously been in this place for years. It was never determined whose child this was or what the circumstances of the child’s birth were, but it was determined that the fetus was in all likelihood viable, that is, not stillborn.
Several years later, the same colleague responded to the scene of a young boy (around 18 months) who died suddenly. From what I recall, the only external sign of trauma visible was a very deep incised wound on one of his fingers. The autopsy revealed that he died of asphyxiation caused by a blood-soaked paper towel forcibly inserted into his throat and sinus cavities. Further investigation revealed that the child had injured his finger (how is unknown to me), his mother wrapped the finger in a paper towel, and in an effort to quiet him, forced the paper towel into his mouth and he aspirated it. His mother had several older children and was pregnant at the time.
I’m not sure I can adequately express my reaction to this situation or to the fact that circumstances such as these are all too common. Anger doesn’t begin to describe the wave that hit when this child’s autopsy findings were revealed. My colleague was near emotional paralysis for a short time; I will delve into the debriefing we investigators practiced in other chapters, but for now, suffice it to say we were all affected. A different breed of people may not have channeled it as productively, fairly, and efficiently as the people I worked alongside. For their enduring strength and reason, I will always be grateful, as should the residents of Delaware County.
I have heard a great deal of discussion about parental rights and the ensuing counter arguments for child advocacy. I don’t know what is morally correct, to be honest, but I know which side I favor.
How are these two cases related? They aren't, except in that they happen to be two of many involving a concept I refer to as "disposable children." Is there not enough waste and suffering in the world?