Baby Death – What Investigators Need To Know


baby-death-coroner talk

By Darren Dake

Every year in the United States, tens of thousands of children die from a variety of causes, including illnesses, diseases, accidents, suicides, and homicides. Each death is a heart­ breaking event for the child’s family and a tragic loss for society. When a child’s death is sudden and unexpected, the tragedy is compounded if law enforcement fails to conduct a proper investigation. If the investigation is flawed, two outcomes—neither acceptable—are very real possibilities.

The first is that an innocent person will be suspected or accused of either a crime that did not occur or a crime for which the person bears no responsibility. The other possibility is that a real crime will remain undetected or unsolved, and the person responsible for the fatal treatment of the child will never be identified or prosecuted.

Everyone involved in the investigation of a child fatality must understand that these cases differ from typical homicides in many ways, including the causes of death, the offender’s motivations and legal culpability for the crime, the methods used to inflict the fatal injuries, the types of injuries that the victim sustained, the forensic and physical evidence involved, and the investigative techniques used.

Arriving on the Scene:

The Responsibilities of First Responders

Law enforcement officers dispatched to the location of a seriously injured or deceased child—the “first responders” on the scene— have several important responsibilities to carry out before the investigators arrive. (This assumes that paramedics have already reached the scene and are attending to the child.)

✶  The officers’ first priority is to identify and secure the potential crime scene or location where the child was injured or dis­ covered. It is important to remember that the scene may involve more than one room in a house and may also involve the outdoors. 

✶  Officers then should assess the situation and request additional support as necessary, including more officers to help secure the scene, crisis counselors, paramedics, personnel from the coroner’s or medical examiner’s office, and the detectives or investigators who will conduct the investigation. 

✶  First responders should clear all individuals from the scene and make sure that nobody enters the area where they could tamper with or remove evidence. This can be difficult because family members may be very emotional and may not want to leave the deceased child. Patience and diplomacy will encourage cooperation from family members. 

✶  While securing the scene, first responders should be observant. They should look at what is happening and listen to what people are saying. Until the officers have time to write down their observations, they should make mental notes of anything that may be relevant. 

✶  Without attempting to conduct thorough interviews of the parents or other caretakers, the first responders should identify who discovered the child and then find out whether anyone attempted first aid or moved, dressed, or bathed the child. The officers should give this information to the investigators as soon as they arrive. 

✶  Once the scene is secure, one officer should be charged with maintaining a log of all personnel who enter the scene. The first responders should also ensure that nobody opens or closes windows, uses the commode, or disposes of anything (trash, the child’s clothing, medicine, or anything else) until the scene has been processed and photographed.

Collecting Evidence

If you suspect that a child’s life­ threatening injuries or death may be the result of maltreatment, you must act immediately to pre­ serve the crime scene and then collect any evidence. Evidence collection includes photographing the victim and searching the location where you believe the injuries occurred. Before searching any possible crime scene, be sure to determine whether a search warrant or consent to search is necessary. If you have any doubts, consult your legal advisor. In most child death cases, there is no exception to the fourth amendment requirement for a search war­ rant or a valid consent to search.

Include the following in the search of the scene:

✶  Ensure that scale diagrams are made of the layout and that photographs and/or a video are taken. Photographs should show the general location and progress to specific items of interest. 

✶  Consider as evidence prescription or over­-the­-counter medicine the child was taking and other medicine or substances the child may have ingested. If it is not practical to remove such medicine from the scene (e.g., because someone else in the household needs it), document the information on the label. 

✶  If it appears that the child may have died of malnourishment, you may want to make an inventory of the amount of baby food or formula that is present. Document and photograph what you find. 

✶  If you find evidence of the caretaker’s alcohol and/or sub­ stance abuse, carefully document and photograph your findings. Take appropriate legal action if you find illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia.

Search trash cans inside and outside the residence for possible evidence, such as bloodstained clothing; items used to clean up blood, vomit, urine, or feces; and implements used to injure the child, such as wooden spoons, belts, and electrical extension cords.


Tips and Reminders for Law Enforcement Investigators

1. Many child fatalities are initially reported as accidents or natural deaths. 

2 .An unreasonable delay in seeking medical attention is often a “red flag” that the child’s injuries may have been caused by abuse. 

3. Records of 911 calls often contain important information about what people originally reported regarding the child’s injuries. 

4 .It is not uncommon for severely injured children to die days or weeks after the original injury. Treat cases involving severe injury as potential child fatalities. 

5. Delayed deaths often involve more than one crime scene. Examine the place where the injury occurred, the hospital where the child died, and any private vehicle used to transport the child to the hospital. 

6. Coordinate and communicate with CPS investigators in child fatality cases. They have a legitimate role in the investigation, and they often have important information on the child and the family involved. 

7. Do not automatically exclude children as potential suspects. Children have been known to inflict severe injuries on other children. 

 8.The three keys to a successful child fatality investigation are effectively conducted, well documented interviews of witnesses; careful background checks of everyone involved; and competent interrogation of the suspect(s). 

9. There is no substitute for a timely, professional crime scene search, including evidence collection, documentation, and photo documentation. 

10. If criminal charges are filed, properly prepare for your courtroom testimony and deliver it competently. 

The above are excerpts from the Investigating Child Death booklet printed by NJC 2005   a link to the entire download can be found here 


About the Author
Darren is a 30 year veteran of law enforcement and criminal investigations. He currently serves as an investigator for the Crawford County Missouri coroner’s office. He holds credentials as an instructor for the Missouri Sheriff’s Training Academy, has served as president of the Missouri Medical Examiners and Coroners Association, and is certified and credentialed in numerous fields of investigation. He holds the position of lead instructor and facilitator for the Coroner Talk™ community as he speaks and writes in the area of death investigation and scene management.

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