When our son, Mason, died last June we experienced anguish like we’ve never known. At 4 months old he passed away unexpectedly during his afternoon nap. In the minutes, hours, days, weeks and months that followed his death we witnessed firsthand just how broken the current system is. The victimization we felt was something I never want another family to experience. I realized that the confusion and additional trauma could be minimized if there was a standard method in place, a parent’s bill of rights protecting everyone from injustice.
While I understand the reasoning behind the need for an investigation, I have come to learn through our loss and that of many others that there is no set precedent that guides law enforcement, first responders, hospitals, social workers, clergy or parents. That means, in many cases, there is no defined set of instructions on how to properly investigate WHILE remaining compassionate and respecting the rights of the families that have experienced a tragic loss.
Sudden unexplained death is the most common cause of death between 1 and 6 months of age and peaks between 2 and 4 months of age. Approximately 90% of SIDS deaths occur before the age of 6 months but many parents of such deaths are persecuted when infanticide is actually the lowest statical cause of death. The treatment is an infringement on basic human rights and the rights as a parent. Because of this we have been working to establish Mason’s Mandate; a method that sets legal precedent for the procedures that should follow the death of an infant.
Mason’s Mandate would involve several directives but possibly the most crucial would require all unexplained and non-traumatic deaths are taken to the emergency room, regardless of time of death. By transporting to the hospital there is an unbiased physician that can examine the infant and evaluate if there are any obvious injuries or something that looks suspicious. As a trained medical professional they can give their preliminary findings immediately. It can take months for an autopsy report and an official cause of death to be determined so this would also prove helpful during an investigation as law enforcement could know sooner if there was any suspicion surrounding the cause of death. While police officers and detectives are trained to investigate the “crime scene” they are not medically trained and therefore can not give a proper perspective on preliminary causes of death. If the coroner finds something concerning they can also compare their findings to the notes from the emergency room physician.
There are additional benefits for transporting the infant to the hospital as well. When the parent or care-giver finds the infant unresponsive and calls 911, the baby is often taken from their arms by first responders within minutes. In many cases this is the last time the parent holds their baby until after the autopsy. The infant has already passed and first responders know this but there is a whirlwind of confusion as parents’ try to orientate themselves with what is happening. The family is entitled to an opportunity to see and hold the infant once death has been pronounced. This right is commonly the very first to be stripped away from parents as the baby’s body becomes classified as “evidence.” At the hospital trained professionals are on hand to explain the death and provide a controlled environment for parents to hold their baby one last time. This also provides a non-threatening place where detectives can proceed with their investigation. The infant’s pediatrician or family physician should be contacted immediately to give initial insight to past behavior and medical history. Additionally, if the family has religious affiliation, a clergy person should also be called on their behalf. These professionals would also serve as the appropriate people to advocate for the family as well as provide them information about counseling and community programs that can provide further support. Providing the family with grief support and respect should morally be the standard of care but unfortunately supportive approach to parents during the death review process is often neglected.
Additionally, Mason’s Mandate would create protocol for the hospital that would further help in addressing how and when to assist in the many issues that require attention, such as providing a respectable room where parents can hold their baby, resources for grief counseling and religious support, the opportunity to baptize the baby, guidance for funeral arrangements, cessation of breastfeeding, and assistance in handling the reactions of surviving siblings and other family members.
The mandate would essentially provide explanation of parents’ legal rights so that all parties know what to expect; parents, family, hospital personnel and law enforcement. When we lost our son the hospital had no standard procedure because there simply wasn’t one. They just did what the police told them to do. The appropriate professional response to any child death by police and investigators must be compassionate, empathic, supportive, and non accusatory. Inadvertent comments, as well as necessary questioning by medical personnel and investigators, are likely to cause additional stress. It is important for those in contact with parents during this time to be supportive while at the same time conducting a thorough investigation. It is our hope that Mason’s Mandate will help accomplish that.