We have all seen that episode of Law and Order SVU where Olivia and Elliot dramatically announce that the forensic results determined that the baby died of… SIDS.
SIDS stands for “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” According to Kid’s Health, “SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of an infant who is younger than 1 year old.” Phoenix Children’s Hospital states that SIDS is also known as “crib death” because most deaths occur while the baby is sleeping, or left unattended, in a crib.
While SIDS sounds horrifying, it is not a “real” diagnosis. SIDS is what forensic analysts claim happened to the child when they cannot figure out why the baby died. SIDS is somewhat complicated to fully explain and understand. There is now an overarching acronym of SUID, which stands for Sudden Unexplained Infant Death. SUID is used when medical examiners have completed a thorough scene investigation and forensic exam, but cannot tell if the baby died of suffocation or some other malady. Hence, the cause of death was undetermined… or some would still say the baby died of SIDS. But really, SIDS is more closely described as the absence of a known cause of death, rather than an actual medical diagnosis.
The American SIDS Institution states, “Since there is usually no way to tell the difference between suffocation and SIDS at the autopsy, the scene investigation is of utmost importance.” The investigators use doll reenactments to determine and clarify what caused the infant’s death. This means there is no scientific way to prove SIDS was the cause, and the determination often results from a glorified form of role playing.
A conclusion that a child died from “SIDS” is not scientifically factual, but a “catch-all” when there is no explanation for an infant’s death. Unfortunately, widespread misconceptions about SIDS and SUID prevail in law enforcement and the learned professions.
Alternatively, SIDS is often used as a “placeholder” explanation for an infant’s death while police and the Arizona Department of Child Services (“DCS”) investigate the tragedy for parental or caretaker misconduct. This is truly the most dangerous form of “SIDS” because a forensically trained detective attempting to recreate the scene of an infant’s death may abide pseudoscience in his analysis and bring charges for wrongdoing that did not actually occur.
Picture the scene from Law and Order where detectives begin to question the parents or guardians after the detectives reenact the incident. The questioning always seem to occur in the room in which the child passed away. Viewers feel a chill go down their spine by watching the parents try to answer difficult questions in their time of pain. The parents’ answers to those difficult questions impact whether charges are filed or the case is dismissed for the tragedy it is.
Facing prosecution for a major felony and a DCS investigation are the last things a parent or caretaker are prepared to handle after experiencing the death of an infant in their care.
The bottom line is that sometimes babies die in inexplicable ways, and coming to this realization allows parents or caretakers to begin coping with their loss. Focusing on the scientific reasoning does not bring the child back, and labeling the loss as “SIDS” does just that: labels the death.
Before making any decisions about your future after a tragedy, including legal decisions and answering questions from the police, reach out to a qualified attorney who understands the ramifications of a false allegation.