Investigation of Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Childhood

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the sudden death of an infant or young child which is unexpected by history and in which a thorough post-mortem examination fails to demonstrate an adequate cause of death. It is also known as 'cot death'.

It has long been recognised that a small proportion of sudden infant deaths result from some action by their carers, usually the parents. At its most extreme, this action may take the form of violent physical assault, but more commonly, parents may occasionally bring about the death of an infant, whether intentionally or not, by less violent means such as suffocation. Clearly it is important that such deaths are identified and thoroughly investigated and that in appropriate cases criminal proceedings are pursued.

However, deaths arising from deliberate parent or carer action constitute a small minority of SIDS deaths. The majority who lose a baby are entirely innocent. This situation poses a serious dilemma for child protection professionals. Most parents whose baby has died unexpectedly are blameless and need expert and sensitive professional help. But for the few who are responsible for the death it is important to determine the truth so that effective steps can be taken to protect other children and intervene appropriately with those involved.

LSCP endorses the principle of multi-disciplinary case discussion and information-sharing as early as possible following an unexpected infant death. An enquiry to the List of children subject to a child protection plan will be made by the police or the Coroner's office following an unexpected death. This will trigger enquiries by the CPRU of relevant agencies to ascertain relevant family history, in order to assist the Coroner's Officer who is reporting to the Pathologist carrying out the autopsy, and to assess if further support for the family is needed. In appropriate cases, the Child Protection Manager in Social Services will convene a multi-agency assessment meeting.