No one should have to endure and experience the death of a child, particularly when a child is such an early age. However, there are factors that would tend to redirect the focus of the death of the child to more scientific reasons rather than just mere negligence. True, there are situations that criminal angles are factors in the death of these infants, but whether these were in control of their faculties’ remains to be discussed. The paper seeks to determine the reasons behind “sudden infant death syndrome,” the possible scientific and legal foundations, and when can these be separated from unintentional death to deliberate taking of the life of the child.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
In the definition given by Minnesota- based Mayo Clinic, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is the “unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old.” SIDS can also be termed as “crib death” as the infants perish in their cribs. Though the trigger of SIDS is still relatively unknown, researchers at the facility believe that the conditions are related to deformities in the brain of the child that regulates the child’s breathing and waking activities (Mayo Clinic, 2014, p. 1).
In addition to “sleep arousal” problems of the child, another theorized cause of SIDS is the failure of the body of the infant to identify an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. Since the recommendations that babies be put to bed on their backs on their sides, there has been a marked decrease in the number of cases of SIDS. Nevertheless, SIDS is still regarded as a major cause of death in the United States and is most seen in infants aged 2 to four months old. In addition, boys are more likely to die from SIDS compared to girls, and a high number of fatalities due to SIDS occur in the winter months.
Though the exact cause for SIDS has not been established, there are risk factors that can heighten the risk for a child to die from SIDS. Among these factors are letting the infant sleep on their stomachs, exposure to cigarette smoke while still unborn, sleeping with their parents, soft crib bedspreads, mothers who smoke or intake illegal drugs, poverty, and no prenatal medical attention (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2013, p. 1).
In a legal sense, deaths owing to cases of SIDS even after the performance of a postmortem examination that will include the conduct of an necropsy, the evaluation of the scene of the death of the infant, and the review of the history of the case. As mentioned earlier, males are more vulnerable to succumb to SIDS and these occur between the ages of two to four months (60 to 70 percent for male infants compared to 30 to 40 percent in female infants). It is also reported that 90 percent of all SIDS cases occur before a child reaches six (6) months of ages.
A number of jurisdictions have established “child death review” protocols that mandate the investigation of the demise of the child if the child falls under a certain age limit (Brown, 2001, 204). However, the death of an infant is regarded more under the understanding of cases of infanticide or filicide rather than file cases of “neonaticide,” a case which is not in the law books of many US jurisdictions. In this light, an examination of the exchange of law and criminal actions against children must be conducted.
In essence, there must be actions to determine variations in the law when one commits “neonaticide” and when abuse of the child that is older than 24 hours occurs. Generally, the most used defense in these cases is the insanity plea; this is not about justifying the act of the accused; rather, it is stating that the accused does not know their own actions and that these could not restrain themselves. However, what is significant in the use of the insanity plea is the difference in the approach from the traditional methodology for infanticide. In the holding of the 1843 McNaughten Rules, the benchmarks given in the Rules could not be satisfied by the women acquitted of child killing due to transient insanity.
Schwartz and Isser (2012, p. 5) note that even a juvenile mother would be hard put in deducing the fact that asphyxiating her infant was wrong. However, it can be asserted in specific cases that the mother’s mental state will be in such conflict that she will be unable to comprehend the reprehensible nature of her actions against the infant. This would be more complicated, not improbable, to assert for the defendant that there are circumstances that would favor the logical reasoning of the mother.
There are other defense strategies that can be argued in cases of infanticide as well as filicide, but not neonaticide. Among these arguments include the possibility that the accused suffers from “postpartum depression” as well as “postpartum psychosis.” The latter is an extremely debatable subject that has triggered extensive and highly emotional both in the medical as well as in the legal circles. There are many women who have used this successfully to fend off criminal liability (Schwartz, Isser, 2012).
Instances of postpartum mental illnesses can result in the commission of infanticide, decreasing the culpability of the accused and therein, reduce the possible sanction against the accused. The law focuses on the factor of “stress while giving birth” as well lactation as potential generators of postpartum psychosis if the child is being breastfed. In the tenets of the 1922 Infanticide Act and the subsequent 1938 statute, the law lowered the charge for the killing of an infant from murder to one of manslaughter if it is proven that the mother was suffering from a mental illness during the time the crime was committed (Schwartz, Isser, 2012).
Katkin (1992) cited in Schwartz and Isser (2012), state that “there are no appellate court decisions addressing the status of postpartum psychosis as a defense in infanticide cases.” One of the key elements in this argument has been proffered by Williamson (1993) that seems to be inclined towards the argument of Dalton (1989) that features the four-part condition of “postpartum psychosis: “baby blues,” “postnatal exhaustion,” “post natal depression,” and “puerperal psychosis.”
Dalton notes that “baby blues” can be connected to a dearth of support the mother has owing to premature discharge from the hospital after delivering the baby. With the proliferation of “managed care” in the United States medical sector, majority of hospitals in the United States discharge the mothers within a period of 24 to 48 hours; here, with the restricted confinement statistics, there is a definite absence of professional care to help in the care of the new mothers (Schwartz, Isser, 2014).
However, there are a number of cases that can be difficult in distinguishing whether the death of the infant died from a “natural unexplained death,” “an unintentional or accidental infant death,” and lastly, an “unnatural [or deliberate] infant death.” Contemporary literature that proffered that the indicators of possible apprehension for an unusual death instance should be increased, specifically in family units where there have been previous instances of SIDS.
Statistics in the commission of infanticide in cases that have listed as SIDS varies from lower than one percent to approximately 5 percent. Parents of a number of infants with intermittent “apparent life-threatening events (ALTEs) have been noted trying to smother and hurt their child. However, as mentioned earlier, it is extremely difficult to differentiate the bodies of infants that died as a result of SIDs and those that died owing from intentional suffocation. However, there are indicators that can point to the probability that the child died as a result of an intentional action. One, there have been previous instances of these types of deaths in the family, almost concurrent deaths of twins, indications of prior “pulmonary hemorrhage,” and repeated instances of cyanosis or ALTEs that is confined to instances when the infant is in the care of a particular person.
Negligence attending the differentiation of instances of mortal child abuse or other associated factors of death from SIDS commands a high toll. In the omission of a postmortem evaluation, the investigation of the facts attending the case, and the thorough examination of the case, instances of child abuse is overlooked, hereditary illnesses are missed, and threats to the public health are not noticed. Unless the needed toxicological examinations are done, infant mortality caused by unintentional or intentional poisoning will be overlooked.
For example, one set of data sets done on still born and newborns in California in the early part of the 1990s discovered that 17 out of 43 babies (40 percent) who passed away before these reached 2 days showed positive exposure to cocaine. However, instances of SIDS or child abuse are not a novel occurrence. There are cases where children that have been subjected to nonlife threatening child abuse will succumb to SIDS. If appropriate studies and investigations are not done, then probable cases of child abuse can be overlooked, needed criminal investigations will not be done and the parties that contributed to the death of infants will be allowed to remain free (Hymel, 2006, p. 1).
In this light, it is arguable whether a mother that harms or kills her child should be punished for the crime of neonatocide or should these be treated. In cases of pregnant women, if these should fail to recognize her condition and then plans for her delivery is a threat to the health of the infant. Though the mother’s disposition before giving birth is legal and accidental, when the infant is born, the negligence of the women to get help can be considered as criminally careless or even inept since the parent/s have a legal obligation to provide medical care for the infant, as stated by Oberman (1996) (Schwartz, Isser, 2014).
Brown, M. F (2001). Criminal investigation: law and practice. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
Hymel, K.P. (2006). “Distinguishing sudden death infant death syndrome from child abuse fatalities.” American Academy of Pediatrics Volume 118 number 1 pp. 421-427
Mayo Clinic (2014). “Sudden death infant syndrome (SIDS).” Retrieved 20 October 2014 from <http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sudden-infant-death-syndrome/basics/definition/con-20020269
National Center for Biotechnology Information (2013). “Sudden infant death syndrome.” Retrieved 20 October 2014 from <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002533/
Schwartz, L.L., Isser, N.K. (2nd ed) (2012). Endangered children: homicide and other crimes. Boca Raton: CRC Press