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Infant death investigations
By Michael Perez
Aurora (Ill.) Police Department (ret.)
Cops are, by nature and by action, protectors of children. Many cops are themselves parents, which makes the sordid details of cases involving child victims that much more disturbing. Normally hardened officers are brought to tears when they see the evil that people are capable of inflicting on their own children. In fact, I often had my hands full trying to calm down the first responding officers to control their outrage and anger, when they first arrived at the scene of a child death. I would remind them that the greatest justice we could do for the victim at that point is good police work.
It happens all too often
It begins with a young man at home with his infant daughter. They are alone, and he is left in charge. We don’t know where mom is, but let’s assume she might be at work. Not at all uncommon for many families in which both husband and wife have to work full-time jobs just to pay the bills.
In these United States, one must possess a license to drive a car, sell liquor, possess a firearm, or sell magazines door-to-door. I am not aware of any state that mandates licensing individuals in order to become parents. Understand that, in a purely technical sense, only the biological components to achieve procreation are necessary in order to become a mother or a father to a child. It is the process (or lack thereof) of parenting that ultimately determines the fate and future of the child.
So here is dad with his five-year-old daughter. Perhaps he was a proud as a peacock the day she was born. Perhaps he promised himself he would be a better parent than his own were to him. Then again, perhaps he saw his daughter as a burden on him, on his time, on his relationship, on his personal freedom. Any of these or none of these may have been on dad’s mind that day when his daughter started crying.
My wife and I have two grown children, and I can assure you that a crying infant can be as alarming and unsettling as a poke in the ear with a sharp stick. It is the degree of individual self-control and maturity, that we as parents are able to summon up at that point, which allows us to endure the noise while attending to the needs of the child.
So his daughter is crying. And she won’t stop. And nothing he does seem to help. But then, the worst thing that could happen occurs. He allows his frustration to become anger at the child. And in that single solitary moment, a man with perhaps not a vicious bone in his body, acts. He lifts his own infant flesh and blood, shakes her, and slams her into a hard surface. Ending her life before it ever had a chance to start.
Now, the daughter is a victim, the father is facing trial for her death, and God himself only knows what effect this has had on the mother or the rest of the extended family.
What we know, what we must investigate
In my time as a Juvenile Investigator, I have personally interviewed many suspects like the father in this story. They described their anger, their frustration at being put in the caretaker position. They were emotionally broken as they talked about their personal and financial problems.
Some tried to minimize the impact their physical actions had upon the victim. Some tried to blame the mother for not being there and putting them in that position. It was the blamers that were the hardest not to reach across the interview room desk and slap across the face.
This data, obtained by the author from the Web site www.aboutshakenbaby.com, shows the cruel reality that statistically speaking, the death of an infant is overwhelmingly at the hands of the parents. (PoliceOne Image)
Not a single one of them had gotten out of bed that morning, brushed their teeth, and planned the murder of their own child. But none of them could explain what snapped inside them to motivate such a horrible act.
Friends and family will mourn the life of a loved one cut far too short. Maybe prayer vigils will be conducted. Maybe makeshift memorials will be erected near the victim’s home. Maybe people, in their automatic outrage, will demand that the police, the government, or anybody else other than themselves, do something to prevent this type of tragedy.
Alas, this, too, shall pass. The public’s concern for the victim is soon replaced by yet another media event that demands their opinion and outrage. More children will be born into this world. And this will happen again.
According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 children are injured or killed by shaking every year in the United States. More than 300 U.S. babies die each year from being shaken.
As an investigator, I tried to learn whatever I could from interviewing the people involved in these cases. Not just in order to make the case, but to establish some pattern of potential predictability based upon the nature of relationships, and upon the environment within the home. The more certain abusive behaviors can be predicted, the better chance we have at possibly preventing them. For example, whether or not the father is married to the mother, or whether or not the father lives in the home with the mother and the victim.
The average age of a Shaken Baby Syndrome victim is three to eight months of age. Males are most often the victims. The most common perpetrators are males 24-27 years old. The usual trigger for shaking a baby is inconsolable crying.
A child's skull is designed to withstand bangs and bumps of low impact. Some people who would never strike a child may resort to shaking a child as a "less violent' approach with crying. More than two thirds of the SBS victims will die or suffer one or more permanent disabilities — including blindness, mental retardation, deafness, seizures, or cerebral palsy.
Medical costs associated with the initial and long-term care for survivors from $300,000 to more than $1,000,000 for the first five years of care.
According to some research, 25 to fifty 50 percent of Americans do not understand the danger of shaking a baby, nor do they realize the possible long-term consequences.
The distribution of homicides, using data from the Uniform Crime Reports Homicide Supplement, is far from uniform across age groups. Most children who are homicide victims are under age four or are adolescents. For the younger children, homicides are almost always related to the child's dependence on an adult, and most are carried out by family members or caretakers. In fact, according to infants are more likely to be killed by a family member than any other age group in the population.
The element of statistical predictability can also be established and monitored through comprehensive report-writing by the street officer, and a comprehensive follow-up investigation. If a family is in need of social service assistance in order to more effectively manage their children, a solid police report can be the instrument that allows that assistance to be delivered. It would be too easy to look unsympathetically at a family in crisis, and see them as victims of their own ignorance. When we push a little harder, when we ask that extra question, when we look around the house a little more, we build a better case to potentially protect children at risk in their homes.
Law Enforcement agencies should make the comprehensive investigation of child death cases like this one an institutional priority. When everybody knows these cases are important, from the top down, then everybody will treat these cases as important, from the top down. Collaborating with child protective agencies can provide extra information and assistance in working these kinds of cases. In cases like these, there are many people in the criminal justice system willing to help out, if we asked them.
I’ve been out of policing for a couple of years now and sometimes I’m dumb enough to believe that the job stuff is out of my system. Then I see a story like this one involving a five-month-old, and I flash back and see the victims’ faces all over again. In the model of St. Michael, the work that we as cops do to protect children is truly among the most honorable duties we perform.
God bless you all and keep you safe.
About Michael Perez
Michael Perez started his Law Enforcement career as a Sworn Officer with the Aurora, Illinois Police Department on November 1, 1976. In his 30+ year career, he worked in Uniformed Patrol, Community Policing, Investigations, and as a Police Trainer. He was awarded the Exchange Club Policeman of the Year Award in 1983, in recognition for his work that year which included the apprehension of a forcible felon while off-duty, rescuing a man from the second story of a burning house, and saving a choking victim losing consciousness through the use of the Heimlich maneuver.
In 1998, Michael began working for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board as a certified trainer for North East Multi-Regional Training (Mobile Team Unit #3). Among the courses he taught during his 15 years with NEMRT were Ethics and Professional Conduct, Community Policing, Career Survival, Career Survival for Women Officers, Career Survival for Minority Officers, Cultural Diversity, and Juvenile Officer Certification. Michael is also a Signature Certified instructor in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People through the Franklin Covey institute. Michael received a Master's Degree in Social and Criminal Justice from Lewis University in Romeoville, IL in January of 1982.
Of all the various roles he performed in his career, Michael most enjoyed his work as a Juvenile Investigator, and as a Police Trainer. Michael served for 6 years as the president of the Fox Valley Chapter of the Illinois Juvenile Officer's Association, and later as a Regional director of the ILJOA. He also achieved certification from John E. Reid and Associates in Advanced Interview and Interrogation. At APD he worked to prevent delinquent behavior through aggressive and creative enforcement techniques and initiatives, like their highly successful Peer Jury Program. In the process of working many cases involving the abuse and neglect of children, Michael came to believe that juveniles represent the largest under-represented class of citizens in the country. It was his work in support of children and families that Michael has taken the most pride.
Michael retired honorably in July of 2007 after 30 years and eight months of service to the citizens of Aurora. Since then, he is still involved in training for NEMRT, and is working towards establishing himself as an independent contractor to continue training in the Law Enforcement community. It is with great honor and pride that he will submit periodic articles for PoliceOne.