Michelle’s Story of the Death of a Child on Her Caseload

Michelle had recently completed her MSW and was working on the west coast in an urban child protective agency.  An infant born with cocaine in its system was placed by the court in the home of its maternal aunt.  The aunt had six other children and was doing a satisfactory job of childrearing.  She maintained good supports for herself and the children in the community, including regular medical care.  Michelle visited on a monthly basis; on a Thursday, the aunt stopped by her office unexpectedly while on an errand to pick up some documents.  The baby, now seven months old, was bundled up nicely and appeared to be fine.  On the following weekend, however, while attending a Christmas party, Michelle was contacted by her agency and informed that the infant was dead…  The police were not able to determine who had killed the baby; however, it was Michelle’s suspicion that the aunt’s paramour, who it was learned had been clandestinely living in the home, had battered the infant.  A year later after the aunt’s flight and eventual arrest and questioning by the police, the aunt adamantly refused to answer any questions, perhaps fearing to implicate paramour.  Instead she accepted manslaughter charges (failing to protect the infant) and willingly served a prison sentence of less than a year.

Following are Michelle’s paraphrased responses in an interview, conducted by the director of this film project, which addresses key aspects of the case and its impact upon the social worker.

I had just seen the baby two days before he died. And I kept asking myself if I had held the baby then, would I have noticed something unusual.  Maybe the baby would have been uncomfortable and I would have undressed it and checked its body.  At the time, the aunt told me he had a little cold but was fine, and he looked ok.  I kept asking myself though if there was something I had left unaddressed.  I needed someone to tell me I had done everything that I could have done.

It seemed to me that no one really cared about this infant’s death.  The police hardly did anything.  Nobody was outraged!  After 24 hours it became a low priority.  I felt that if the child had not been in child welfare, the police would have taken it more seriously.  There was a little two paragraph article in the paper.  At the time there had been a drive by shooting of a four year old child who died.  This story had major headlines for several days.  I believe it is because this other child had parents.  I wanted someone to notice the infant’s murder and to say, “It’s not ok!”  I wanted people to ask what happens to someone who murders children??

I was at a party when I received the call about the infant’s death.  Some of my fellow workers were there, and they let me cry and told me they understood.

On the next day at work, my supervisor called me into his office.  He offered sympathy and told me I was a good social worker.  Also, he told me he had never had a child die on his caseload before and he didn’t really know what to say.  I had no real sense that he understood how you blame yourself.  He had not really dealt with the death of a child and it was hard to talk about.

He explained some forms I needed to fill out which were a request for funds for the infant’s funeral.  I had to get in touch with the funeral parlor and make arrangements, then fill out some court documents and give information to the coroner.

There were several other people in the agency that had lost children, including a friend of mine who had lunch with me every day of the week after the child died.  Some of these other people also called or stopped by.  They kept telling me that of course you did everything that you could, until I began to feel that it was ok.  It took three or four months, though, for this thing to close over.

I attended the funeral.  The natural mother was there and turned around and gave me this “death stare,” as if it were my fault that her baby was dead.  That terrorized me.

In our agency, there were about seven of us who had lost children.  We talked about developing a way to contact each other if another staff member had a child who died, in order to offer support and give aid.  There was for example no one in my unit who offered information at the time.  Some of these seven people, however, didn’t really want to deal with the subject, at least not formally.  It was still hard for them to talk about it.

During these first few months when the police would call or when the coroner’s report came, the pain was reopened for me.  I had to keep asking for the coroner to send the report for the record.  When it arrived, it had 35 pages of detailed description about the battering.  I had not realized that it was so gross.  I cried for a long time.

….

Our county had a Child Death Review Team which examined every kind of child death in the county.  This was a multiagency team made up of the police, the coroner’s office, the children and youth agency, the hospitals, and others.  One of their representatives talked with me.  She was friendly and offered information about support groups I might want to attend.  She asked me to obtain the autopsy report, and she said she would assist me with this, if I needed help.  I assume that they wrote a final report, but I am not aware of it.  There was no other official state review of the case or the case record to my knowledge.  There was nothing punitive about it.

The major impact of this child’s death for me was that it made me question my ability.  I was always thinking about what I should have done that I hadn’t done.  Part of me kept saying you can never do everything.  But I picked up every baby after that.  When I make home visits and not all of the children are at home for me to see or when a mother is hard to contact, I insist on seeing the children after a couple of days.

I never really felt that I was at fault.  There was very little I could have done differently.  But it would have helped if someone in authority, like my supervisor or an administrator, had said, “You did what you could, you did well…”

Sometime later I attended a workshop called “The Critical Incident Debriefing Team,” which helps professionals such as policemen, firemen, and rescue squad operators after they have witnessed a tragedy.  In a one or two hour interview, someone takes the person step by step through what they have experienced.  They ask you to talk about each thing that happened and what were you thinking and feeling.  No one went over things in this kind of detail with me at the time the infant died.  I think I needed that or a death support group…