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Thomas Hargrove: Infant death investigations

"Saving Babies: Exposing Sudden Infant Death" was a 14-month project using mortality records maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Analysis of 40,000 mysterious infant deaths over a 12-year period disclosed chaotic procedures police and coroners use to investigate unexpected deaths that usually are diagnosed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The project went further, finding that Child Death Review Boards can have a powerful impact on infant death investigations, dramatically increasing the detection of infant homicides and accidental suffocations.

The study concluded that a growing number of coroners who follow federal standards for infant death investigations find that most babies are dying in avoidable accidents from unsafe sleeping environments and not from SIDS. Read the series online

How did you get started? (tip, editor assignment, etc.)
Database reporter Thomas Hargrove used the CDC files to test the effectiveness of a 2002 campaign by the Consumer Product Safety Commission warning parents of the "dangers of the adult bed" for infants. Despite the campaign (or because of it) the numbers of infants found to have suffocated in bed rose dramatically. Even odder, Florida reported three times more infant strangulations in 2004 than did California, even though California has nearly three times more infants. We decided the "Florida mystery" was sufficient grounds to launch a national reporting project.

What were the key sources? (people, documents, etc.)
We were given extraordinary access to the top policy makers on infant deaths: John Kattwinkel, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics SIDS Task Force, Carrie Shapiro-Mendoza, head of CDC's Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Investigation Task Force and Teri Covington, director of the National Center for Child Death Review. Primary data came from CDC's massive mortality database.

What was the biggest roadblock you had to overcome?
The worst headache came from the New York State Health Department, which refused to comment on why SIDS deaths declined by more than 90 percent from 1994 to 2004. After three months of silence, we decided to contact all 60 coroners' offices in the state of New York asking how many cases of SIDS cases they'd reported in 2004. Although only half were able to produce a count separate from state records, we documented that New York had at least double the official count of 23 SIDS deaths that year. State authorities were re-writing local diagnoses, changing most SIDS declarations to "death by cause or causes unknown." To this day, they have declined to say why.

Do you have any advice for journalists working on a similar story?
Patience. If you get a story that has the potential to save human lives, urge your editors to give you necessary time, perhaps months, to understand the issue and work to a solution.

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