One family speaks out about how investigations can harm instead of help
Seven month old Insaan usually slept with his mom. But around 11 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2019, an exhausted Serena Bhaduri headed straight to bed. She left her husband and Insaan in the living room where her son was perched comfortably in a baby swing.
She knew Insaan was a good baby, and all seemed fine around 2 a.m. when Bhaduri woke up briefly and grabbed a popsicle. A gym buddy recently mentioned her daughter slept four or five hours at a time at Insaan’s age, and she wondered if her son had reached a new milestone.
By 5 a.m., though, Bhaduri’s engorged breasts told her something was wrong. She went to the living room to find her son in his swing with blood coming from his nose and mouth. He likely passed away around 12:30 a.m.
Soon, the medical examiner would rule his cause of his death undetermined. And later, official documents would indicate he died from sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
But for now, Bhaduri “kept thinking if he’d been with me, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
According to the CDC, 3,600 infants like Insaan died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2017. Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUIDs) occur among infants less than 1 year old and have no clear cause before investigation. The three most common types are sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed, and undetermined or unknown cause. Experts say parents can take steps to prevent unexpected infant deaths. Some examples are to quit smoking, place infants on their backs for sleep, and remove loose bedding around sleeping babies. A full list of recommendations can be found here.
Bhaduri was distraught, grappling with the death of her second-born, and completely unprepared for what came next: a months-long investigation by the New York City Police Department and the city’s Office of Children and Family Services.
Bhaduri and her husband endured months of regular interrogations about the events on Jan. 10 and about their ability to parent in general. Their eldest son, now 5, was observed twice a month by child services workers at his school and their apartment. Bhaduri worried she’d lose him, too.
“Our child was a seemingly healthy seven-week-old one day and he passed away the next day,” Bhaduri said. “I completely understand the need for an investigation, but the way it’s done feels pretty heartless and unnecessary. And it doesn’t solve anything. All it did was make things worse for us.”
Ten months after that terrible night, and three months after the investigation cleared Bhaduri and her husband, NYPD has yet to return their possessions – phones, computers, cameras, and precious Christmas pictures with Insaan – that are scattered in storage across the city. Recently, Bhaduri had to visit Surrogate’s Court because police incorrectly listed her infant son as the owner of some of the items they took.
A Game with No Rules
There are no national standardized protocols for handling infant death scene investigations and autopsies, and families often face further distress as they interact with law enforcement officials.
“Doll reenactments, which require parents to replay the last hours of their child’s life with a doll are, for example, considered the gold standard for SIDS investigations and some say are helpful to bereaved families,” says Joyal Mulheron, founder of Evermore a nonprofit focused on policy advocacy for bereaved families.
“Our review of the literature doesn’t match up with those assertions. There is no research stating that doll reenactments are therapeutic for families. Given the sensitivity and vulnerability of parents during the immediate aftermath, death scene investigators should take every precaution that their actions can carry significant and long-term health implications for families.”
“When these investigations aren’t handled well, such as in the case of Bhaduri, functional coping is almost impossible, if not insurmountable. It’s like being victimized all over again,” Mulheron says.
In the case of Bhaduri, this secondary victimization began in the early morning hours after she and her husband called 911. Police officers and emergency workers crowded into her small apartment. They were sympathetic at first, but their demeanor quickly changed. Bhaduri sensed her husband was suspected of something. Detectives, who had not yet procured a warrant, arrived and separated Bhaduri and her husband to await the medical examiner.
The family waited for hours, their dead son stretched on a table in her home. Finally, the medical examiner arrived and asked Bhaduri to use a doll to recreate the last night of her son’s life. Hysterical by that time, Bhaduri refused reenactment.
Detectives eventually produced a search warrant and requested the couple go to the station to make a statement. Bhaduri’s husband called a lawyer.
Investigators remained inside the family’s apartment for nearly 24 hours after the initial 911 call was placed. Within a week, Bhaduri’s family was again separated and interviewed for five hours each. “It felt like they were accusing us of bad parenting with our 4-year-old,” she said.
These early interrogations launched regular official visits that continued until the summer. Child services officials told Bhaduri that preliminary results were favorable, and the family awaited the toxicology report that would bring the investigation to a close.
Bhaduri got pregnant in the months since, and requested a copy of her son’s autopsy for review by her doctor. That’s when she learned the case was closed. In fact, the case was officially closed June 27, but the family has yet to hear anything from the police or children’s services.
Bhaduri is sharing her story because she wants to bring light to the ordeal families face when an infant dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Mothers often blame themselves for their child’s death — for whatever reason. It’s a lesson Bhaduri has learned since joining Compassionate Friends, a support group for bereaved parents. These “standard procedures” and long, drawn-out investigations, she said, do more harm than good. For her, she said, “it further cemented those feelings” of blame.
Said Bhaduri: “Everything after that night has been horrific to me.”