Trigger warning: child loss
Whenever I used to think of Child Protective Services (CPS), I believed it to be a safe-haven for struggling families. And although that is true in a multitude of cases, sometimes the system is flawed.
Back in those days of naivety, my family lived a relatively normal and happy life. I worked part-time, my husband worked full-time, we had three incredible boys, and all of our non-work time was spent catering to their specific needs.
Then my youngest son died from SIDS.
Our life was flipped upside down in an instant, and we were left to sift through the wreckage.
When we found out at the hospital that our son died, there were two detectives, one of whom was the city coroner, present in the room with us when the doctor relayed the news. In fact, the ER doctor whispered to the coroner before taking us back to the private lobby to say those awful words. In that moment, I didn’t have a care left in me to give, but everything inside of me needed to know if he was alive … even though I knew, in that small room before the words were even uttered, that he was dead.
Looking back, I should have told the detectives to get lost during such a personal time when medical information was being shared. But the thought didn’t cross my mind. I was in pure and utter shock, and life didn’t seem real.
State laws govern what happens when a child dies of SIDS, including whether there is an investigation. We were so distraught the day my son died, and we wanted to figure out what caused his death, that we truly didn’t care about what needed to be done by those in law enforcement and the CPS system. We signed papers allowing law enforcement to search our house (my only request: do not touch anything of my son’s), complied with a drug test request, and were cooperative. We were in so much shock, it felt like I was being pushed through the motions instead of making informed decisions.
My husband and I were questioned individually five hours after our son died with the same two detectives who were at the hospital. The prosecuting attorney was in the room. Although they were kind and apologized for what they were about to ask, it was traumatizing.
It’s true that you really do run out of tears when you’ve cried them all dry. Being in that recorded room, those questions, and not being able to have my husband, or even just my mom, to sit with me made me feel like someone believed I’d done something wrong. It made me physically sick to my core.
I couldn’t even process what had just happened. I wanted to yank myself out of my skin and pull myself into the one that was holding my son, alive and well, just 12 hours earlier.
At this point, I was being asked to demonstrate how I was laying with him the morning he died. They asked me to use a doll, and they were recording the interrogation. I was asked the same questions on repeat in a variety of different ways. But still, I understood. “It’s their job,” I told myself over and over again while trying not to vomit through the process.
It took six weeks and one day to get my son’s autopsy report and when we did, there it was: Cause of death: Inconclusive/SIDS or SUIDS (Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Syndrome). But just below it, his autopsy read: Possible factor: co-sleeping with an adult on a sectional sofa.
There it was, and those words hit me like a million flaming daggers at once. For the next few weeks, I was left to mourn through all of that uncertainty. And for awhile, I was getting into the groove of living with this guilt I wasn’t sure I needed to carry, as well as my thousand-pound weight of grief. Our family was adapting and surviving.
And then, almost two months later, we received a phone call from the CPS case worker assigned to our family, asking if he could stop by our house to speak about our investigation. Since I knew an investigation was mandatory, I figured he was stopping by for me to sign papers closing the investigation. My husband was working, but I told the case manager to swing by anyway.
He showed up shortly after the call, and handed me documentation to sign stating that my husband and I were required to take parenting classes, to comply with unexpected home visits, and to register for CPS-mandated counseling with access to records of our session progression.
But the words in the contract that struck me most? “I, parent and/or legal guardian, hereby acknowledge that my child(ren) are in immediate danger and at risk of removal if these terms are not adhered to.”
As you can probably imagine, that’s all it took for one protective and grieving mama bear to say hell-to-the-freaking-no.
Their reasoning for pursuing my case? I was co-sleeping with my son the morning he died.
I’d read about this happening. I knew this could happen, but it was actually happening to me. In 2015, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services workers went to the home of nine-month-old “Baby H” only nine hours after she had died with a pillow in her crib. According to the report filed, the mother was “distraught and unable to answer questions” when the case worker then moved on to the two, older surviving children, asking them about their living conditions. All of this done on the day of the child’s death, after thorough questioning had taken place from the coroner and no foul-play was suspected from X-rays photographed.
According to Inspector General of DCFS Denise Kane, coroners and law enforcement have enough knowledge to indicate whether there is neglect or abuse in the event of a child’s death while sleeping, and just because an unexpected death occurred, does not mean investigations need to be opened.
In memos exchanged between Kane and then-Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, Kane wrote, “Investigating parents for abuse and neglect solely because a child died unexpectedly during sleep is intrusive and harmful to families and should not be allowed. Parents and siblings are grieving when DCFS knocks on the door to announce they are investigating the family for causing the infant’s death by neglect.”
When I realized the magnitude of it all, that my was family really was being put under the microscope for what was deemed as “unsafe sleep,” my husband and I requested a meeting with a supervisor to discuss the paperwork we had not signed.
We met, and I was greeted with coldness and, to be frank, bullshit. She did not express her condolences for our loss, but did look at me like I was an inadequate mom while presenting us with the same terms as before. Only this time, she had crossed out the sentence that said our kids were in danger and at risk of removal. But to me, that wasn’t good enough, and they were adding so much insult to injury.
When I asked her why this was being done, she blankly replied, “You co-slept with your son, and he died. It says it right here in the autopsy report.”
Co-sleeping was noted as a possible contributing factor. But in an autopsy report, every detail must be accounted for. Among that one sentence found, there’s also at least one hundred others which do not favor that possibility. The medical professionals surrounding my son’s case were thorough and uncertain. They and I do not know how he died. But, somehow, this CPS official I’ve met once, who can’t even recount the details of my son’s death, is now all-knowing in the areas involving my his death?
I think not.
In that depleted, raging, offended and grieving state, all I could think to reply to her was, “But I don’t have an infant anymore. What more do you want from me?”
Ultimately, we hired an attorney the next day who evaluated our case and told us CPS didn’t have a leg to stand on with pursuing their investigation, and a judge would throw out our case quickly. I contacted one of the detectives on my case about the situation, and he said, “Let me see what I can do about this.” He didn’t call me back, but we later received a letter in the mail four days later indicating that our case was being sent off to the state’s office for authorization to close four days later.
Now that it’s all said and done, I don’t have CPS breathing down my neck about my family’s way to grieve. Those moments of my life, though they shouldn’t, carry with them so much shame. This is the first time I’m able to express what happened, but I wish I could tell more.
For the longest time, even after we received that Willy Wonka gold ticket in the mail (the case-closed letter), I couldn’t grieve my child’s death, because I was so worried about the uncertainty of this process and how it might affect my surviving children in the days to come.
Through it all, I’ve come out stronger, but I wouldn’t wish the unnecessary trauma CPS unleashed on my grieving family on any bereaved parent in this world.
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