Telling the story: what can be learned from parents' experience of the professional response following the sudden, unexpected death of a child?

Turner, Denise (2013) Telling the story: what can be learned from parents' experience of the professional response following the sudden, unexpected death of a child? Doctoral thesis, University of Sussex.


My research explores parents' experience of professional intervention following sudden, unexpected child death. In the UK all deaths of this nature are subject to a Rapid Response, which includes forensic investigation, followed by a series of subsequent meetings. These procedures were part of a number of recommendations arising from the Report,’ Sudden, Unexpected Death in Childhood’ (2004) known colloquially as the Kennedy Report. This was a response to the miscarriages of justice of three mothers, all wrongfully imprisoned for killing their children and subsequently freed on Appeal.

The Kennedy Report places great emphasis on avoiding similar cases and attempts to address the complexity of balancing every parent’ s right to have their child’s death properly investigated , with the requirement to protect children who may be at risk. It also identifies a need for appropriate training to assist professionals in becoming sensitised to emotions being experienced by parents. Despite this, the Working Party for the Kennedy Report did not include parents and this lack of direct access to their experiences is reflected in the wider field. Parents are not allowed to participate in any of the multidisciplinary meetings which follow sudden, unexpected, child death and their narratives are largely absent from literature and training material. This makes achieving the form of emotional understanding between parents and professionals advocated by the Kennedy Report difficult and thus increases the risk of future miscarriages of justice.

This study aims to restore the voices of parents to the field of sudden unexpected child death, by engaging directly with the emotional complexity and trauma of the experience and thereby improving practice. The research is based on eight in-depth interviews with parents, who have experienced the sudden, unexpected death of their child, together with investigation, but no accompanying charges.

The research was prompted both by my previous role as a social worker, but primarily by my experience of investigation following the sudden unexpected death of my son Joe. My account of his death and the experiences which led me to undertake this research are offered within Chapter One and thereafter run as a thread throughout.

Drawing on Hollway (2009) I have used a psychosocial approach within this thesis, ‘to hold together an understanding of the workings of the psyche and the social without reducing one to the other.’ This has enabled me to locate my experience and that of the parents within the thesis, as part of a wider exploration of how parents may be positioned and perceived following a sudden, unexpected child death.

The research uses a narrative, interpretive methodology which draws from the Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method (Wengraf, 2011) and the Listening Guide (Doucet & Mauthner, 2008). Data analysis panels were used as part of the interpretive process and they are discussed and critiqued.

The thesis concludes that current cultural debates around ‘good death’, together with heightened anxieties about safeguarding children may lead to the construction of sudden unexpected child death as ‘dangerous knowledge’ (Cooper & Lousada, 2005). Returning to the emotional understanding advocated by the Kennedy Report, I recommend changing the language of investigation, together with developing opportunities for open dialogue between professionals and parents, in order to improve the experience of sudden, unexpected, child death. I also identify a need for further research in this area, particularly where this concerns the effect of the Rapid Response on surviving children and parent’s continuing capacity to care for them.

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