Friday, 20 April 2012

SIDS and social class: a hunch, about hunches

Does anyone know of studies comparing incidences of parents being accused of child abuse following the death of their child (by SIDS or other invisible causes), and the parents' (perceived or actual) social class?

It's just a hunch. I was snoozing gently to the sound of this story on Radio 4, and was prodded out of slumber by the incongruous effect of the sound of a broad London accent on the Today Programme. Rohan Wray and Chana Al-Alas - both young, both of colour, and Mr Wray has an accent socially coded "poor" - were accused of abusing their baby, Jayden, following his death aged 4 months. This was in 2009. They've finally been cleared and are planning to sue UCH and Great Ormond Street for failing to diagnose Jayden's severe case of rickets.

This area is really fucking complicated, and decisions - and convictions - are often based on appallingly bad logic. The choice of whether or not to investigate a sudden, unexplained death further could be made on little more than a gut instinct. And gut instincts are mostly made up of unexamined prejudice.

We love to project negative qualities onto working class people. "They" are uncouth, violent, racist, uncultured, uneducated and generally unseemly: and more likely to abuse their children. So all else being equal, I'm willing to bet that people in authority (doctors, police officers, social workers, etc) would be more likely to treat this kind of death as suspicious if they perceived the parents as being poor.

It gets even more complicated when you consider that there are possible reasons for SIDS occurring more often in working class households: poverty itself is a risk factor, for example; also, working class people are more likely to smoke, and smoking inside the house has been strongly linked with SIDS.

This hits pretty close to home: my parents' second child died of SIDS. Had they not been so acceptably middle class (and had this tragedy occurred in the 90s/00s - reactions to these deaths has changed massively, and frequently, since 1900), I could have spent my first few years in care while they battled desperately to clear their names.

It's a shitty horrible mess and for once I have literally no solution to suggest: one of the major problems is that we don't know what the problem is; whether the wider trend is "child abuse going unpunished", or "innocent parents being accused of crimes that were never committed", or both. (Obviously both occur - but we don't know whether either are an epidemic, occurring over whatever could be called an acceptable minimum.) We don't know enough about why children die in these circumstances, so we don't know what to look for; a thorough understanding of the phenomenon - and of statistical probabilities - could form the basis of guidelines for assessing the likelihood of foul play.

It's not my area. I'm in no position to draw up a comprehensive national policy on SIDS, child abuse, state intervention in family life and the operation of the Crown Prosecution Service. (Which sucks! Because Clause 1 would be "Every child must receive, at birth, a large trust fund and a small racing llama".) But it's worth looking into this stuff, because it's easy to forget that those nasty little prejudices lurking at the back of your mind aren't just about being a bit mean to people. They can get people locked up. They can get people dead.

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