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

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posted on 2023-06-08, 18:33 authored by Denise Mary Turner
My research takes a psychosocial approach to exploring parents’ experiences of professional intervention in the aftermath of sudden, unexpected child death. In the UK all deaths of this nature are immediately subject to a Rapid Response, which includes forensic investigation, followed by a series of subsequent meetings and the obligation on professionals is to treat parents as guilty whilst also maintaining their innocence. These requirements were part of a number of recommendations arising from the Report, ‘Sudden, Unexpected Death in Childhood’ (2004) known colloquially as the Kennedy Report, which was a response to the release on Appeal of three mothers, all wrongfully imprisoned for killing their children. One of the explicit purposes of the Kennedy Report is to avoid similar cases and it therefore 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. As a part of achieving this, the Report identifies a need for appropriate training to assist professionals in becoming sensitised to emotions being experienced by parents, in order that culpability or otherwise may be easier to discern. 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 thereby increases the risk of potential errors of professional judgement. 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 combine both the workings of the psyche and the social without diminishing or conflating either. 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 unexpected results produced by the panels forms a significant contribution to knowledge which is also identified. 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 make a number of recommendations including changing the language of investigation and developing opportunities for open dialogue between professionals and parents. I also identify several original contributions made by this work, both methodologically and more substantively, which are partly evidenced by the attention it has already received within academic and wider audiences. Amongst these, the research has formed the basis of a number of Conferences presentations, a journal paper, national newspaper article and a guest appearance on BBC Radio 4. As a conclusion to the thesis I identify a need for additional in-depth research in this area, together with a re-visiting of the recommendations arising from the Kennedy Report, aimed at further policy change and improving the experiences of all those involved with sudden, unexpected child deaths.


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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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