Detectives on the toll of investigating child deaths: it only gets harder

Abandoned Teddy-bear lying headless on concrete groundBy Alex Fradera

There has been little research into what it’s like for police detectives to investigate the death of a child. As bluntly stated in official police guidance documents “children are not meant to die”, and coping with these circumstances, especially as a detective and parent, could involve emotional and psychological demands beyond those experienced when investigating adult murders.

For a new explorative study in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Jason Roach and his colleagues surveyed 99 police detectives from 23 forces across England and Wales: most of them were white and male, and they had conducted investigations into an average of 30 adult murders and 7 unexplained child deaths. Compared to dealing with adult homicides, the detectives said they felt more pressure to solve cases involving children, found them harder to deal with emotionally, and thought more about them after the cases had ended.

The detectives also considered child cases to be more complex and said they were more likely to handle them by turning to formal guidance, such as the Murder Investigation Manual, which was published by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2006. This suggests they wanted to do things by the book rather than relying on intuition, which seems sensible given the relative rarity of such cases.

Some of the emotional effects of child cases were weaker when detectives had experienced them within the last six months. This seems counterintuitive, but the researchers speculated that while dealing with any violent crime can deliver an emotional load in the short term, the impressions of a case involving a child are harder to shake, so its severity becomes more obvious over time.

The research shows that seniority provided no bulwark against being shaken by these cases. In fact, more senior detectives reported higher levels of impact on their home life, and had significantly more trouble sleeping and more ruminative thoughts. They were even more likely to turn to the Murder Investigation Manual and other guidance to support them in these cases, suggesting that they accepted these are high-grade cases to handle. The effects of rank were also found in investigations of adult cases, but to a lesser extent.

The 83 per cent of the detectives who had children of their own, had a slightly different take from their childless counterparts, reporting that they were less able to control their emotions when working on the child cases, and that they were more focused on them. So the cases hit closer to home, making them both harder and more important. The younger their own children, the more emotional blowback the detectives reported experiencing.

This is an explorative study so the findings need to be treated carefully. But the research reveals a world that before now most of us have only encountered through the imaginations of screenwriters. Unlike their fictional counterparts, the real-life detectives didn’t report becoming hardened to child death, but if anything were more sensitive later in their careers, which suggests they may benefit from psychological support services just as much as early career officers.

The research also suggests that there may be value in targeting support downstream from difficult cases, to help detectives work through residual experiences that are proving hard to shift. As Roach and his team conclude, “further research must continue to explore how investigative decisions are made in such difficult and stressful circumstances if we are to give those good enough to do it as much self-protection as possible.”

Dealing with the Unthinkable: a Study of the Cognitive and Emotional Stress of Adult and Child Homicide Investigations on Police Investigators

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

3 thoughts on “Detectives on the toll of investigating child deaths: it only gets harder”

  1. I find it incredibly sad that these officers have received so little support when they have to investigate child deaths. I assume they have received little support, though this article does not explicitly state it. As far as I am aware an officer needs to ask for support when struggling emotionally, and clearly there will be a significant number do not ask, for various reasons. I believe that officers should always be offered support during and after sensitive cases.

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