Shane Evans has a grim job. Head of investigations for East Baton Rouge’s coroner, Evans is dispatched whenever someone dies in the parish. This means he’s called out a lot, but it never gets easier. Having to determine the cause of death is particularly gloomy when it’s a baby. And, as Evans knows all too well, this happens far more often than it should in Baton Rouge.
He could tell you all the stark statistics. The infant mortality rate in EBR is twice the national average. And it’s all the more dreadful when you consider that the national average here in the U.S. is twice that of European countries.
Nearly 12 out of every 1,000 babies born in EBR die before their first candle ever flickers atop a birthday cake. But Evans also knows that behind those cold statistics are the names of real children. In fact, he prints a recent list of 24 names—all babies who’ve died here in less than the last two years. And the one thing every child on his list has in common is what killed them: They all died in their sleep of suffocation.
“Almost all the deaths were preventable,” Evans says.
Once upon a time, this type of death was referred to by a well-known acronym: SIDS. But Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, says Evans, was a like a kind of cover-up. Wanting to spare parents the grief and guilt of knowing their children died unnecessarily, authorities would label the deaths as SIDS—all the while knowing that the real cause of death was, in fact, accidental suffocation.
Parents would roll over in their sleep and smother their babies lying next to them, or else the infant was placed face-down in a crib with too many toys, pillows or loose blankets and left with no room to breathe.
The correlations are clear now. The number of SIDS deaths has declined because cops and investigators like Evans are now accurately classifying the cause of death for those babies as suffocation.
But there’s an unexpected hope in this. Understanding—and honestly acknowledging—the real cause of infant deaths, Evans says, increases the chances for informed parents to prevent them. This means more babies in EBR will get the chance to grow up, remaining real people with real names that their playmates know, instead of becoming bleak statistics, too easily overlooked.