Coroner discusses causes of child deaths

Deaths can result from a wide range of causes

Dougherty County Coronor Michael Fowler Sr., left, greets DoCo Kiwanian Harry Futral after his appearance at the club. (Special Photo: David Shivers)

Dougherty County Coronor Michael Fowler Sr., left, greets DoCo Kiwanian Harry Futral after his appearance at the club. (Special Photo: David Shivers)

ALBANY — One of the hardest things about his job as coroner for Dougherty County, says Michael Fowler, Sr., is responding to a call about the death of a child.

Fowler, who is a father and grandfather, spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County recently about ways to prevent child deaths.

In Dougherty County alone, in 2013 and thus far in 2014, there have been eight child deaths reported due to various causes: two attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), two by drowning, one by homicide blunt force trauma, two struck by vehicles, and one dead at Phoebe Putney Hospital but with cause of death undetermined.

According to information presented by Fowler, “The duty of the coroner is to find the medical cause of death of an individual in the event of an inquiry. Not all deaths are reported to the coroner, in fact, most deaths are only reported to the deceased’s doctor. A death is reported to a coroner only when the deceased has received no medical treatment or has died within 24 hours of being admitted to a medical facility.

“The coroner reviews the findings and decides whether the death was natural or unnatural. In the case of unnatural deaths, the coroner has the body examined by a forensic pathologist to determine the cause of death. Contrary to popular belief, the coroner does not autopsy the body. If the death is ruled unnatural, the coroner initiates the investigation.”

Manners of death fall into five categories: natural causes, homicide, accidental, suicide, and undetermined.

Child deaths can result from a wide range of causes: accidental firearm (often from children playing with or showing guns to other children); child abuse and neglect (reports are that more than 2,000 children die annually of this in the U.S.); drowning (toddler boys under age 4 appear to be at the highest risk); homicide by firearm (an average of 10 children or teens daily die in this country by intentional gunshot, often at the hands of other teens); motor vehicle; natural deaths to infants excluding SIDS; natural deaths over one year of age; other accidents; SIDS; suffocation; and suicide.

Fowler cautioned, “You need to be very careful what kind of caregiver you’ve got watching over your children.” Some caregivers, he opined, are interested in the money but pay little attention to their charges or are even abusive.

He also warned about a common seemingly harmless activity: throwing a baby or child up in the air and catching them. “You throw the child up in the air and they laugh and you think it’s funny,” he said, “but when they come down and you grab them, you easily can fracture a child’s rib.”

Death or permanent injury can occur due to shaken baby syndrome. This can damage a baby’s brain by bouncing it around inside the skull or break a child’s neck, Fowler said.

Suffocation can occur when a baby’s face becomes trapped in too much bedding. And, “We’ve had parents roll over and smother a baby sleeping in the bed with them.”

Fowler said, “If you have a baby, you shouldn’t be smoking in the same room because the baby is inhaling that stuff.” At autopsy, he added, “When you take the baby’s lungs out and look at them, sometimes there’s black soot stuck to them.

Unsecured plastic bags can be attractive to toddlers and pose a suffocation danger if a child puts it over his head. “A kid can go through the trash, they don’t know any better, and they put the clear bag over their head. Just take those bags and go ahead and put them in an outside trash can.

He encouraged parents to learn to swim, if they don’t already know how, to better protect children around water. Also, keep a close on small children so they don’t wander off and fall into a pool or other body of water.

Fowler recalled an incident involving an impatient mother in a store who grabbed her child’s arm and yanked it to hurry him up. “You can easily pull a child’s arm out of its socket,” he warned.

Education classes that promote child safety such as Breast-feeding, Infant CPR Safety, and Safe Sitter are held at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. Information on schedules and registration can be found on the hospital’s website.


Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler, Sr., demonstrates for his Kiwanis DoCo audience how a child’s arm can be inadvertently damaged. (Photos by David Shivers)

Coronor Michael Fowler, Sr., left, is thanked by DoCo Kiwanian Harry Futral after the meeting.