Researchers Are Trying To Shed Light On Sudden Unexplained Death in ChildhoodBy Megan Hickey

CHICAGO (CBS) — A mother lost her 2-year-old son back in October, and after waiting months for some kind of explanation, the autopsy only left her with more questions.

As CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey has learned, the family is far from alone. And on Wednesday night, we asked – what happened to Baby James?

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“He absolutely loved monsters,” said Kara Witowski as she showed Hickey a seaweed green-colored onesie with a monster face on the chest. It is one of only a few keepsakes that Witkowski has of her son James.

“I just miss that so much,” she said. “I miss being able to hold him.”

In fact, all of the keepsakes can fit in a shopping bag.

“I’ve had absolutely no closure in all of this,” Witkowski said.

Witkowski’s ex-husband had custody of James one night in October when Palatine police got a call for an unconscious 2-year-old in cardiac arrest

“He was laying on his back and his lips were blue,” Witkowski said.

But by the time Witkowski made it to the hospital, James had passed away.

“When you’re sitting here telling me that you can’t tell me how my son died, I can’t believe that,” she said.

More than three months passed by with no autopsy results from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office – until just this week, when Witkowski got a letter.

“He just died,” Witkowski said.

The pathologist said “no definitive cause of death can be identified,” and James’ death had been certified as “unknown natural causes.”

James’ medical records show that he had been treated several times in the months leading up to his death for a prolapsed rectum. However, the autopsy did not find that the condition contributed to his death.

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Witkowski still questions exactly what happened the night James died, and now she has hired her own private forensic pathologist to take a second look. But that pathologist was not allowed access to all of James’ remains until after the Medical Examiner’s office completed their own evaluation.

So just how does a 2-year-old pass away with no explanation?

“This is a category of death that eludes science today,” said Laura Gould Crandall, a research scientist and president of the SUDC Foundation.

Crandall leads a national foundation that’s trying to answer the question of such unexplained deaths of small children.

Crandall said James’ case currently falls under the category of Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, or SUDC, which about one in every 100,000 kids falls into.

Nobody knows how to predict it, or how to prevent it.

Records obtained by the CBS 2 Investigators show that since 2014, the Cook County Medical Examiner could find no explanation for the cause and manner of the deaths of 26 children between the ages of 1 and 4.

Crandall agrees that these families need more answers.

“I have great hope that we’re going to be able to shed light on this, but we need more research funds to help us continue,” Crandall said.

It’s unclear just how many child deaths fall into the SUDC category, because there is no standardized way of reporting it.

That is why the SUDC Foundation recently funded a grant to create national guidelines for the investigation and certification of these cases.

In James’ case, the letter to Witkowski from the Medical Examiner’s office offered to provide a vial of James’ blood to for further genetic testing at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Sudden death can occur because of an abnormality in a person’s genetics that would not be tested in a regular autopsy.

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UPDATE 08/06/20: Kara Witkowski had a second autopsy performed to help determine the cause of her son’s death. That report says the cause of death, “is attributed to complications from a cervical spinal cord injury.” It also says the boy’s death, “may be accidental, homicidal, or natural.”

Megan Hickey