Blankets linked to infant deaths on the Shore Officials appear to rule out other causes, but probe continues

'Accidental suffocation'

June 24, 1998|By Chris Guy, Diana Sugg and Gary Cohn | Chris Guy, Diana Sugg and Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

STEVENSVILLE -- Two babies who died at the home of a Kent Island day care provider last month apparently were accidentally suffocated by blankets when they were put down for a nap, authorities have told the children's families.

After ruling out tainted food and other possible causes, investigators appear to have settled on a simple explanation, one that contributes to the deaths of up to 1,800 infants a year in the United States: putting babies to sleep with soft, fluffy bedding.

In the case of the two Maryland infants, it was probably a handmade quilt, said Dawn Denny, the mother of Ian Walden Denny of Stevensville. He and Matthew Willis Harrison of Chester, both almost 6 months old, died on the afternoon of May 13.

"The blankets were not meant to be used for children," said Denny, who was given the news by the Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Office. "They're waiting for the DA to finish his review. They said it was accidental suffocation from the blanket."

Police and the state medical examiner said yesterday they are awaiting final word from State's Attorney David W. Gregory and state medical examiner Dr. John Smialek before making any conclusions public.

"The state's attorney is reviewing our information," said Queen Anne's Sheriff's Capt. Curtis Benton, who has kept the families of both children informed. "We're not saying anything until we have something official, something definitive, from the state's attorney and the medical examiner."

Elaine Harrison said that police had told her family early in the investigation that bedding might have caused her son's death.

"We were told right up front that this was a possibility," Harrison ,, said. "We were prepared for this. It did not come as a surprise. The sheriff's office has kept us apprised all along."

The day care provider who was tending to the infants when they stopped breathing is Stacey Russum. According to Elyn G. Jones, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, Russum voluntarily surrendered her license pending the outcome of the investigation, and the other four children she was caring for have been temporarily moved. Russum could not be reached at her home yesterday for comment.

But her attorney, Harry M. Walsh Jr. of Easton, confirmed that authorities believe that accidental suffocation caused the deaths.

"They've told me they were leaning toward that as a cause of death," Walsh said. "We just know it was not the fault of the Russums, and we'll just have to leave the rest to the experts. I am confident any criminal connection has been and should be ruled out."

In a study published this month, of 206 cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, about 30 percent of the infants were found with their mouths and noses covered by soft bedding.

But it takes time for investigators to determine if unsafe bedding suffocated a baby.

"It's one of the toughest things to diagnose in infants," said Dr. Gregory Davis, a board member of the National Association of Medical Examiners. A pathologist doing an autopsy might see hemorrhaging in the soft tissue around the eye, or pooling of the blood in certain parts of the baby's body. Often, though, these clues aren't there.

New standards

That's why in the last several years, in addition to autopsies and toxicology work, national standards for these cases have been changed to include scene investigations. Investigators find out where the baby was sleeping, with what bedding, and in what position the baby was discovered.

"I just autopsied a baby yesterday. The parents had a really thick, but soft, foam rubber pad," said Davis, the state medical examiner in Kentucky. The pad was too long and curled up on one side. "The baby fell asleep, rolled over and mashed his face into it."

In the Stevensville case, the infant boys were sleeping on a full-size bed, according to the sheriff's office. Denny said the families were told the infants had a blanket over them, and there were other covers on the bed.

According to officials with the CPSC, babies less than eight months old should be put in a crib, on a firm mattress, with no pillows, comforters or other puffy materials. If blankets are used, they should be thin, cotton or synthetic ones. Infants should also be put to sleep on their backs, as the Stevensville ones were. Even then, experts said, babies can still turn over onto their stomachs. If soft bedding is present, they often find their airways blocked and they suffocate.

As of June 1997, of the 14,402 regulated child care facilities in Maryland, 12,285 are in registered homes like the one where the boys died. The state Department of Human Resources sends inspectors to the homes once every two years, and to child care centers every year.

Action is delayed

DHR's spokeswoman, Jones, said the department won't take any action on possible violations in the Stevensville home until officials get the final word from the medical examiner. But Denny and a state delegate are asking questions about the enforcement of these regulations.

Del. Wheeler R. Baker, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore, said he is concerned inspections may be limited by inadequate funds. He is scheduled to meet next week with DHR Secretary Alvin C. Collins to discuss the issue.

Denny and Harrison attend the same support group and talk frequently on the phone. For them, working for tougher regulation of day care providers and informing the public about the dangers of inappropriate bedding has become a way to help deal with the loss of their children.

"Dawn and I want this to be a lesson that every parent learns," Harrison said. "I'd hate to see anyone else pay the same price."

Safety guidelines

For infants less than 8 months old, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends these safety guidelines:

Place infants to sleep in a crib, on a firm, flat mattress.

Do not place soft, fluffy products, such as pillows, comforters or sheepskins, under infants while they sleep or nap.

Place healthy infants on their backs to sleep.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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