Jail given in two deaths

Infants were left in care of woman at Kent Island home

Sentence is 28 months

Russum had pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless endangerment

April 20, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- A Kent Island home day care provider was sentenced yesterday to more than two years in jail in the deaths of two infants who accidentally suffocated at her Stevensville home last spring.

Tears flowed freely during the emotional two-hour hearing that ended when Circuit Judge John W. Sause Jr. suspended two five-year terms, ordering Stacey W. Russum, 33, to serve consecutive 14-month sentences in the local detention center on two counts of reckless endangerment in the deaths of Ian Denny and Matthew Harrison, both 5 months old.

"Frankly, I can't conceive that you deserve more punishment, but the law must be served," Sause said to Russum.

Turning to embrace two of her three children after the sentence was imposed, a sobbing Russum said, "I can't go home with you guys, but I'm going to be fine."

The first day care provider charged with criminal violations of Maryland home care regulations, Russum accepted a plea agreement last month in which Queen Anne's County prosecutor David "Chip" Gregory dropped manslaughter charges that carried a possible 20 years prison term. Russum entered an Alford plea in which she admitted no wrong doing, but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her.

To the families, Sause said, "I beg you, don't let the epitaph of your children be lifelong guilt and unhappiness. You don't deserve it."

Testifying on behalf of the two families, Elaine Harrison, Matthew's mother, said she blamed Russum for failing to take her responsibilities seriously. Harrison struggled to compose herself on the witness stand as Dawn Denny, Ian's mother, sobbed quietly in the front row of benches in the crowded courtroom.

"Putting our children in day care was one of the most difficult decisions we ever made," Harrison said. "But we did the research, we asked around, we trusted that person with our most important possession.

"I'm a different person now because of her," Harrison said. "I'm a very sad woman. I paid the worst price anyone could ever pay for trusting her."

Prosecutors said Russum violated numerous Maryland Child Care Administration regulations when, instead of using two cribs on the first floor of her Kent Island home, she placed the infants in her son's second-floor bedroom, piling blankets around the children to prevent them from falling off the full-sized bed.

One of the blankets fell over the babies' faces, causing them to suffocate, a state medical examiner's report said.

Russum, who had provided child care in her home for 11 years without incident, told police investigators that she was distracted as she baked cupcakes for her 7-year-old daughter's birthday party. She put the two babies down for their afternoon naps in the second-floor bedroom to remove them from the noise of the party, she said yesterday.

`I am very sorrowful'

"I am very sorrowful for what happened," a weeping Russum said as she turned to face a half-dozen members of the Denny and Harrison families. "I cry every day for both families, as well as for my own."

Russum's husband, Wes, who was at home May 13 and helped administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation to the babies, said the couple has lost their house in the past year, and that his wife has been forced to wait tables to make ends meet, abandoning her plans to earn a degree to teach high school biology. The family's faith has helped them deal with their anguish, he said.

"From one day to the next, you never know what to expect or what people will say," Wes Russum said. "We went to both funerals. Without a doubt, it was the hardest thing we've ever done."

In the 11 months since their children died, Harrison and Denny have become activists for stricter day care regulations and have been appointed to a state day care advisory panel.

2 bills pass in Assembly

They helped push two bills through this year's General Assembly that will require home day care providers to be certified in CPR and that will allow unannounced inspections of home day care programs.

"I hope that everyone hears this loud and clear," Harrison said yesterday. "We're working to improve the system. That's all we can do."

Harry Walsh Jr., Russum's attorney, said he is unlikely to appeal the case but plans to file a request for a sentence modification within 90 days.

Pub Date: 4/20/99

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