Prison avoided in child's death

Woman whose toddler ingested methadone will get probation, treatment in plea deal

Mother spared jail in death

April 23, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

A Baltimore woman whose 2-year-old daughter died of a methadone overdose pleaded guilty yesterday to voluntary manslaughter and will be sentenced to a suspended 10-year prison term - and probation that includes mental health treatment.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory accepted the deal with prosecutors that will spare Vernice Harris, 31, a prison term, instead deciding that the troubled mother needs help and five years of probation. Doory said he would sentence Harris when a space in a mental health treatment facility was found.

The case raised concerns about the way the state's child welfare agency and city Health Department handled Harris, who has a history of abuse and neglect, before her daughter's death last year.

Harris had been charged with first-degree murder and child abuse in the death of Bryanna Ashley Harris, the youngest of three children. Prosecutors said they negotiated a deal because they could not prove that Harris fed the baby methadone. Assistant State's Attorney Ernest Reitz also said that a blow to Bryanna's stomach that was documented by a state medical examiner did not cause her death.

"She's innocent of the charges," defense attorney Maureen Rowland said of Harris. "I'm convinced that one of the other men in the house gave that baby methadone. It's sad someone has to plead guilty to a crime to get mental health treatment."

None of Harris' relatives came to the sentencing. Only a friend cradling an infant, who Rowland said did not want to speak publicly, attended. And when Reitz turned to the audience - crowded with reporters and people there for other cases - and asked if anyone had come to speak on Bryanna's behalf, no one responded.

During the short hearing, Rowland spoke for Harris and denied that her client fed the child methadone. Harris, wearing a pink T-shirt and jeans, stood beside her attorney with her arms crossed over her chest and cried as the prosecutor read the facts of the case into the record.

Harris spoke briefly, saying she had been told that she would receive three years of probation instead of five, and that she would be released immediately to a treatment facility.

"I thought I was leaving jail today," she said.

Doory told her to "just cooperate with anyone trying to get you in a proper facility."

Harris has told police that she has a history of bipolar disorder and addictions to crack cocaine and heroin. She lived off Social Security's disability payments.

In 2002, Harris gave up her two older children. But three years later, the state's social welfare agency allowed her to keep Bryanna - even after receiving two more reports of neglect and a request from Harris to place the child in foster care.

A city Health Department nurse who provided Harris with pre- and post-natal care for Bryanna also did not communicate with caseworkers at the Department of Social Services.

Auditors for the department found that the Harris family had at least 10 caseworkers since 2000; that Harris waited more than four weeks for drug treatment, during which Bryanna was still in her care and at risk; that the agency denied Harris foster care for Bryanna; and that a comprehensive review wasn't done after her death.

In the wake of investigations into the case, the head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services resigned and five employees were fired or disciplined.

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald has stepped up reform at the city agency, holding regular meetings with top administrators and launching training programs for caseworkers. She has also encouraged the agency to mend relationships with the city's Health Department.

The case prompted several calls for legislative changes that would create new programs to monitor fragile families and watch for pregnancies among women who have a history of abusing or neglecting older children. Both pieces of legislation failed to pass.

"Parents who abuse their children warrant criminal prosecution, but from our perspective, we think that cases like this are largely avoidable through an effective child welfare system," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

"If the state caseworkers had been relating to this mother the way best practice indicates they should, she would have gotten services a long time ago, before the tragedy occurred," Joseph said.

Documents that have been reviewed by The Sun leave little doubt that Bryanna died June 5, 2007, in a chaotic and unfit environment. The rowhouse in the 1700 block of E. 25th St. was infested with cockroaches and populated by drug addicts, including a family friend who was taking methadone, a treatment drug for heroin addiction.

None of the police documents reviewed refers to anyone who saw Harris give Bryanna methadone, but the original charging document describes anonymous allegations from someone who knew her.

In an interview with Baltimore detectives in August, Harris said that after Bryanna ate cereal and Kool-Aid, she began "nodding," was "flimsy" and "fell down."

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