Jailed woman to be moved

Mental health bed found for mother of toddler who died of drug overdose

August 16, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

A woman convicted of manslaughter in the methadone poisoning death of her toddler was sentenced yesterday to a mental health facility after waiting four months for an available bed.

Vernice Harris, 31, is expected to be transferred from the Baltimore Women's Detention Center to Second Genesis, a drug and alcohol treatment center, on Sept. 8, according to prosecutors. Harris has been in jail since January, when she was charged in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Bryanna, who overdosed on methadone.

It is unclear how the baby was exposed to the heroin-addiction-treatment chemical during a drug party at the family's 25th Street rowhouse, which police have described as filthy and infested with cockroaches. Harris' defense attorney, Maureen Rowland, has said that a party attendee likely fed it to the toddler.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory initiated efforts to speed up Harris' transfer from jail after mental health officials said they wouldn't have a place that could treat her cocaine addiction and bipolar disorder for another six months to a year.

Doory found a spot through the city's substance abuse treatment system, said Jane Plapinger, president of Baltimore Mental Health Systems, which helps manage and advocate for the city's network of mental health services.

"The mental health and substance abuse systems are separately funded and separately regulated, and individuals with needs that cut across more than one system are difficult to treat," Plapinger said. The federal government "set it up as though anyone can only have one disorder."

Harris had previously given up her two older children and learned she was pregnant with Bryanna while in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Her daughter's death prompted a wholesale review of child-protection procedures, resignations and disciplinary action against employees who handled the family's case.

Yesterday, Doory gave Harris a suspended 10-year prison sentence and five years' probation. Doory also committed her to the state Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.

She will remain in treatment until the state agency "deems her ready to leave," according to Joseph Sviakto, a spokesman for Baltimore prosecutors.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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