As a 25-year-old mother with a crack cocaine habit and untreated bipolar disorder, Vernice Harris had felt overwhelmed enough in April 2002 to take her two little daughters to a Baltimore social services office to give them up.
Yet 2 1/2 years later she was pregnant again.She found out while she was a patient on the psychiatric ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, after she tried to kill herself with a handful of pills. A nurse broke the news that she was four months along.
This time, Harris was determined that she would raise the child, if for no other reason than to prove that she could.
"I figured if I kept her and tried again, maybe I would feel better to myself, and teach my family that I could at least try," Harris said last week in an interview at the Baltimore Women's Detention Center.
Her daughter Bryanna was 2 years old when she died in June of methadone poisoning. Last month, Harris was charged with her murder.
The case, and child protective services' handling of the troubled mother, has led to the resignation of the head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services and the firing or other disciplinary action against several employees.
In an hourlong interview, Harris, now 30, who is known as "Peaches," talked about her three daughters, her own upbringing and her mental health and addiction problems. In her own view, she was a sorry mother, but no killer of her own child.
Harris' attorney, Maureen Rowland, was in the room and did not permit Harris to talk about the night Bryanna died.
That night, June 5, is described in witness statements, including one from Harris, that are among police documents reviewed by The Sun.
The documents leave little doubt that Bryanna died in a chaotic and unfit environment - a 25th Street rowhouse infested with cockroaches and populated by drug addicts.
None of the police documents reviewed by The Sun refers to anyone who saw Harris give Bryanna methadone.
With a half-dozen people - many of them high on drugs - present that night, it's not clear how Bryanna came to ingest the methadone, or even that she didn't pick it up and drink it herself.
Harris told police she put Bryanna to bed that night on a full-sized mattress upstairs. Meanwhile, the drug party continued downstairs. "Everybody in there got high," one man told police.
About 3 a.m., Harris told police, she found that Bryanna had stopped breathing. Paramedics rushed her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
A toxicology report showed a "substantial" amount of methadone in Bryanna's system, according to police reports. Reports also say the child had suffered a blow to the stomach.
"I never knew Bryanna had died from methadone," Harris said when detectives questioned her Aug. 7. "Don't know how she got it. My God, I wish I did know how she got it. Then maybe I wouldn't be here."
Alcohol, mental illness
Harris was born into a family of alcoholics, she said in her jailhouse interview. Her mother, Shirley Moore Harris, died of cirrhosis of the liver when Vernice Harris was a teenager.
Louise Moore, Harris' grandmother, took up the task of raising her in the same rental house where Bryanna would drink the fatal dose of methadone years later.
Harris dropped out of the 10th grade at Lake Clifton High School and said she has never really held down a job. For money, she said, she relied on a Social Security disability check arising from a bipolar diagnosis she first received shortly after her mother's death.
"I never been taught for to grow up," she volunteered. "I stayed in a child's frame for some reason."
At about 20, Harris said, she shifted from using marijuana and alcohol to crack cocaine.
That's also about when she gave birth to her first daughter, Brittany. Three years later came her second, Brijette. Harris said she relied on her grandmother to help clothe and feed the girls.
Brittany's father, Gerald Bagner, is in prison in Virginia for violating probation on a drug-dealing conviction. Brijette's father - who Harris said also fathered Bryanna - lives in Baltimore but could not be located.
Harris has never been charged with criminal child abuse or neglect, but she has a long history with Social Services, an agency that includes child protective services and falls under the state Department of Human Resources.
Abuse and neglect
Social Services substantiated an abuse complaint against Harris on March 15, 2000, when her only daughter at the time, Brittany, was 2.
Two years later, when Harris had two daughters, a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old, Social Services upheld a neglect complaint against her. That case was generated by Harris when she took the girls to a Social Services office and, citing her drug and psychiatric problems, asked that they be sent to live with Ebony Moore, an adult male cousin.
Moore raised the girls for a few years, but Social Services removed them from his care in 2005 after a report that he had hit them. They've been in foster care since then.
Harris smiled and teared up - her only display of emotion during the interview - when talking about her eldest daughter.
"She's grown up so big and beautiful," Harris said. "She is the most beautiful-est child."
Her second daughter, Brijette, "likes to sit on your lap and play with your hair and tell you what books she likes to read."
Child welfare court orders show that Harris rarely attended the hearings as Social Services workers tried to find a place for the girls to live.
Harris saw Brittany, now 10, at Bryanna's funeral in June and at grandmother Louise Moore's funeral in September. She could not remember the last time she saw Brijette, now 6.
Even as Harris took another turn at child-rearing after Bryanna was born March 18, 2005, she said, she didn't try to get her older daughters back because they were better off where they were.
"I did not want to mess with them at all," she said.
Still she wanted to give mothering another go: "I kept Bryanna because I couldn't do it with Brittany and Brijette. I was going to try very, very hard with Bryanna."
She said she stayed sober while she was pregnant with Bryanna, which she described as her main effort toward being a better mother.
But if Harris intended to do right by her third child, things did not go as planned. Within two days of Bryanna's birth, Social Services workers were investigating a complaint of neglect.
The Department of Human Resources says Harris was given "intensive family services" to "assure that the baby was doing well."
Back to the drugs
But Harris also quickly returned to her drug of choice, crack cocaine.
"I would stop for a little while," she said, "and then I would get into my little depression stage and I would go back."
Her world darkened further when her grandmother fell ill and left the East 25th Street house to live with a daughter.
Without her grandmother, Harris said, "I had to fend for myself. I paid most of the bills myself. I had to take care of my daughter."
The house soon became a crash pad for Harris's homeless and drug-addicted acquaintances. Harris said she allowed the men to live there because they had nowhere else to go.
"I'm the most kindest person in the world," she said. "I don't want to see nobody without anything."
Harris described her daughter as "a very hard child."
"Just like me, she was hard-headed," she said.
As an example, she related an episode in which she gave Bryanna a toy Tigger: "She just threw it down the stairs. She said [imitating a child's voice], `I don't like Tigger!'
"She was a funny little kid like that."
Instead, Bryanna toted a worn white teddy bear everywhere. Leonard Rhodes, Harris's boyfriend who lived with her for more than a year, called Bryanna a playful child. He called her "Baby Bear," and she called him "Papa Bear."
Many who know Harris - even Harris herself - say that while she loved her children, she wasn't a very good mother.
William Feyell, one of those who lived in the East 25th Street house, told police, "I ain't gonna sugarcoat. ... She's not the best mother in the world, but she do love her daughter."
Feyell told police he had seen Harris beat and spank Bryanna.
Rhodes, 35, who wasn't at the house when Bryanna was discovered dead, also said he had been concerned about the way Harris treated Bryanna.
"I told her, `You ain't supposed to be beating and banging on that girl in public.'"
In his interview with police, Rhodes said he had never observed Harris give Bryanna methadone but saw methadone around the house from time to time. He also described Harris as "the kind of mother who would [give] the baby an amount of methadone to keep her quiet."
While taking her tape-recorded statement Aug. 7, homicide detective Irvin Bradley asked Harris what she would do when she became upset with Bryanna.
"I might spank her on the hand or something like that," Harris replied, "but I don't do nothing major to kill her."
Bryanna's death has spotlighted longtime problems in the Baltimore Department of Social Services. An inspector general's report on the case released last week showed that supervisors and caseworkers, at times, did not follow basic rules of good casework.
At least 18 social services workers and supervisors had handled cases involving Harris and her children.
Most perplexing is why a child protective services worker's visit in April to investigate a report of neglect at Harris' home - which detectives would describe just two months later as "in total disarray" - did not result in Bryanna's removal.
There was one more chance to intervene.
About a month later, on May 24, Harris walked into a Social Services office seeking drug treatment, she said:
"I went for help because my grandma said I should raise the baby with a clear head."
She was turned away.
Norris West, a Human Resources spokesman, said Harris was not given services because she had inquired about reuniting with her older daughters, not drug treatment.
Rowland, her attorney, said Harris has difficulty navigating everyday life, a characteristic that "any professional who had contact with her should have realized."
Harris said she doesn't blame Social Services. "They did the best they could with what they were working with," meaning, she said, herself.
For her part, she said, "Trying to take care of a child ... it was too much. I stuck in there for as long as I could. I did. I did."