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Mother charged in child's death

Child Protective Services had already taken two of her daughters, but Vernice Harris was raising her third girl amid squalor and boarded-up rowhouses on East 25th Street.

Apparently frustrated that the crying 2-year-old was disturbing her and her drug-addicted friends, Harris began giving the girl methadone to keep her quiet, according to police charging documents.

Harris told authorities that she found the girl unresponsive in an upstairs bedroom about 3 a.m. June 5. She carried the toddler downstairs, where friends and paramedics were unable to revive her.

Two months later, medical examiners ruled that Bryanna Ashley Harris' death was the result of a methadone overdose and a beating to her stomach.

Harris, 29, is charged with first- and second-degree murder, assault, reckless endangerment and child abuse in the death of her daughter, according to city court documents released yesterday. The charges stem at least in part from the child's ingestion of the replacement medication typically given to heroin addicts.

At the time of Bryanna's death, Child Protective Services was investigating an April 17 report that Harris was neglecting the girl. She had been reported to child welfare officials on three previous occasions dating to 2000 - allegations of abuse or neglect that were substantiated, according to charging documents filed by police.

The police description of the circumstances surrounding the child's death again raises troubling questions about children left in the care of parents after the state has taken others away because of abuse. Several other children have died under similar circumstances in recent years.

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees Child Protective Services, referred questions to Baltimore police.

Police wrote in court documents that Harris, upon finding her daughter unresponsive, carried Bryanna downstairs and called paramedics as friends tried to administer CPR.

A visual examination of Bryanna's body revealed no obvious signs of trauma. But lab tests later showed "a substantial amount of methadone in her system, which caused her death, coupled with blunt force trauma to the abdomen," according to court documents.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, called the unauthorized administration of methadone to a toddler "totally unacceptable abuse."

A known effect of an overdose of opiates is to inhibit breathing, Sharfstein said.

In a taped statement, Vernice Harris later said she beat the child when she was bad, according to court records. Witnesses, whom police did not identify, said Harris beat Bryanna "all the time for no reason other than asking for food or to be held and that when she had her drug-addicted friends over, she didn't have time for the child."

Police described the house in which Bryanna was living as "in disarray and untidy. The dwelling was infested with roaches, they were even in the refrigerator."

Harris' other two daughters, both younger than 11, had been removed from her care by Child Protective Services before the toddler's death, according to court records.

The Harris case is the most recent in which a Baltimore parent has been accused of harming a child left in his or her care even though older children have been taken.

In May 2004, twin babies Emonney and Emunnea Broadway died of malnutrition while living with their parents in an abandoned Northeast Baltimore rowhouse. Six months earlier, the couple's 2-year-old daughter had been removed from their care because of abuse and neglect.

In February 2004, Monalisa Mackey smothered her 18-month- old by lying on her. Mackey had lost custody of five older children, but a juvenile judge granted custody of baby Alicia and their two other children to their father even though he was living with Mackey.

In November 2002, while on probation for abusing her 2-month- old son, Keisha Carr gave birth to a boy. Within three months, the newborn was beaten to death.

melissa.harris@baltsun.comSun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Brent Jones contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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