Lois Morrison knew for years that her youngest daughter was in danger of dying. The 26-year-old mother of four pumped heroin into her veins several times a day, leaving her mother to raise the children in a cramped East Baltimore rowhouse.
But Morrison, 61, was not prepared for what happened to her daughter yesterday. LaVenia Denise Morrison left her mother's house, across from Johnston Square Elementary School, at 3 a.m., clutching a $20 bill. She was found five hours later, naked and dead in a trash bin eight blocks away.
The death of a drug addict often goes unnoticed in a city where an estimated 60,000 people shoot heroin or smoke crack cocaine every day. But the callous way the younger Morrison's body was treated - whether she was killed or overdosed - has shocked her family and others used to the harsh realities of some city neighborhoods.
"They didn't have to throw her away," Lois Morrison said yesterday, trying to scrape together enough money for a funeral and to continue to raise her daughter's four children, ages 3, 5, 6 and 7, and three others under her care.
One of those children is deaf. Keyontae Barber, 7, bounded off a school bus yesterday afternoon in blue overalls and had no idea that her mother had died. And no one could immediately tell her; LaVenia Morrison was the only person in the family who knew sign language.
Morrison's death upset many in the Johnston Square neighborhood. Community activists are trying to raise money and provoke outrage at what otherwise might pass as routine in an area overwhelmed with drug addiction and the violence it spurs.
"We are asking the community to come together and make sure that this young lady does not get thrown away again, that she gets a proper burial from a funeral home," said Eric Easton, vice president of an activist group called Unity for Action.
A maintenance worker found Morrison's body at about 8 a.m. behind an apartment building in the 900 block of N. Caroline St. Police are awaiting autopsy results to determine how she died and said yesterday that there were external injuries that might indicate homicide.
If so, she would be the city's 208th slaying victim, and the first in East Baltimore since police saturated the area with 120 additional officers in August.
Police and the victim's mother believe the death is connected to drugs. "She went off to buy drugs and didn't come back," Lois Morrison said, fighting back tears and clutching a Bible.
In many ways, LaVenia Morrison's death is emblematic of city woes.
If she was killed, she is part of a statistic that has made Baltimore one of the most violent cities in the nation. If she died of an overdose, she becomes part of another problem: Annual drug deaths have nearly tripled in the past decade, from 125 in 1990 to 324 last year.
Family members said Morrison tried to get help. Bunny Herndon, 46, said that two months ago, her younger sister was accepted in a treatment program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. She had her bags packed but was not admitted at the last moment because she didn't have a birth certificate.
"My sister was trying to escape this death," said Herndon, who lives in Brooklyn. "If you can get into a program, stay there because you are blessed."
Sandy Reckert, a spokeswoman for Bayview, said she could not discuss patients because of confidentiality rules. She said that the hospital runs seven drug programs and that each has its own criteria for admittance.
The city has long struggled with getting addicts help. There are an estimated 60,000 addicts, or about one in every 10 residents, but only 6,500 drug-treatment slots available at any time.
Lois Morrison said her daughter started using heroin at age 16, never held a job and relied on boyfriends for money to feed her habit. Morrison lives in a small, run-down rowhouse with her seven grandchildren - who share two bedrooms - and until yesterday, her daughter.
Water from the upstairs bathroom leaks into the kitchen downstairs. Rooms are crowded with furniture. A power company bill for $887.08 is due by Oct. 1.
Morrison said the landlord hasn't shown up in months, and she has no idea who owns the dwelling, which is listed to a man in Anne Arundel County and assessed at $10,200.
Morrison said she is trying to scrape together money to move. She knows the neighborhood is no place to raise seven children and worries they will fall victim to her daughter's plight.
"There are drugs all around me," she said yesterday, trying to figure a way to tell the children about the tragedy. "They can't enjoy their little lives."