A 41-year-old Baltimore mother pleaded guilty yesterday to killing her 18-month-old daughter, but city prosecutors said she did not bear sole responsibility for the death of her baby.
Monalisa Mackey was not supposed to be left alone last February with the girl, Alicia Cureton, prosecutors said. A city juvenile court judge had given custody to the baby's biological father and ordered him not to leave the baby in Mackey's care. But prosecutors said the judge knew the parents lived together in a Southeast Baltimore rowhouse.
"This policy defies common sense," Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake said after the hearing, referring to the juvenile court's decision. "How can anyone give dad custody of a child abused by mom and, knowing that they live together, expect that the child won't be left alone with the mother?"
Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, head of Baltimore's juvenile court, said juvenile judges and masters "follow the law and always have the child's best interest in mind."
"I find it distressing that the state's attorney's office grossly overgeneralizes the purpose of juvenile court," he said yesterday. "The primary focus of juvenile court is always what is in the child's best interest. The court reaches those decisions in full compliance with state and federal law."
Eight children died last year at the hands of abusive biological parents, said Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner and chairman of the city's Child Fatality Review Board. He said many of those children had involvement with the city Department of Social Services and juvenile court.
Drake said she had prosecuted at least three other child deaths in recent years in which the DSS or judges played a role in returning children to abusive parents.
Last January, Keisha Carr pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for beating to death her 2-month-old son David. Carr had been convicted in June 2002 of child abuse for breaking the arms and legs of her son James. That October, Juvenile Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan told James Carr's father not to leave the boy alone with Keisha Carr. A month later, Keisha Carr gave birth to David.
Despite warnings from a counselor that Keisha Carr had dropped out of her psychiatric treatment, DSS and the juvenile court allowed both sons to live with their parents.
Another mother, Sheila Avery, was convicted of killing her 5- year-old son in February 2003 by putting him in scalding bath water. Social workers had taken Travon Morris from the home several times, but DSS and juvenile court judges gave him back to his mother after each incident.
Drake prosecuted both women.
"We need to rethink the emphasis on reunification with biological parents and consider other options, such as termination of parental rights and adoption into a safe home," she said. "It's time we stopped thinking of parental rights as property rights."
Mackey, her dark-gray hair streaked with white, stood silently yesterday in Circuit Judge Alfred Nance's courtroom as Drake read into the record the circumstances.
Drake said Mackey had given birth to five children before meeting Vardia Cureton, Alicia's father. All five children, Drake said, had been taken from her by social workers, and her parental rights for them had been terminated.
With Cureton, Mackey had three children - all of whom had drugs in their systems at birth, Drake said. Alicia, who was born in August 2002, was taken from her family at birth and placed in a program for drug-exposed newborns, a social services spokeswoman said at the time of Alicia's death.
Kaplan awarded custody of Alicia to her father in November 2002, over the objections of social services case workers, according to court records and prosecutors. DSS closed its file on Alicia the following July, the department spokeswoman said.
The judge knew Cureton lived with Mackey and ordered him not to leave the baby alone with her, Drake said at the hearing yesterday.
Beilenson said it was "unrealistic in the extreme" for a judge to think Mackey would never be alone with her child.
Kaplan was out of town yesterday, and his law clerk said Kaplan "would not be able to comment without reviewing the file in its entirety."
Welch said that when a child is taken from abusive biological parents, state and federal law dictated a "presumption that everyone will work toward reunification." He said there is a high burden of proof to overcome before a judge can terminate someone's parental rights.
About noon Feb. 28, Cureton left the South Brunswick Street home to buy diapers, Drake said.
In her statement to police, Mackey said she had been trying to take a nap with Alicia but the baby wouldn't stop crying. So she pushed the baby's head down into the bed and laid on top of her for 10 to 15 minutes, Drake said Mackey told police.
The other two Cureton children have since been removed from Cureton's custody, Drake said. Mackey, who pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder, will be sentenced April 4 and could face a maximum prison term of 30 years.