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Prison avoided in child's death

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore woman whose 2-year-old daughter died of a methadone overdose pleaded guilty yesterday to voluntary manslaughter and will be sentenced to a suspended 10-year prison term - and probation that includes mental health treatment.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory accepted the deal with prosecutors that will spare Vernice Harris, 31, a prison term, instead deciding that the troubled mother needs help and five years of probation. Doory said he would sentence Harris when a space in a mental health treatment facility was found.

The case raised concerns about the way the state's child welfare agency and city Health Department handled Harris, who has a history of abuse and neglect, before her daughter's death last year.

Harris had been charged with first-degree murder and child abuse in the death of Bryanna Ashley Harris, the youngest of three children. Prosecutors said they negotiated a deal because they could not prove that Harris fed the baby methadone. Assistant State's Attorney Ernest Reitz also said that a blow to Bryanna's stomach that was documented by a state medical examiner did not cause her death.

"She's innocent of the charges," defense attorney Maureen Rowland said of Harris. "I'm convinced that one of the other men in the house gave that baby methadone. It's sad someone has to plead guilty to a crime to get mental health treatment."

None of Harris' relatives came to the sentencing. Only a friend cradling an infant, who Rowland said did not want to speak publicly, attended. And when Reitz turned to the audience - crowded with reporters and people there for other cases - and asked if anyone had come to speak on Bryanna's behalf, no one responded.

During the short hearing, Rowland spoke for Harris and denied that her client fed the child methadone. Harris, wearing a pink T-shirt and jeans, stood beside her attorney with her arms crossed over her chest and cried as the prosecutor read the facts of the case into the record.

Harris spoke briefly, saying she had been told that she would receive three years of probation instead of five, and that she would be released immediately to a treatment facility.

"I thought I was leaving jail today," she said.

Doory told her to "just cooperate with anyone trying to get you in a proper facility."

Harris has told police that she has a history of bipolar disorder and addictions to crack cocaine and heroin. She lived off Social Security's disability payments.

In 2002, Harris gave up her two older children. But three years later, the state's social welfare agency allowed her to keep Bryanna - even after receiving two more reports of neglect and a request from Harris to place the child in foster care.

A city Health Department nurse who provided Harris with pre- and post-natal care for Bryanna also did not communicate with caseworkers at the Department of Social Services.

Auditors for the department found that the Harris family had at least 10 caseworkers since 2000; that Harris waited more than four weeks for drug treatment, during which Bryanna was still in her care and at risk; that the agency denied Harris foster care for Bryanna; and that a comprehensive review wasn't done after her death.

In the wake of investigations into the case, the head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services resigned and five employees were fired or disciplined.

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald has stepped up reform at the city agency, holding regular meetings with top administrators and launching training programs for caseworkers. She has also encouraged the agency to mend relationships with the city's Health Department.

The case prompted several calls for legislative changes that would create new programs to monitor fragile families and watch for pregnancies among women who have a history of abusing or neglecting older children. Both pieces of legislation failed to pass.

"Parents who abuse their children warrant criminal prosecution, but from our perspective, we think that cases like this are largely avoidable through an effective child welfare system," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

"If the state caseworkers had been relating to this mother the way best practice indicates they should, she would have gotten services a long time ago, before the tragedy occurred," Joseph said.

Documents that have been reviewed by The Sun leave little doubt that Bryanna died June 5, 2007, in a chaotic and unfit environment. The rowhouse in the 1700 block of E. 25th St. was infested with cockroaches and populated by drug addicts, including a family friend who was taking methadone, a treatment drug for heroin addiction.

None of the police documents reviewed refers to anyone who saw Harris give Bryanna methadone, but the original charging document describes anonymous allegations from someone who knew her.

In an interview with Baltimore detectives in August, Harris said that after Bryanna ate cereal and Kool-Aid, she began "nodding," was "flimsy" and "fell down."

"Well, at that moment I figured she was tired," Harris said. She later admitted that such behavior wasn't normal, but said she "wasn't thinking" at the time.

Harris told police that her boyfriend put Bryanna to bed on a mattress upstairs. Harris said that when the toddler awoke about 9 p.m., she checked on her and then returned downstairs to hang out with her friends.

About 3 a.m., Harris said she found that Bryanna had stopped breathing. Paramedics rushed the child to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Reitz said in court that the only thing anyone admitted to feeding Bryanna or watching her ingest on the evening of her death was the Fruit Loops and 6 to 8 ounces of Kool-Aid. Reitz said after yesterday's hearing that Baltimore detectives did not recover cereal or Kool-Aid from the rowhouse, which raised doubts about Harris' account.

Sun reporter Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

Harris timeline

Jan. 16, 1998: A daughter is born to Vernice Harris.

March 15, 2000: Child protective services substantiates a child abuse case against Harris.

Oct. 5, 2001: A second daughter is born to Harris.

April 22, 2002: Harris takes her daughters to a child protective services office, saying she is too overwhelmed and depressed to care for them. She loses custody.

March 18, 2005: A third daughter, Bryanna, is born. A Baltimore Health Department nurse who had been assigned to Harris during her pregnancy reports concerns to the hospital's social workers.

March 20, 2005: A neglect report triggers 35 hours of child protective services to the family over four weeks.

March 18, 2006: Bryanna has her first birthday, a halfway point in the city's oversight of her health care through its Maternal and Infant Nursing program. The same visiting nurse provides diapers and formula, ensures doctor's appointments are made and kept and becomes close to the family, which is headed by Vernice Harris' grandmother.

Early 2007: The grandmother falls ill and moves from the home, causing the nurse to be concerned about Bryanna. But the nurse does not "identify any imminent life-threatening risk."

March 18, 2007: Bryanna turns 2, the point when home visits typically end. By then the nurse has made 30 visits to the family. Eight attempts after that date to contact the family about Bryanna's well-being were unsuccessful.

April 17, 2007: Child protective services opens a neglect case against Harris, sends a worker to the home and allows Bryanna to remain. The worker and the nurse are unaware of each other's involvement.

May 24, 2007: Harris asks for help at a Social Services office. She receives none.

June 4, 2007: Harris and at least four friends gather at 1710 E. 25th St., where many of them use drugs and alcohol, they later tell police. Harris feeds Bryanna and puts her to bed.

June 5, 2007: Bryanna dies. A medical examiner determines that the cause is methadone poisoning and also documents a blow to the stomach.

Jan. 2, 2008: Harris is arrested and charged with murder in the child's death.

Feb. 19, 2008: Harris enters a plea of not guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court and is scheduled to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.

April 22, 2008: Harris pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Bryanna's death. As part of a plea deal, she receives a 10-year suspended prison sentence. Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory orders that Harris remain in jail until space is found in a mental health treatment facility. Doory also orders her to serve five years of probation.

Sources: Maryland Department of Human Resources, Baltimore Health Department, police and court documents

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