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Mental care far off for prisoner

The Baltimore Sun

The woman convicted of manslaughter in the methadone poisoning death of her toddler was supposed to be sentenced yesterday as part of a plea deal sending her to a mental health facility rather than a prison. But Vernice Harris is no closer to being placed in such a facility than she was when she pleaded guilty three months ago.

Social workers involved in the case say it might be six months to a year before a bed becomes available. Meanwhile, Harris, 31, sits in a cell at the Baltimore Women's Detention Center, where her defense attorney says her psychiatric condition is growing worse.

"The tragedy of this case is never-ending," Harris' attorney, Maureen Rowland, said after the aborted sentencing hearing yesterday at Baltimore Circuit Court.

Harris has been behind bars since being charged in January with killing her 2-year-old daughter, Bryanna. The toddler died in June 2007, and medical examiners determined that she had been given a fatal dose of methadone.

When she begins her probation, Harris will join about 3,100 others - 341 of them in Baltimore - who are participating in court-ordered mental health treatment as a condition of their release from prison. The Baltimore Mental Health System oversees services for the city's mentally ill, and it is overloaded, advocates say.

"It's very, very sad that this woman is just sitting in jail," said Kate Farinholt, director of National Alliance of Mental Illness for Baltimore. "But I'm not at all surprised."

Farinholt said that connecting people in the criminal justice system with mental health services is a particular challenge because they have double the needs.

A similar issue arose this spring in the juvenile court system, when officials could not find a residential mental health treatment slot for Kendrick McCain, a teenager convicted in the 2006 stabbing of a girl at a light rail stop in Baltimore. At hearing after hearing, attorneys and juvenile services workers said no facility would accept the troubled teen.

Joel Davis, a licensed social worker for the public defender's office, said what happened to McCain and now to Harris is "completely common."

"There is no such thing as inpatient, long-term mental health treatment unless a person goes to a hospital emergency room in crisis or is deemed not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial," Davis said. "I can't just pick up the phone and find a place like that."

Harris said she is addicted to crack cocaine and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 2002, she turned over two older daughters to the Department of Social Services, saying she could not care for them. She found out she was pregnant with Bryanna while hospitalized for a suicide attempt.

Police and prosecutors accused Harris of giving Bryanna methadone to keep her quiet during a drug party at the family's rowhouse on 25th Street, which was infested with cockroaches and was frequented by drug addicts. Harris' attorney said it is more likely that one of the men at the party that night drugged the toddler. No witnesses or evidence, such as fingerprints, conclusively point to a culprit, a review of police documents shows.

Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake said that Rowland persuaded her that Harris needed therapy rather than incarceration. On April 22, Harris pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter with the understanding that she would receive a suspended 10-year prison sentence and five years of supervised probation.

As a condition of that probation, Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory said he will order that she receive mental health treatment at an appropriate facility.

Davis said he was assured by the Baltimore Mental Health System that Harris would be placed quickly. But as of yesterday, she was No. 15 or 16 on their list, Davis said, because newly released state hospital patients move to the top of the list.

System officials did not return calls yesterday.

Noelle Hometchko, a licensed social worker for the state's attorney's office, said the mental health system told her it could take year to get Harris into treatment.

At a hearing yesterday morning, Rowland asked that Harris be released from jail pending placement in a mental health facility. The lawyer said being in jail was further jeopardizing her client's psychiatric problems. Drake objected to a release, saying she never would have agreed to the plea deal if that had been a possibility.

Doory recessed the hearing until the afternoon and asked the attorneys to come back with a new plan. At the afternoon hearing, Davis said he had found a group home that can handle mental health patients, though it is not part of the mental health system, and that someone would come to jail on Wednesday to interview Harris. Drake said she would investigate the program, and the attorneys agreed to come back to court late next week.

At the end of the hearing, Harris spoke up, saying she was "confused and frustrated" with how long it was taking to get her help.

"I'm tired of sitting and waiting," she said. "It's, like, holding me back."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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 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.

July 23, 2008: Still unable to place her in a mental health facility, Doory sends Harris back to jail.

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

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