Toddler drowns in foster family’s custody

Child removed from home after heroin overdoses

On a recent Monday, a Denham Springs toddler wandered unattended into a private pool at his foster family’s home near Mandeville. By the time Michael Patrick Bananno’s foster mother saw him, the baby boy — not quite 2 years old — was floating in the pool.

Within days, Michael’s family was forced to take the comatose child off life support at a New Orleans hospital. And since then, the toddler’s family has been grasping for answers — and justice — in the wake of Michael’s death.

Only several weeks ago Michael was living with his mother, his aunt and his grandmother at the family’s Denham Springs home. That changed after a traumatic series of events at the home in late April.

In one fateful night, two people — friends of Michael’s aunt — overdosed on heroin inside the family’s home, said Michael’s grandmother, Cheryl Bananno.

The grandmother, 47, said the two friends showed up intoxicated and, in an effort to protect them, she offered to let them stay at her home rather than allow them to get behind the wheel of a car. It was a decision that indirectly led officials with the state Department of Children & Family Services within days to remove Michael and his infant cousin from the family’s custody.

At the time, Michael’s mother, Noel Bananno, wasn’t home. She said she was being treated for depression at the Tau Center for Chemical Dependency at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

When social workers came to the treatment center to inform her they were taking her baby, she didn’t understand why. She was just trying to get some help for herself, the 21-year-old mother said.

“I felt like whenever I got out, they should’ve placed him back in my custody,” she said.

Instead, she was granted one hour a week to visit him at an office in Livingston Parish. Her sister, Sicily Bananno, 16, joined her for the visits so the teenager could see her own infant child, Ryleigh, who also was taken by DCFS and is now almost three months old.

On June 9, one such meeting occurred.

“He was his normal self,” Noel Bananno said of Michael.

The mother played with him for an hour. At the end of their visit she said what would be her final goodbye.

“I told him that I loved him with all my heart,” she said. “And I told him that I’d see him next Monday. I never knew that I’d be burying him next Monday.”

Shortly after that visit, she received a phone call informing her Michael had been hospitalized. She didn’t know why. It wasn’t until she arrived at the hospital that she found out he was brain-dead and on life support after being found floating in his foster mother’s pool.

Candice Bray, the foster mother, declined to comment on Wednesday.

Jason Kaufmann, a spokesman for St. Tammany Parish Fire District No. 4, said firefighters were called to the 100 block of Morningside Drive about 12:15 p.m. June 9 to handle what appeared to be a drowning. Kaufmann happened to be nearby and was one of the first people on scene.

He found Bray performing CPR on Michael with guidance from 911 personnel over the phone. Kaufmann and a paramedic immediately took over CPR duties, and an ambulance soon took Michael to Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Covington. Michael was later taken to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, where he died on June 11.

According to Kaufmann, Bray told investigators she left Michael under the care of one of her other children as she went upstairs to care for a different child who was sick. While Bray was upstairs, Michael somehow made his way into the pool. And when Bray finally found him, she jumped in, pulled him out and immediately began to attempt CPR, Kaufmann said.

The St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office ruled Michael’s death an accidental drowning. Sheriff’s deputies are investigating the incident, although at this point it doesn’t appear any criminal activity resulted in the toddler’s death, said Capt. George Bonnett, a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

Lindsey Deblieux, a DCFS spokeswoman, said the agency is barred by law from commenting on the matter.

“With my last breath, I will make sure that agency is changed from the bottom up so that no family ever has to go through this again,” said Cheryl Bananno, Michael’s grandmother.

She had recently taken Michael to the zoo for the first time. She was hoping to take him on his first fishing trip soon.

“We had so many plans for the summer,” she said.

Michael’s mother misses the nightly walks with her son. He loved being outside, especially at night when he could point at “da moon,” as he called it.

“That’s my first and only child,” Noel Bananno said. “Nothing will ever bring him back. I’m going to miss him for the rest of the time I’m on Earth.”

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Thursday, June 19, to correct information in a headlines regarding heroin overdoses. Two people overdosed, but neither of them died.