Newborn tested positive for cocaine, marijuana at birth
Signs of neglect were evident from the day A’Mircle Parker came into the world. The premature infant and her mother, Kewanda Duncan, tested positive for cocaine and marijuana at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
Duncan had been instructed upon leaving the hospital to keep the newborn attached to a respiratory device that would monitor the baby’s breathing and heart rate and sound an alarm at the hint of irregularity. But the monitor was not in use — and Duncan was nowhere to be found — one night last month when A’Mircle stopped breathing, police have said.
Duncan, 29, is accused of leaving the baby unattended for three hours, on an adult-size bed, before returning home about 2 a.m. to find her in critical condition.
The 3-month-old was pronounced dead two days later, prompting prosecutors to charge Duncan with manslaughter.
“I saw this coming,” said the woman’s uncle, Gregory Duncan. “I love her, but the truth is the truth.”
As authorities seek to hold Duncan accountable for her daughter’s death, the case has raised questions about what efforts state officials made to protect A’Mircle after the positive drug test described by police in court filings.
State law requires medical officials to report such neglect to the state Department of Children and Family Services, the agency responsible for shielding children from abuse.
“At what point do we look at the state and say, ‘It’s your job to protect babies from mothers like this,’” said Cecile C. Guin, a professor of research at the LSU School of Social Work.
“Our state does have the responsibility to provide for these children if they’re being abused and neglected in their home.”
Guin described the positive drug screen as a “horrible” sign of neglect, but said the Department of Children and Family Services has been crippled by budget cuts in recent years. “Case workers have larger case loads,” she said, “and my guess is they probably didn’t have anywhere else to put the baby.”
Assessing the state’s response to child abuse is hampered by a state law that keeps case records confidential even after the death of an abused child. The statute, intended to protect victims and impacted family members, allows “limited public disclosure of summary information” when abuse or neglect is a contributing factor in the death.
Those disclosures are generally devoid of detail, even in high-profile cases like the beating death in Baton Rouge last year of 8-year-old Xzayvion Riley. Prosecutors have since claimed, in court filings, that the boy suffered a history of abuse and told state workers many months before his death that his father had choked him and shoved his head into a toilet.
Xzayvion’s parents are charged with first-degree murder and are awaiting trial.
Trey Williams, a Department of Children and Family Services spokesman, confirmed Friday that his agency is investigating A’Mircle’s Sept. 26 death. But he said he could not make any comments about the case because officials have not received the coroner’s report.
“Just because a child is born exposed to drugs does not automatically mean that the child would be removed from the home,” Williams said, describing the agency’s approach as a fine balance. “We also try very hard to keep the family together if possible. Our No. 1 goal always is going to be the safety of the child.”
Williams said removal proceedings begin “when there is a concern about that safety.”
Four years ago, long before A’Mircle was born, Gregory Duncan became increasingly worried about his niece and her growing number of children and filed a complaint with state child protection officials. “I wanted them to investigate it and hopefully find a better home for the kids,” he recalled.
The agency, known then as the Department of Social Services, said in a letter to Gregory Duncan that it was “unable to investigate the situation” because it did not meet the legal definition of child abuse.
That wasn’t the first time Kewanda Duncan had been accused of neglecting her children. The paternal grandmother of one of her girls filed a custody petition in 2004 alleging Kewanda Duncan had abandoned her baby a week after it was born. The court filing cited the mother’s “instability and inability to care for the infant.”
Frustrated by the state’s response, Gregory Duncan wrote a letter in October 2009 to U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, then in his first term.
“My niece is on drugs and she uses her children as a pawn,” Duncan wrote. “Since her failed suicide attempt, my niece has made comments about taking her life as well as the lives of her children.”
“When a 12-year-old girl is abandoned by her mother and left in a home she is unfamiliar with, I believe that is of great concern,” the letter added.
Cassidy wrote a letter of his own to Kristy Nichols, then the Department of Social Services secretary, asking her to investigate. Gregory Duncan claims the request fell on deaf ears, saying he never heard back.
Williams, the DCFS spokesman, denied that. “We went back and assessed the situation again based off that information and did respond,” he said. “Anytime anyone contacts us, we take every report seriously.”
Aside from the positive drug screen, Gregory Duncan said he was floored that officials released A’Mircle to her mother, given her lack of a stable home and income. Kewanda Duncan had “skipped from house to house” and survived on “odd jobs” and government assistance, her uncle said, spending time in jail and a mental health facility.
“I’m just upset for the simple fact that this didn’t have to happen,” Gregory Duncan said. “She shouldn’t have had those kids from the start. I don’t care how many babies she had, they should have taken every last one of them.”
Gregory Duncan said his niece could not have been expected to keep A’Mircle attached to a respiratory monitor after the baby was diagnosed with apnea and bradycardia. Maryann Rowland, a spokeswoman for Baton Rouge General Medical Center, declined to comment, citing federal restrictions on the release of medical information.
“The loss of A’Mircle is tragic, as is the story of her other siblings,” said Amanda Brunson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana. “I hope that as a community we can not only explore the breakdowns that led to her death, but also learn from it and ensure that we prevent future tragedies like this from occurring.”
Jordan Blum of The Advocate’s Washington bureau contributed to this report.