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Drug users put kids at risk: Four have died from overdoses in NH since 2015

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 11. 2018 9:26PM
“It's not uncommon for the parent to go pick up the dope and leave the 3-year-old with the 1-year-old,” said Concord police Lt. Sean Ford, whose cases included an overdose death of a 2-month-old. (iStock)

While child neglect and abuse go hand in hand with the state's drug epidemic, children have also suffered from overdoses - sometimes fatal - when they become exposed to drugs that their parents keep and use at home, sometimes in plain sight, according to police, prosecutors and court files.

A review of cases show a baby in Manchester overdosing last year from cocaine delivered via his mother's breast milk, an infant in Penacook dying in 2016 after his father's friend prepared a bottle with methamphetamine-dirtied hands, and a Manchester 20-month-old succumbing to an opioid overdose ingestion this spring while he and his suspected drug-dealer father slept on a couch.

"Some people aren't fit to be parents. I'm sick of hearing the excuse they're addicted," said Concord police Lt. Sean Ford, who investigated the Penacook death.

Four children ages 5 or younger died of drug overdoses between 2015 and the present, according to data provided by the New Hampshire Office of the Medical Examiner.

In some cases, judges have meted out tough penalties for parents whose children are exposed to drugs. Leo Witham, the Hampton stepfather of a 20-month-old who died of a fentanyl overdose last year, was sentenced to 7½ to 15 years in prison for negligent homicide.

"It's the ultimate fear and reality of what can happen when people use these drugs," said Jennifer Haggar, a spokesman for the Rockingham County Attorney's Office.

But his sentence is by far the toughest, and other cases have settled with parents serving no time.

In June, Sabrina Pento, 29, the mother of a 6-year-old Manchester boy who suffered a nonfatal overdose of fentanyl last summer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor child endangerment charge and received two years' probation and was ordered into counseling.

She had given birth to a child shortly before her case was settled. Her husband, David Pento, backed out of a plea bargain that would have sent him to prison for at least three years and is awaiting trial.

And Kayla Austin, 22, was sentenced to two years' probation in January, after pleading guilty to child endangerment in connection to the fatal methamphetamine overdose of her 2-month-old son, Cayden Ross.

Ford, from the Concord police, described the travel trailer where Cayden was found as filthy, and court records say that needles were on a counter and a marijuana pipe was in the bedroom.

Police describe such cases as heart wrenching, especially when they find the child had been living in filthy conditions where drugs are at times in plain sight.

The father, Brandon Ross, 26, was sentenced to a minimum of 2½ years in state prison. Merrimack County prosecutors would not discuss Austin's sentence with a reporter, but during her sentencing hearing they said Austin had cooperated with the investigation and had done all required of her while out on bail.

"She will know, quite likely be tormented by, the fact that she was responsible in some way for the death of her own son," Merrimack County prosecutor David Rotman told her judge.

Ford said he's worried about children in several aspects. One is the resurgence of methamphetamine and the unpredictable, paranoid behavior that it invokes. All the addicts he runs across are now doing both fentanyl and methamphetamine, he said.

And while child protection workers do their best, he warned the drug crisis has overwhelmed the social service system just as it has courts and police departments.

If police see children in a drug house or are aware that someone they arrest has children, they contact the Division for Children, Youth and Families, police in Concord and Manchester said.

DCYF spokesman Jake Leon said removal depends on the severity of the situation. Factors include the prevalence of drugs in the home, the condition of the home, family supports and alternative caregivers.

"The opioid crisis has impacted many children and families in New Hampshire, and there are circumstances where DCYF wants to work with a family to keep the child safe in the home," he wrote in an email.

If a parent is actively engaged in treatment and another parent or relative can ensure safety, the situation could be deemed safe enough for the child to stay at home, he said.

"Successfully supporting a child and family through a parent's treatment and recovery is some of the most rewarding and impactful work that DCYF does," he said.

In an email, Manchester police spokesman Brian O'Keefe said police will always notify DCYF when they investigate a drug case and a child is present. Police also send out the Adverse Childhood Experiences Response Team to get children into proper services.

But some fall through the cracks. For example, Christen Gelinas was out on bail on drug trafficking charges out of Massachusetts when her son died in May in the Manchester apartment she shared with Joshua Garvey.

Court files in New Hampshire give no indication that DCYF was made aware of Gelinas' out-of-state arrest.

The two face multiple charges related to drug trafficking out of their Hevey Street apartment. They have not been indicted for any crime in connection with the child's death. According to court files, prosecutors have not sought such an indictment as of yet.

Prosecutors have also obtained convictions when children are exposed to drugs but don't die.

Derry resident Chelsea Foley, 26, was sentenced to a minimum prison term of 1½ years after her 2-month-old overdosed from the cocaine residue in her breast milk. The charge - first degree assault, domestic violence.

But when a couple was arrested last year after leaving their 7-year-old in a hotel room with cocaine in plain sight, their cases went separate ways. Ernest Jones, 43, was sent to prison for at least 15 months on a charge of reckless conduct with a deadly weapon. Elizabeth Fay, 33, took the case to trial, was found guilty of misdemeanor child endangerment and got a suspended sentence.

"It's not uncommon for the parent to go pick up the dope and leave the 3-year-old with the 1-year-old," Ford said. He thinks lawmakers should consider making the misdemeanor charge of child endangerment a felony upon subsequent convictions, just as shoplifting is.

"At some point you run out of lifelines, you run out of chances," he said.

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