[Hpn] Adult beds pose danger to babies

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Mon, 9 Aug 2004 05:09:28 -0700 (PDT)

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Adult beds pose danger to babies 

Co-sleeping may have been a factor in the deaths of at least eight homeless children since 2000, report says; city pushing for reforms


August 9, 2004

A young homeless woman awoke last Thanksgiving in her Bronx shelter room to a horror few parents can imagine.

The body of her 2-month-old boy lay lifeless next to her in the twin bed they had shared the night before.

When police arrived to investigate the death of Mykeal Wall, they found no mattress in the shelter crib, according to a state report. Instead of requesting one from the shelter, his mother had decided to keep Mykeal in bed with her.

It is impossible to say for sure that Mykeal died because the shelter didn't furnish a crib mattress when the family entered the Cross Bronx Residence, but the medical examiner cited the fact that he was sleeping with his mother as a possible factor in his death, the cause of which is still under investigation.

Mykeal was one of at least 32 city homeless children who have died since 2000, according to a Newsday tally of the tragic cases. Following Newsday's series, which was published in June, the Bloomberg administration announced reforms aimed at reducing preventable deaths in the shelters, where the number of children has nearly doubled during the past four years.

Possible cause

"Co-sleeping," the practice of placing infants in adult beds, is suspected as a factor in eight of the 32 deaths, according to documents and interviews.

Among them:

On May 15, 2003, a 5-month-old boy rolled off his parents' bed in a Bronx shelter and was found dead on the floor.

On May 22, 2003, a 6-week-old boy, napping in an adult bed with his father and a 1-year-old sibling, was dead when they woke up, also in a Bronx shelter.

On Aug. 2, 2001, a 2-week-old boy died after sharing his parents' bed in a Brooklyn shelter, where their room had only one crib for two small children. The mother said she requested another crib, but the shelter denied the request. The child's father said they preferred to sleep with the infant, anyway.

The unusual, simultaneous deaths in October of 2-month-old homeless twins Tamia and Tamymia Samuels were among those blamed on improper sleeping arrangements. The twins' deaths - not in the shelter but in a Bronx apartment they were visiting - were ruled an accident caused by suffocation on bedding. Police are re-examining the case based on allegations, first reported by Newsday on July 9, that the twins' mother frequently stuffed socks in the babies' mouths to stifle their crying.

More recently, the July 12 death of 6-month-old Isiah Pendergras at the Carlton House shelter near Kennedy Airport may have occurred while Isiah slept in an adult bed. The medical examiner's office has not ruled in that case. Through a city Department of Homeless Services spokesman, the shelter said the crib issued to Isiah was in working order.

Homeless Services spokesman Jim Anderson said the appropriate bedding, including cribs and mattresses, is supposed to be in a family's unit when they arrive at the city's shelters, many of which are run by private or non-profit groups.

"When case workers learn from a family or through observation that there is a problem with a crib, or any other standard amenity, we take appropriate action," Anderson said. Officials of the Cross Bronx Residence would not respond to Newsday's requests for information.

Backed by study

The hazards faced by babies in adult beds are well-documented. Hundreds of infants have died sleeping in adult beds, either when their parents roll over on them or they become entrapped between the mattress and another object.

A study by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, released in 1999, concluded that at least 64 infants and toddlers die nationwide each year in adult beds. The study, covering 1990 through 1997, found 108 children smothered to death when a parent rolled over on them; another 128 were trapped between the mattress and a bed frame, headboard or footboard; and another 125 suffocated between the bed and the wall.

The dangers are magnified when parents are obese or abuse drugs or alcohol.

Despite the statistics and public awareness campaigns, some parents ignore the dangers of co-sleeping. In some cases, the decision not to have a crib is economic. In others, it is philosophical. Some parents prefer the closeness of sleeping with their babies, which they believe promotes bonding and breast-feeding.

Co-sleeping is not confined to shelter families, nor are such deaths. But conditions of homelessness could foster co-sleeping - frequent moves, cramped living spaces and little money to buy cribs.

Call for training

Noting a recent spate of shelter deaths related to improper sleeping arrangements, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has called for training for city and contract agency staff who have contact with infants.

"These types of death could be prevented through education," Gotbaum testified at a recent City Council hearing, where she proposed signs throughout homeless shelters urging parents to place their babies in cribs. The city's Administration for Children's Services said recently that it plans to distribute a video to shelters that, among other safety tips, warns against the dangers of co-sleeping.

Indeed, the parents of several shelter children who died after co-sleeping told investigators they were not aware of those dangers. Others acknowledged that they were aware but continued the practice anyway.

Partly because of cramped shelter rooms, some shelter families have actually been known to remove cribs from their units. The mother of Sade Faith Hathaway, a 2-month-old girl who died in a Red Cross-operated shelter in Manhattan in 2002, told workers she removed the crib from her room partly because she was afraid mice in the room would invade the crib.

No cause was determined in Sade's death, but co-sleeping was listed as a possible factor in the medical examiner's report, along with dehydration and malnutrition.

Hard to enforce

The non-profit organization HELP USA, which operates seven city shelters, has for the past decade required families with babies to use cribs, according to HELP USA official Fred Shack.

But Shack said enforcing that rule can sometimes be difficult when families are in the privacy of their own shelter units.

"We've had a number of situations in our facilities where children have rolled off the bed," said Shack, the organization's senior vice president of client services.

A 5-month-old boy died in a Help USA facility in the Bronx on May 15, 2003, according to a state report. The cause of death was listed as undetermined, but the baby had apparently rolled off his parents' bed onto a pile of bags and clothes on the floor, the report said. The parents told their doctor that the baby slept with them, even though a crib was positioned right next to their bed.

The parents said they were not aware of the dangers of placing infants on adult beds, even though Shack said HELP USA facilities stress the importance of proper sleeping arrangements.

Multiple errors

At the Cross Bronx Residence, the shelter hotel where Mykeal Wall died, several errors seem to have contributed to his death.

Mykeal's mother complained that when she and her son arrived at the shelter abutting the Cross Bronx Expressway on Nov. 21, no intake worker was available to process them, according to the report by the state Office of Children and Family Services. Newsday obtained the report through the Freedom of Information Act.

Three days after entering the shelter, on Nov. 24, Mykeal's mother complained to her pediatrician that the shelter supplied no mattress for her baby's crib.

"He informed the mother that she should request one from the facility upon her return," the state report said.

She apparently never made that request.

When questioned about why there was no crib in Mykeal's bed, a shelter worker told investigators she should have requested one, the report said. 

Copyright (c) 2004, Newsday, Inc. 


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