Florida Woman Charged in Death of Infant in ‘Co-Sleeping’ Case


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Erin Piche-Pitts

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Polk County Sheriff’s Office

Early on Oct. 6, Erin Piche-Pitts was awakened by the sound of her baby crying. She later told the authorities in Florida that she had picked him up from a bassinet, prepared some formula in a bottle and settled back into bed with him, propping him up with a pillow and nestling his head in the crook of her arm. Then she dozed off.

Two and a half hours later, according to a Polk County sheriff’s affidavit, Ms. Piche-Pitts, 25, woke up “in a panic.” Blood was on her baby boy, Javier, who was less than a month old, and vomit was coming out of his mouth, she told officials.

Ms. Piche-Pitts, of Winter Haven in Central Florida, said she tried to revive the boy, and called 911. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

When investigators interviewed Ms. Piche-Pitts about the baby’s death, according to the document, she said, “It happened again.”

Prosectors say it was the second time an infant died under Ms. Piche-Pitts’s care: Her 13-day-old daughter, Angelina, died of suffocation in 2009. That was ruled an accident. A spokeswoman for the coroner’s office said Javier also died of accidental suffocation.

In November, Ms. Piche-Pitts was charged with felony aggravated manslaughter of a child. But the police did not arrest her until Tuesday, after prosecutors reviewed the affidavit and reports. She was scheduled to appear on Wednesday before a judge, according to Polk County’s chief assistant state attorney, Brian Haas. It was not immediately clear whether she had a lawyer.

The case touches on a pillar of parenting: how to get infants to sleep, especially for newborns who may require late-night feedings. It also shines a light on co-sleeping, in which parents share a room or a bed with their infants. The practice is considered controversial for medical and cultural reasons. Family bed-sharing is common in many parts of the world, but it is generally discouraged in Western cultures, where children traditionally sleep in cribs in separate rooms.

Some parents say that co-sleeping helps to make babies more manageable at night, while others find the constant caregiving and interrupted sleep to be exhausting, a recent study found.

Approximately 3,500 infants die annually in the United States from sleep-related deaths, including sudden infant death syndrome, accidental suffocation and accidental strangulation in bed, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

To reduce the risk of those deaths, the academy recommends positioning of babies supine in bed, using a firm sleep surface, sharing a room without sharing a bed, and avoiding soft bedding and overheating.

The Piche-Pitts case presents prosecutors with the challenge of showing that co-sleeping was a form of neglect because the mother had been informed of the risks during both of her pregnancies.

“These are very, very difficult cases,” Mr. Haas said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “We are not charging parents with crimes because accidents happen. There has got to be something more to it.”

Mr. Haas said that the case was still in the discovery phase, and officials were gathering more information about what happened in October.

The affidavit charging Ms. Piche-Pitts said she had undergone counseling during both pregnancies. It said she had received information while she was pregnant with her first child about the “dangers” of co-sleeping with babies, and of the importance of placing infants on their backs to sleep.

But on Dec. 4, 2009, about two weeks after she had given birth to her baby girl, Ms. Piche-Pitts fell asleep while breast-feeding in bed, only to wake up and find the baby “cold and stiff to the touch” next to her, the sheriff’s affidavit said. The baby died of asphyxia from “probable overlay” and “co-sleeping,” according to the medical examiner.

When Ms. Piche-Pitt learned she was pregnant in 2016, she received training through the Healthy Start program about co-sleeping and putting an infant to sleep safely, documents show. Her mother and doctor also advised her, the affidavit said.

In July, while pregnant, Ms. Piche-Pitts was arrested on a charge of possessing methamphetamine, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

The felony charge in Javier’s death was based on his being “killed in the same manner as her first child, Angelina, due to her own culpable negligence and without lawful justification,” according to the affidavit. A spokeswoman for the coroner’s office, Sheli Wilson, said the death certificate called it an accidental suffocation, but she added that an autopsy had not been finalized.

Relatives of Ms. Piche-Pitts could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

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