Baby death not due to drugs: Mother told not to blame herself after infant found with amphetamines in system

Coroner Terence Carney
Coroner Terence Carney

A mother whose baby was found dead with amphetamine in her system has been told by a coroner that the drug did not killer her daughter.

The child, known here as Baby K, was less than four months old when she died after a night in her parents’ bed in September 2013.

I am frustrated by the fact that I can’t say with certainty what caused this child’s death and I can’t say that if things had been done differently, this child would still be alive.

Coroner Terence Carney

Tests revealed she had amphetamine in her system and parents Cheryl Lauderdale, and Michael Johnson admitted cruelty charges in December 2014 on the basis the tot was exposed to the substance in her home in Cambridge Avenue, Washington, but prosecutors accepted the baby was not deliberately fed the drug, and it did not cause or contribute towards her death.

Pathologist Dr Jennifer Bolton told an inquest at Hebburn Coroner’s Court how or why Baby K had died was not clear.

She said: “The difficulty we have is we don’t know what affect amphetamine has on babies. The concentration in her stomach was ‘low.’

“It is consistent with the levels we see in breast milk if mum has been using amphetamine and is breast feeding,” said Dr Bolton.

But Baby K had been bottle-fed, so the drug must have got into her system in some other way.

One possibility was environmental contamination, that the drug had been present on someone’s hands or work surfaces as the baby’s bottle was being prepared.

It was possible Baby K had died because she had been in bed with her parents: “One of the risks factors for baby death is being in bed with mum and dad,” said Dr Bolton.

“Sometimes this is because either of the parents can physically roll onto the baby. The risks of this are higher when parents are tired and also if the parents have been using drugs, because you will be less aware of what is happening.”

It was also possible Baby K had died as a result of being covered with the quilt, she said: “Babies cannot regulate their own temperature. It is very easy for them basically to overheat.”

Substance misuse midwife Cath Carter said Cheryl Lauderdale had been open about her use of cannabis and amphetamine and the midwifery team had raised their worries with Sunderland City Council’s Children’s Services department.

“I did express my concern that there had not been a meeting with health professionals to discuss our concerns,” she said.

But health visitor Beth Behan, who had been responsible for following up after Baby K’s birth, told the inquest she had not had any concerns about the baby’s progress.

She had raised the dangers of ‘co-sleeping’ with Miss Lauderdale.

The inquest heard steps had been taken to improve communication between services in Sunderland and make it easier for staff to flag up concerns, but coroner Terence Carney said it was impossible to say that doing anything differently would have saved Baby K.

“It seems right that more could have been done but it would be wrong of me to say that whatever that ‘more’ was, if would have made a difference to this outcome,” he said.

“I do not see, in this case, any way whatsoever that people have failed to do anything that was required of them. With the benefit of hindsight, some of those decision and procedures could and should have been different, but I am not suggesting these decisions, or the lack of them, have contributed to this child’s death.

“I am frustrated by the fact that I can’t say with certainty what caused this child’s death and I can’t say that if things had been done differently, this child would still be alive.”

Recording an open conclusion, he addressed himself to Cheryl Lauderdale: “I am satisfied in the context of what I have heard – and I am prepared to put pen to paper for the benefit of the individual concerned - that this child did not die as a result of being fed, inadvertently or otherwise, amphetamine.”