Mother reported on cocaine as baby died

Social workers let woman keep infant

Staff WriterFebruary 17, 2006 

McCarthy, 29, is charged with manslaughter.

Corinne McCarthy was on cocaine when she rolled onto her infant daughter, smothering the sleeping baby, a Wake County prosecutor said Thursday.

The child, Natalia, had been born six weeks earlier with the drug in her own system.

McCarthy, 29, was arrested Monday and charged with involuntary manslaughter more than nine months after the death of the 10-pound baby with dark brown hair and brown eyes.

Before she died May 4, Natalia and McCarthy had fallen asleep on a couch in their Old Faison Road house. When McCarthy awoke, she found Natalia wedged between her body and the couch, according to the report on Natalia's autopsy. The child wasn't breathing.

Natalia, who was fed formula, had no cocaine in her system when she died, according to the Wake County Sheriff's Office.

But McCarthy did, said Amy Guy, an assistant district attorney handling the case.

Inside the home, court documents say, investigators found the butt of a marijuana joint in a trash can, white powder in an ashtray under the couch and a blue M&Ms lunchbox containing a bag with white powder residue. They also found a scale and, littering the bedroom floor, empty baggies.

The drug use, coupled with the circumstances of Natalia's birth, led to the decision to charge McCarthy, Guy said Thursday.

Myra Cogdell, a longtime friend of McCarthy's, said this week that she watched with relief as hospital workers took a urine sample from Natalia after her birth March 22.

She thought McCarthy was using cocaine during her pregnancy but had heard only denials. If there was cocaine in Natalia's system, surely the baby would then be kept safe, Cogdell recalled thinking. But after Natalia died, Cogdell was surprised when McCarthy told her that child welfare investigators had come to her house only once.

3 investigator visits

Wake County Child Protective Services workers met with McCarthy three times: at the hospital, once at a public health center and once at her home near Knightdale, spokeswoman Jane Martin said Thursday night.

Efforts to reach McCarthy, who was released from the Wake County jail Wednesday after posting $21,000 bail, were unsuccessful. At her house Wednesday night, knocks went unanswered as loud music poured from the home.

Wake County Child Protective Services plans to release details about its involvement with the mother and daughter in coming days, as state law requires.

No specific N.C. laws

North Carolina, like most states, does not have specific laws to govern situations in which children are born with cocaine or other drugs in their systems.

Twelve other states have reporting procedures written into their laws. Twelve and the District of Columbia automatically classify a drug-tainted birth as child abuse or neglect, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requires that each state have at least an administrative plan for when a newborn has been exposed to drugs or alcohol.

In North Carolina, protocol requires a case worker to visit a mother and child within 72 hours of the birth, as happened in McCarthy's case, and to ask doctors, relatives and others whether the mother can care for the infant, said JoAnn Lamm, a state health and human services official in charge of child welfare.

Case workers try to let infants remain in their families' homes, Lamm said, except when the baby is at a high risk of neglect or abuse.

Mom's spare home life

Corinne McCarthy lived alone, without a car, in her blue cinderblock house on a rural road off U.S. 64. She didn't work during her pregnancy or after Natalia's birth, family and friends said. Before her pregnancy, she worked waitressing gigs that never became steady jobs.

McCarthy always paid her rent on time, said Letty Liles, her landlady. Liles visited several times and watched McCarthy dote on her newborn. Liles said she didn't suspect drug use but told McCarthy she needed to use a bassinet after seeing Natalia asleep on the couch.

McCarthy had few close friends because the cocaine drove people away, Cogdell said. McCarthy's mother, Nancy, lives in Texas, and other relatives are scattered around the country.

Cogdell and McCarthy met as teenagers when they attended school in Wendell but took different directions, said Cogdell, a nursing student and mother of three. But the women kept in touch, and over the years Cogdell urged her friend to get help.

"She loved that baby but she wasn't strong enough to get away from that drug," Cogdell said. "It's a shame that they didn't just take that baby."

Over the holidays, when McCarthy spent two months with her mother in Austin, Texas, Nancy McCarthy worried that her daughter was suicidal. Corinne McCarthy couldn't watch commercials that showed babies and avoided looking at baby clothing when shopping at department stores, her mother said.

If Corinne McCarthy saw a child that looked like Natalia, "we'd have to leave the store." She cried daily, her mother said.

(News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Sarah Ovaska can be reached at 829-4622 or sovaska@newsobserver.com.

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