A Pennsylvania woman has been charged with three felony counts of murder, involuntary manslaughter, and endangering the welfare of children, stemming from the asphyxiation death of her 2-month-old child last month. Investigators responded to a 911 call in July, where 28-year-old Jessica Harper told them she had been sleeping with her three-year-old and the 2-month-old, but when they woke, the baby wasn’t breathing.
The infant was the second child of 28-year-old Jessica Harper’s to die as he slept. Another child also 2-months-old, died from asphyxiation in Maryland in 2011 “under similar circumstances,” the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office said in a press release.
A state police investigation found that Harper had been warned “numerous times” by medical professionals about the dangers of bedsharing, including a pediatrician who on July 6th admonished her for sleeping with her infant. Harper ignored those directives, saying she was “going to do it anyway,” the DA claims.
In Lancaster County, this equates to “extreme indifference to the value of human life,” according to the complaint. Harper has been denied bail.
The Lancaster County DA tells The Daily Beast they will seek 20-40 years for the murder charge, and the maximum penalty for the involuntary manslaughter—she cannot be convicted of both it and murder—is 10 years.
Harper’s mother—who asked not to be identified by name—told The Daily Beast that the headlines claiming her grandson had been the second baby to die after co-sleeping with Jessica were all wrong.
“The first baby, she was sleeping on a couch not the bed, and the second one was in the bed,” Jessica’s mother said. “I just think it’s important that they don’t link the two cases together. Right now in the media they’re making it look like it’s the same. They were both asphyxiation, but one was on the couch, one was on the bed. I’ve even seen stories about her lying on top of him. Who would do that?”
“When the first baby passed away, Jessica wasn’t even in the room. The first died on the couch and the same would have happened if he was in his crib,” she said.
It was, in fact, trauma over her first baby’s death that caused her to co-sleep with her new child, Jessica’s mother said.
“[Jessica] was fearful that she wouldn’t be there if he needed her, especially after what happened to the last one. She had been having bad dreams about it. The reason she did it, I truly believe, is that she thought he was safer with her than on his own.”
After Jessica’s first infant died, her mother said Jessica was inconsolable. “She was terrible. It was just awful,” she said.
But when asked why the mother of six would sleep with her infant despite the warnings, Jessica’s mother insisted her daughter was looking after the baby’s welfare.
“That’s what she was scared of. He was a scooter. He would scooting to the bumper pads and it made her leery,” she said.
Besides, Jessica’s mother said, people dismiss doctors’ guidelines and co-sleep everyday; it shouldn’t come with a murder charge.
“She’s an excellent mother,” she said.
Criminal charges are rare for parents of children killed while co-sleeping, though recently, prosecutors in some states have indicated their desire to charge women in the deaths of children who died while bed-sharing. Most prosecutions involve the mother’s use of alcohol or drugs at the time, however, and Harper was not found to be under the influence of either when she was questioned by police.
In 2012, a Texas judge sentenced a woman to 119 months in prison for the death of her 2-month-old son, Tristan, who died in 2010 after co-sleeping with his mother and father. Vanessa Lynn Clark, then 33, had been found guilty of child endangerment, while her husband had been acquitted.
Tristan was the second infant to die while co-sleeping with Clark. Their asphyxiation of another child—at 39 weeks old—was ruled an accident a little over a year before Tristan’s death. No charges were filed in that case.
When handing down Clark’s sentence, Judge Paul White said she had shown “disregard” for both children and said, “I cannot do apparently what you did and ignore the prior episode.”
Despite state and federal campaigns to dissuade bed-sharing, the practice of co-sleeping—which advocates say is convenient, fosters bonding, promotes breastfeeding, and has been done since people began having children—has become more popular recently as tenet of the “attachment parenting” movement. A recent study of new mothers found one in eight women exclusively co-slept with their baby. Forty-one percent of mothers reported co-sleeping at least sometimes.
“[Co-sleeping] is so, so normative,” Kathleen Dyer, an associate professor in Child and Family Science at California State University, Fresno, told The Daily Beast. Dyer said the stigma behind negative campaigns and media reports can dissuade new mothers from speaking honestly to their doctors. “I just wish we could find a better way to talk about it then saying co-sleeping killed her baby,“ she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics names bed-sharing as the greatest risk of death to infants and in recently-updated guidelines, advises parents to sleep with their infants in the same room, but never in the same bed.
But some in the medical and research community feel that with those recommendations for all families, the AAP paints with too broad a brush.
Dr. James McKenna, head of The University of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab, writes that “such a simple, singular message is misleading and scientifically false and inappropriate.”
McKenna argues that parents should be educated about how to create a safe sleep environment, wherever the baby is laid down.