"I'm doing it for the children:" State Rep. to introduce pair of "co-sleeping" bills in January

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A four-month-old baby dies in northwest Milwaukee, and early indications are that the infant was co-sleeping with his mother. Details are limited until an autopsy is complete, but a FOX6 investigation recently dug deep into the issue of babies dying in unsafe sleeping situations.

Experts say putting your baby to sleep safely is as simple as knowing your ABCs. Babies should be alone, on their back, and in a crib.

"No pillows or blankets or other soft objects," Dr. Geoffrey Swain with the Milwaukee Health Department said.

The day his son died was one of the worst days of Gary Sauceda's life. The same morning he woke up on top of his five-month-old son Joey, investigators in Kenosha asked him to recreate what happened using a doll.

"I must have been sleeping and just fell over, rolled over," Sauceda said.

The recording would eventually be used to convict Sauceda of child neglect, resulting in Joey's death.

"This is a very tragic area of the law, but no more, no less if a drunk driver got in the car and killed their child," Kenosha County District Attorney Robert Zapf said.

Co-sleeping is a concern that is growing across the country, but it's been a hot button issue in Milwaukee for years, where the infant mortality rate rivals that of some Third World countries.

"We have to send a message that co-sleeping deaths are the most preventable form of infant mortality in this community," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

In Milwaukee County alone, FOX6's investigation found at least 89 babies who have died while co-sleeping since 2007.

"Sleeping in an adult bed with a baby is not safe. Even if you haven't had anything to drink, it's not safe," Dr. Swain said.

But if you have been drinking, Wisconsin Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) says it ought to be a crime.

"I am doing this for the children," Rep. Kerkman said.

Rep. Kerkman wants to make it a felony to get drunk or high and sleep with a baby.

"I understand you can be tired and accidents do happen, but as I look at these cases -- the ones I am really trying to address with my bill -- people have made poor choices," Rep. Kerkman said.

Kenosha County District Attorney Robert Zapf urged Kerkman to write the bill.

"I felt we needed to come up with something that would address the sin, or the harm, or the evil -- which was the intoxication, the impairment," Zapf said.

Zapf estimated that Sauceda's blood-alcohol level was .20 when he laid down to sleep with baby Joey on his chest -- but it took two trials to convict him.

The first jury was deadlocked over the word "intentionally" in the state's child neglect law. After all, who goes to sleep with the intention of smothering a child?

"Most of the arguments that families will raise is that this was accidental," Zapf said.

Angelina Gabriele says getting drunk or stoned and then sleeping with your baby is no accident.

"We all know that alcohol dulls our reflexes, and it seems to increase the risk of a death in a co-sleep situation," Gabriele said.

Gabriele is an assistant district attorney and a member of Kenosha County's Child Fatality Review Team, which has recommended since at least 2002 that police request a blood sample from any adult involved in a co-sleeping incident.

"We need to get that evidence to be able to make a case," Zapf said.

In Milwaukee, Assistant District Attorney Matt Torbinson says they only request blood in some cases.

"It`s something that we're moving towards making a standard policy when we have evidence of substance abuse or alcohol consumption involved," Torbinson said.

Rep. Kerkman says she'd like to expand Kenosha's policy statewide, so police are sure to request a blood sample every time.

"I think I am going to address it in the next legislative session," Rep. Kerkman said.

Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Brian Peterson is opposed to that idea, and he's not shy about saying so.

"If I sit here as the Medical Examiner, and I'm against Joey's Law, then I must be in favor of dead babies, right? No! Of course not. Nobody wants to see them die, but until we know why they're dying, we can't fix it," Peterson said.

Most co-sleeping deaths, he says, don't involve alcohol, and they only see about one case a year where a parent ends up laying on the baby.

"Most of the time with these infants, we don't know why they die," Peterson said.

Still, FOX6's investigation found that at least 15 of the 89 co-sleeping deaths since 2007 involved alcohol or drugs -- and that's consistent with the Health Department's claim that it's one-in-five -- but Torbinson acknowledges the real number is probably higher, since many hours have usually passed between the time when mom or dad and baby go to bed, and the eventual call to 911.

"You're asking that person to be open and honest about what they ingested the night before," Torbinson said.

When Shemia Tyra woke up on the couch with her eight-month-old face down, she told police she had just four ounces of gin, even though investigators detected a strong odor of intoxicants on her breath.

Police found empty beer cans near the couch where Bernice Walton was sleeping with a six-month-old.

Monica Sandoval went out drinking until four in the morning before crashing on a mattress with her seven-week-old baby. She told investigators: "I think I suffocated her."

"Still to this day, I still feel guilty about it," Sandoval said.

Tyra, Walton and Sandoval were never charged with a crime.

"We need the Medical Examiner to be able to tell us that what, in fact, caused this child`s death. Was it asphyxiation or a smothering even," Torbinson said.

"You might think, well gosh, that should be easy to determine at autopsy, right? Wrong," Peterson said.

Peterson says there are often no special marks or physical signs that a baby suffocated, so the parent's own words can make all the difference.

"That came down to Mr. Sauceda`s statement at the scene to the baby`s mother, that `I woke up on Joey.` In the absence of that statement, I would`ve been saying this is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," Peterson said.

Dr. Swain worries that the focus on drunken co-sleeping could have a dangerous side effect.

"It makes it seem like it`s okay to sleep with your baby in an adult bed if you`re not intoxicated, and it is not," Dr. Swain said.

He fears the outrage is more of a moral judgement than a scientific one.

"This couldn`t happen to me. My baby's safe. I'm a good parent. It's these drunk parents that are the bad parents. But it can happen to anyone and that's the message we're trying to get across," Dr. Swain said.

Bob Zapf has a different message.

"We are concerned about our babies and we will take appropriate steps," Zapf said.

After all, the one person who is surely innocent is that little bundle of joy.

"If there`s something we can do to prevent babies, our most vulnerable part of society from dying, why wouldn`t we do that?" Gabriele said.

To be clear, there is no information in the co-sleeping death reported on Tuesday, September 16th that would suggest alcohol was a factor.

Since FOX6 News first broadcast this story two months ago, Rep. Kerkman has been working on a pair of bills she intends to introduce in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

One bill would make it standard practice to obtain a blood sample from parents after any infant death.

The second bill would specifically make intoxicated co-sleeping a crime.

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