- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

BARTOW, Fla. (AP) — Paula Burcham offered the kind of day care that working mothers would dream about.

Her house was immaculate, the children’s meals were home-cooked. Children would line up to get hugs from “Mama Paula.”

But the families who trusted Burcham didn’t know she was giving over-the-counter medicines to their children without their permission. Now they suspect she was using the drugs to sedate cranky little ones.

On Aug. 15, Burcham was sentenced to eight years in prison for giving a 3-month-old girl a lethal dose of Benadryl. Since Grace Olivia Fields’ death in December 2001, her parents have found they are not alone in their loss.

In the past three years, at least 10 other cases of day cares reportedly sedating children with cold medicines and cough syrups have been investigated nationwide. Four babies died in those cases. At least four persons were charged, with one acquittal, and some cases are still pending.

Grace’s mother, Tracy Fields, and other parents now are pushing for laws that would make it a felony for a day care worker to give a child medicine without written permission from a parent or a doctor’s order. One state already has passed such legislation.

“I don’t want any other parents to go through this,” Mrs. Fields said. “It didn’t take a whole lot for this beautiful little baby to die from an over-the-counter medicine.”

There is also a growing movement among medical examiners for greater awareness of the practice, as some pathologists fear babies who die after being drugged are written off as sudden infant death syndrome cases.

Burcham had poured about a tablespoon of children’s Benadryl into a 4-ounce bottle of breast milk before feeding it to Grace. The dose was three times more than what would be needed to sedate an adult.

Burcham admitted giving the baby the drug, but denied it was to control behavior. Her critics aren’t swayed.

“She found a way to make those kids sleep half the day,” Mrs. Fields said, adding that her 2-year-old daughter told her she was given “bubble gum” flavored medicine before nap time at Burcham’s.

Drug makers are adamant that their medicines aren’t intended for infants and put warnings on containers that doctors should be consulted for use in any child younger than 6.

In Mobile, Ala., Robert and Mary Hernandez’s 2-month-old son, Douglas, died last year at day care after being given a combination of drugs found in allergy and cold medicines.

A toxicology test turned up the drugs. A grand jury is expected to hear the case later this year.

The Hernandezes have sought a state lawmaker’s help to introduce legislation that would make it a felony for a day care provider to give a child medication without their parents’ permission or the consent of a doctor.

Parents whose children have died in Ohio and North Carolina have waged similar campaigns.

Last month, North Carolina made it a felony to give children medicine without permission. That law was named for 5-month-old Kaitlyn Shevlin, who died in 2001 after being given the generic form of Benadryl. Her care giver, Josephine Burke, served four months in prison on misdemeanor charges of child abuse and neglect.

Ohio communities began adopting ordinances prohibiting the unauthorized use of medicines in day cares after the 2000 death of Allison Kuczmarski. Baby sitter Karen Zemba pleaded guilty to reckless homicide for giving the baby Benadryl, but was only sentenced to 250 hours of community service.

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