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'What the hell is going on?' Questions surround child fentanyl deaths

A Scripps News investigation is raising questions about fentanyl testing following numerous cases of overdoses among young children.
'What the hell is going on?' Questions surround child fentanyl deaths
Posted at 1:14 PM, Sep 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-13 21:00:25-04

In the months leading up to his third birthday in July 2022, Mitchell Robinson adored spending time outside in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The 2-year-old would dart out of the house when his grandmother opened the front door, and he’d zip down the sidewalk in the driver’s seat of his kid-sized car. 

“He was very inquisitive. He wanted to know about a lot of things. He was adventurous, kind of somewhat of a daredevil,” said Stephanie Robinson, his grandmother. 

The little boy also spent time in the hospital during those months, receiving treatment for multiple fentanyl poisonings — including one overdose that would ultimately kill him. 

“He was a happy child. A loving child,” said Robinson. “I am making it my life goal to make sure that something good comes out of his death — that this doesn’t happen to another child.” 

Robinson, who was not Mitchell’s primary caregiver, told Scripps News she initially believed the toddler’s emergency trips to the hospital were caused by seizures, not drug exposures.  

“I remember bargaining with God, sitting there (saying), ‘Take my life. Give him his life back,’” she said. “It wasn’t until after his death and the autopsy was done that we learned the truth.” 

SEE MORE: Scripps News uncovers preventable mistakes in child fentanyl overdoses

Standard drug test did not show fentanyl, but Narcan worked

What makes Mitchell Robinson’s case so unsettling is that despite clear indications he had been exposed to an opioid on multiple occasions, a standard hospital drug test did not reveal fentanyl in his system, so no one removed him from harm’s way.  

Hospital staff twice alerted Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services that Mitchell may have been exposed to opioids because he responded to Narcan (an antidote that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose). 

Concerned doctors also ordered a more comprehensive screening — which included a fentanyl drug test — following Mitchell’s second hospital visit.   

Although doctors provided the positive test results to DCFS days later, no caseworker ever assessed Mitchell in person before he died. 

“Once you come in a second time (to the hospital), then there are red flags all over the place,” said Dr. Ashley Saucier, a Louisiana-based pediatric emergency physician who is familiar with Mitchell’s case. 

Saucier would not speak specifically about Mitchell’s case but said Narcan should be enough of an indication that a child suffered an opioid overdose regardless of any drug test. 

“Narcan is an opioid antagonist, and it has one job. And that is the only thing that Narcan does,” she said. “If a child responds to Narcan, they suffered from an opioid overdose.” 

SEE MORE: Overdose deaths caused by counterfeit pills growing in the US

'The system completely failed this young man'

“This was avoidable, and the system completely failed this young man,” said Ron Haley, an attorney representing Mitchell’s family in a lawsuit against DCFS. “I mean, just as a parent, I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” 

The lawsuit also names Marketa Walters, the former DCFS secretary, who resigned following Mitchell’s death. 

“The Department of Children and Family Services is heartbroken over the death of Mitchell Robinson,” Walters wrote in an August 2022 statement before the lawsuit was filed.  

Walters said caseworkers had reached out verbally to Mitchell's mother, Whitney Ard, but never made in-person contact with Ard or Mitchell before he died. “Our failure is we didn’t get back to the house in time. I deeply regret not doing so,” Walters wrote. 

 

How did Mitchell overdose so many times?

In an interview with police investigators following Mitchell’s death, the boy’s older sister reported seeing “a lot of pills” on her mother’s bed and that Mitchell “ate mom’s pills.” 

Ard pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge in connection with Mitchell’s death and is now awaiting trial. 

“I am not the monster that the media is portraying me to be,” she wrote in a letter to the judge handling her case. “I am a grieving mother who needs help.”  

According to court records, Ard’s home was also the target of a drug raid about one month after her son’s first overdose.

She told the judge she struggled with addiction.

“My son was the most loving, handsome, and smart 3-year-old I have ever met ... I will carry his spirit with me until the day that I die,” she wrote. 

SEE MORE: Parents sue Airbnb after toddler dies from fentanyl left in rental

Legislators get involved

“We didn’t do enough. We, being the state, didn’t do enough to make sure that child was safe,” said state Sen. Regina Barrow, chairwoman of Louisiana’s Select Committee on Women and Children.   

Barrow said Mitchell’s death hit her especially hard because she knew his family. She teared up telling Scripps News about her memories of Ard as a strong student who attended one of Baton Rouge’s best schools. 

“I knew something really bad went wrong for her to end up in a place like this. That girl was destined for great things,” she said. 

Barrow convened legislative hearings following Mitchell’s death to investigate failures in the Louisiana child welfare system.  

Ultimately, the Department of Children and Family Services implemented a new safety policy that would affect future cases similar to Mitchell’s. 

The new policy required child welfare caseworkers to immediately respond, “face-to-face,” to cases referred to DCFS by a medical professional, but a Scripps News investigation found the policy was not enough to prevent another similar incident a few months later. 

Another child overdoses twice in the same environment

On May 3, 2023, a New Orleans-area mother rushed her baby girl to a local firehouse, where firefighters revived the child with Narcan. 

According to a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s report, a deputy reported the incident to DCFS, but a drug test came back “negative.” The little girl ended up back home with her mother. 

A few weeks later, on June 22, the mother rushed her to the same firehouse, where she received another life-saving dose of Narcan. This time, a drug test revealed the baby had fentanyl in her system, according to Capt. Jason Rivarde, a commander at the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. 

The child’s mother, Tina Burton, was arrested for the charge of cruelty to a juvenile. Court records indicate she intends to plead not guilty. 

DCFS would not comment to Scripps News about the newest case and declined multiple interview requests, citing the ongoing litigation filed by Mitchell’s family. 

Senator takes action after Scripps News highlights new case

Scripps News brought the latest case to Sen. Barrow, who had not previously heard of the newest incident. 

“I’m learning that we still have a lot of gaping holes in the whole process,” said Barrow. “That child should not have gone back to that home.” 

Barrow said she plans to hold additional hearings to address the newest case and to examine how the new policies are working. She also said she may propose legislation that would require early, standard fentanyl testing in similar cases. 

“That should have been a no-brainer,” said Barrow. “That should have been something that would have been implemented through rule changing … but it may require legislation.”  

If Barrow does file legislation, she will be following a path set by at least two other states. California and Maryland passed laws taking effect in 2023 that require standard hospital drug tests to include screening for fentanyl. In those states, the new laws were named after adults who died of fentanyl overdoses. 

Other states making recommendations for more testing

A Scripps News review of more than 260 fentanyl fatalities and near-deaths involving babies, toddlers and young children across the country found numerous cases in which children tested negative on standard drug screenings before further testing confirmed their exposure to fentanyl. 

Such cases have prompted leaders in several states to consider similar changes to health policies and testing procedures. 

The Nevada Executive Committee to Review the Death of Children, for example, drafted a 2022 statement encouraging “all hospitals within the state to begin testing for fentanyl as part of the standard drug testing panels.” 

As fentanyl becomes more prevalent, the executive committee wrote, “we have seen an increase in the number of children who have suffered a near-fatal or fatal event due to accidental ingestion of this substance. There is a significant delay in determining fentanyl ingestion as a cause of unresponsiveness in children which leads to incorrect medical treatment, inaccurate assessments, and/or ongoing safety issues.” 

In Maine, members of the Maine Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel wrote in a 2022 annual report that fentanyl testing can be “extremely important, not just for the ability of medical personnel to provide optimal care, but also for investigative and protective entities’ ability to ensure the safety of the child in the future, by accurately identifying a child’s substance ingestion or exposure.” 

Washington state leaders said “early detection of fentanyl use would allow (the child welfare agency) to offer appropriate services and education, as well as harm reduction tools to families.” 

In one Pennsylvania child fatality report, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services recommended more communication among medical professionals, district attorneys and law enforcement to potentially prevent future overdose cases. It noted that “chemicals used to cut narcotics [are] continuously changing, making it impossible for the tests used to determine substances.” 

Child safety reviews in Colorado and Connecticut also made observations about gaps in testing, with Connecticut officials noting that “a substantial number of emergency departments are now including Fentanyl in urine toxicology screens and efforts are ongoing to standardize this practice across the state.” 

Although no new policies will bring back Stephanie Robinson’s grandson, she says she takes comfort knowing Mitchell’s death will impact and hopefully save the lives of many others. 

“We're losing too many kids,” said Robinson. “I know change is slow and the process is slow, but that's my life term goal right now, for (Mitchell), to make sure no other child dies.” 


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