Woman whose child died after she ingested methadone is acquitted of wilful neglectPadraig Conlon 22 Jun 2022
A woman whose two-year-old daughter died six years ago after ingesting methadone has been acquitted of wilfully neglecting the child.
Heidi Douglas died in April 2016, three days after she had been admitted to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin.
A post mortem report concluded she had suffered acute brain inflammation, “most likely” caused by having ingested methadone, resulting in her death.
Her mother, Sadie Douglas (39) of Rathsallagh Drive, Shankill, Co Dublin, had pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to wilful neglect of her child leading to her death on dates between April 13 and 14, 2016.
The 10 jurors took just over an hour to reach their verdict on day-five of the trial.
Judge Orla Crowe thanked the jurors for their time in what she said was “an extremely difficult case”.
She excused the jurors from further jury duty for five years.
Judge Crowe confirmed that there was nothing else pending against Ms Douglas before she discharged her from the indictment and told her she was free to go.
Ms Douglas’ partner, Christopher O’Reilly, of the same address, pleaded guilty last July to the same charge and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
The trial heard that O’Reilly was a recovering heroin addict and was taking daily doses of methadone, a heroin substitute, obtained on weekly prescription from a local chemist.
A cup with traces of methadone in it was found in the house on the day in question.
The couple’s older daughter, four-year-old Sophie, had died tragically in February 2016 from a brain haemorrhage arising out of a birth condition known as AVM, short for arteriovenous malformation.
The night before Heidi’s death, her parents stayed up much of the night looking at photographs of their deceased daughter, the court heard.
Ms Douglas said Heidi slept in until 10.30 that morning before going downstairs with her six-year-old brother.
Her brother got her chocolate spread and breadsticks, and the children were “up and down the stairs” and watching telly.
Ms Douglas told gardaí Heidi was “grand, a bit wheezy” and went to sleep in her cot before she was found unresponsive and not breathing at about 3pm.
The family called emergency services who arrived quickly.
Paramedics noticed that Heidi’s pupil were pinpoint-size, which is one of the signs of an overdose, and administered Naloxone which is an antidote to methadone.
The child was intubated and ventilated but began to have seizures and toxicology reports tested positive for methadone.
Ms Douglas told paramedics she didn’t understand how Heidi could have got her hands on the methadone, as her partner normally “drained” the last bit of his weekly prescription on Wednesday, then went to the chemist on Thursday to collect the following week’s prescription.
Conor Devally SC, defending, told the jury in his closing address that in his view there was something merciless in the act of prosecuting Douglas for neglect.
He said that Ms Douglas voluntarily told paramedics in the ambulance that her partner was on methadone.
He said that when Ms Douglas said there wasn’t any methadone in the house that Thursday morning, she was saying this because O’Reilly finished it every Wednesday.
The court has heard that Christopher O’Reilly went to the chemist every Thursday, took his daily dose in the chemist and then brought the rest of the weekly dose home.
The jury heard that the post-mortem examination found Heidi was a healthy and well-nourished child, with good dental hygiene.
“This is not a neglected child,” Mr Devally said, adding that the prosecution does not say this was a pattern of on-going behaviour.
He said Ms Douglas was unaware of the presence of the methadone cup in the bedroom and as a result she did not expose her child to that cup.
O’Reilly did know about the cup and he has “fallen on his sword” as a result, because he knows he did something wrong, Mr Devally said.
“Ms Douglas did not know.”
Fionnuala O’Sullivan BL, prosecuting, told the jury this was a case in which Heidi died effectively from ingesting methadone in her home at a time when Ms Douglas had the care of her daughter.
“The question is whether we have proved that Sadie Douglas wilfully neglected Heidi on those days,” she said in her closing address.
“This is a case where a young child is living in a house where methadone is kept and consumed and bottles are all around with dribbles in them,” Ms O’Sullivan said.
Ms Douglas was aware of this, counsel said.
The prosecution said there was a “complete failure by Ms Douglas to supervise Heidi that morning, to rouse her when she appeared to have been asleep all night and all through the morning and, crucially, a failure to provide important information in the ambulance.”
After Heidi was discovered in an unconscious state and an ambulance was called, it is the prosecution case that Ms Douglas misled paramedics in relation to there being methadone in the house.
In the ambulance, Ms Douglas “protects herself, protects Christopher, but sadly does not protect Heidi”, Ms O’Sullivan said.
“Tragically, all the evidence leads to the inevitable conclusion that Sadie Douglas wilfully neglected Heidi Douglas in a manner likely to cause injury to Heidi’s health,” Ms O’Sullivan submitted to the jury.
Chief state pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan said that a scan showed baby Heidi Douglas had a “devastating brain injury”, having been admitted to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin on April 14, 2016.
Dr Mulligan told the court that Heidi’s brain had swollen so much it was pushing down onto the spinal column.
Her condition continued to deteriorate and on April 19 she was assessed to be clinically dead. Life support was withdrawn and death was confirmed at 18.34 on that day.
Dr Mulligan said that as a result of a post mortem examination which she carried out, she concluded that the child had acute cerebellitis, an inflammation of the brain, which was “most likely” caused by her having ingested methadone, resulting in her death.
She added that because the child had been comatose for a number of days, she had also developed bronchial pneumonia which would also have been terminal.
She said that Heidi had otherwise been a “normal healthy two-year-old girl”.
A pharmacist, Richard Geoghegan, who at the time worked at Lloyds Pharmacy in Shankill, gave evidence of Ms Douglas’ partner obtaining his weekly supply of methadone every Thursday.
The first 70ml dose of his weekly 490ml supply was always taken in a special room at the pharmacy, the remainder of the drug being taken away by the patient in a bottle that had a child proof top.
Pharmacies supplied a measuring cup for patients, each of whom signed service agreements, governing the relationship between patient and chemist, behaviour at the pharmacy and use of the methadone, said Mr Geoghegan.
The agreement, which patients signed, contained three warnings, one of which was: “Be aware that 5 mls of methadone can kill a child”, the court heard.
Forensic scientist Kristen O’Connor told the court that Christopher O’Reilly’s DNA was found on a measuring cup containing a sticky residue of methadone, found on top of a chest of drawers in the master bedroom.
The court heard that two other DNA profiles were also present on the cup, but at too low a level for adequate testing.
A large plastic bottle containing methadone prescribed to Christopher O’Reilly was also found in the house, together with a smaller glass bottle containing methadone prescribed for another person.