Addict Mother Admits Giving Baby Fatal Dose Of Methadone

A heroin addict accused of trying to quieten her baby by giving him methadone admitted the child’s manslaughter at a court hearing yesterday.

{mosimage}Gemma Fennelly, 24, changed her plea on the day her retrial over the tragedy in Hartlepool two years ago was due to start, after earlier proceedings were stopped to allow forensic tests on fresh scientific evidence for the defence. She was released on bail by a judge at Teesside crown court, to return for sentencing at the beginning of May for “allowing and/or failing through gross negligence to prevent” 22-month-old Mitchell Bate from taking a lethal dose of the drug.

The child died in September 2005 after collapsing from enough methadone to kill an adult, allegedly built up by successive doses.

The baby’s father, Mark Bate, 34, who had also been accused of manslaughter, was formally cleared of all charges after the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed against him.

He was not at the couple’s home the day the baby died and the prosecution admitted that the case against him was based on inference.

Fennelly stood in tears as she made her admission, before the prosecution emphasised that she had not been accused of deliberately killing her child. Andrew Robertson QC said: “Considering the case as a whole, we do not allege wickedness on her part. It is a criminal act, given her plea, but it is a tragedy.”

The previous trial, at which both parents denied manslaughter, heard that heroin and cocaine had been found in samples of Mitchell’s hair. Mr Robertson told the jury before the hearing was halted in October that the toddler “must have repeatedly been ingesting methadone and in not insignificant amounts”.

The parents, who were both addicts, kept the methadone, which they received on prescription as a substitute for heroin, in a metal box on a kitchen shelf which the boy would not have been able to reach.

Mr Robertson said: “It would be very difficult for a young child to open it even once, but the scientific evidence shows that Mitchell had regular doses over a protracted period.

“Although it is impossible to be completely accurate about the size of the doses over that time, we are talking about proper measurable quantities rather than a mere smidgen one might get from licking one’s fingers.” The reason for the dosing might be simple, he said. “Methadone makes you drowsy and helps children sleep through, giving their parents a quiet night.”

The trial heard that Mr Bate’s methadone was taken in tablets but Fennelly’s was prescribed in liquid form, which was kept in a bottle with a childproof cap in the metal box. The bottle was also hard to open because the screw thread was clogged with sticky traces of the liquid.

Fennelly told police that she had found Mitchell in the backyard of the family’s home with the methadone in his hand. Mr Robertson told the jury: “She said later he was sick but thought it was because he had eaten some biscuits. He showed no symptoms of being unwell but the next morning she found him unconscious and phoned for an ambulance.”

Mitchell was taken to the University Hospital of Hartlepool at 6.30am but died after attempts to resuscitate him. Tests showed that he had 0.24mg micrograms of methadone per millilitre of blood, a potentially fatal level for an adult and overwhelming for a young child.

Mr Robertson told yesterday’s hearing: “The crown have always been prepared to accept a guilty plea of gross negligence. We recognise that the only evidence we have against Mark Bate is the inference that he lived with Gemma Fennelly.”