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“I just don’t want any baby to die:” Lawmakers struggle for consensus on co-sleeping legislation

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MILWAUKEE COUNTY (WITI) — Is there a safe way to sleep with your baby? Some say yes. Others, no. Some say it ought to be crime if alcohol or drugs are involved.

It's been eight years since Milwaukee's Health Commissioner first declared co-sleeping a crisis. Yet, babies are still dying in beds with adults. Now, state lawmakers will decide if some of those deaths should be treated as crimes or if the death of a child is punishment enough.

Cameron Martin had only been alive for 12 days when he fell asleep in his father's arms on a couch. Little Cameron never woke up. When he didn't, Cameron's parents called 911.

"I don't think he's breathing anymore," his father said to the 911 operator.

The conversation continued and the operator asked: "He's two weeks and he's not breathing at all?"

"Correct," the mother responded. She went on to say: "He was underneath dad when I came down."

Near the end of the call Cameron's mother came to a realization.

Cameron Martin

Cameron Martin was 12 days old when his father fell asleep with him on a couch in September 2014. Cameron never woke up.

"I know he's gone," she said.

On September 13th, 2014, investigators say Cameron's father admitted to drinking five shots of brandy and other drinks at a neighbor's house before coming home around 1:00 a.m.

When investigators arrived hours later, they noted an "obvious odor of alcohol" on his breath.

By the time Wauwatosa police took him to the station for a chemical test, they say there was no alcohol in his system -- so it's unclear whether alcohol played a role in Cameron's death. Criminal charges were never filed.

But there's little doubt Cameron's death didn't have to happen.

"That is the thing that is frustrating to me in a lot of those cases. They were completely preventable," Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) said.

Eight years after Milwaukee health officials declared co-sleeping a crisis, babies are still dying while sleeping with adults. About 20% of those deaths involve a caregiver who has been drinking or doing drugs.

"I just want people to make better choices," Rep. Kerkman said.

Rep. Kerkman is putting the finishing touches on a bill that would make it a felony to share a sleeping space with a baby while drunk or high on drugs.

"I just wanted to give my District Attorney another option or a different tool in the toolbox," Rep. Kerkman said.

Kenosha District Attorney Bob Zapf says it's a conscious decision to get intoxicated and then get in bed with a baby -- a decision that makes it more likely you could accidentally end up laying on top of a child and not know it.

"There's a wrongdoing here and somebody needs to be held accountable," Zapf said.

That's why Zapf spent nearly two years prosecuting a father who smothered his infant son. The dad was convicted of child neglect — thanks to a blood test that proved he was drunk.

The blood test, according to Rep. Kerkman, proved to be key evidence in the case. But, it's evidence that police don't always ask for.

State Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Powers Lake) wants to make co-sleeping while intoxicated a felony

State Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Powers Lake) wants to make co-sleeping while intoxicated a felony

That's why Rep. Kerkman is crafting a second bill that would make it standard practice for police to get blood from any caregiver involved in a suspicious infant death.

"I just don't want any baby to die," Rep. Kerkman said.

"A felony doesn't fix that," Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said.

Sen. Taylor agrees that drunken co-sleeping is dangerous, but says adding a new crime is not the best approach.

"I just don't want to penalize people. I want to get at the root to try to stop the issue, and I believe that poverty, mental health and addiction are the issues," Sen. Taylor said.

On that point, Milwaukee Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Swain agrees.

"There are already sufficient laws on the books to prosecute someone whose intoxication clearly and directly causes an infant's death," Swain said.

In October of 2014, police say Sheree Wimberly got drunk on vodka and then rolled over in her sleep — smothering her two-month-old grandson, K'Dyn Carson.

Court records show Wimberly's blood alcohol level was still above .08 at 7:00 a.m. — 11 hours after she went to bed.

Prosecutors charged her with second-degree reckless homicide. It was the first co-sleeping case charged as a homicide in Milwaukee County since 2009.

"So, no. I don't think we need to create a new law," Sen. Taylor said.

Sen. Taylor agrees irresponsible co-sleepers should be help accountable.

"Co-sleeping, with all due respect, is not a horrible thing. The truth of the matter is a lot of individuals have co-slept with their child. I have co-slept with my child. I think the issue is responsible co-sleeping," Sen. Taylor said.

Sen. Taylor is not the only parent who touts the benefits of sharing a bed with your baby, but she's the only one the FOX6 Investigators found who was willing to talk about it on camera.

"I enjoyed being able to look in my baby's eyes when I was nursing and, afterwards, leaving the baby near me especially in the middle of the night. But, I had a big enough space to be able to do that," Sen. Taylor said.

State Sen. Lena Taylor wants to combat unsafe co-sleeping with education, not new crimes. She promotes "safe" co-sleeping.

State Sen. Lena Taylor wants to combat unsafe co-sleeping with education, not new crimes. She promotes "safe" co-sleeping.

And, that is where Sen. Taylor and Milwaukee health officials vehemently disagree.

"Sleeping in an adult bed with a baby is not safe," Swain said.

In 2011, the Milwaukee Health Department launched a provocative ad campaign with images of babies sleeping with butcher knives.

"One would argue that, maybe, it is over the top in suggesting that all co-sleeping is inappropriate," Sen. Taylor said.

The wide variation in opinions only serves to highlight the challenge in crafting a solution.

"I am willing to entertain all the suggestions," Rep. Kerkman said.

That's why Kerkman — a Republican sat down with Taylor — a Democrat and members of Milwaukee's Black Health Coalition. Whether they can reach a consensus is uncertain, but what is virtually assured is that it's just a matter of time before another baby needlessly breathes a final breath.

In addition to making co-sleeping while intoxicated a felony, Rep. Kerkman's bill would require health care providers to supply new moms with educational materials about safe sleep. That could be controversial and Kerkman says she is still fine-tuning the bill's details.

Also, as it is currently drafted, the bill defines intoxication the same as drunk driving — .08 blood alcohol level or higher. The tricky part is measurement, because in most every case, 911 isn't called until several hours after the parent first laid down to sleep with the baby. It means prosecutors might literally have to extrapolate backwards to determine what a person's BAC might have been at the time they went to sleep.

Right now, there's no word on when the bill will be formally introduced in Madison.

CLICK HERE for further co-sleeping coverage via FOX6Now.com.

CLICK HERE for safe sleep resources via the Milwaukee Health Department.

5 comments

  • Rebecca Michi - Children's Sleep Consultant

    Teaching safe sleep practices is so important, this must include safe bedsharing and co-sleeping. Over 60% of families end up bedsharing, if they are unaware of how to do it safely the chance of them doing it unsafely are huge. Just ignoring the subject in the hope that people won’t do it very obviously is not working.

  • Natile and Noah's mommy

    I co-slept with my daughter, it is a beautiful thing for both you and baby if you know what your doing..if not then please don’t attempt. The only bad that came of this was ( my opinion ) breaking my child from crawling into the bed every single night when that time came for her own bed, some kids learn after you put them back to bed a couple dozen times (lol), mine did not. We struggled a good 6 months to keep her in her own bed. Now that i’m a mommy again, my son sleeps in his crib, it’s nice having just me and hubby…and my baby boy is still happy and content, our bond is beautiful, even without co-sleeping..i even sleep a little better.

    Please don’t sleep with babies while drunk or on drugs…there is no excuse for that, not one.

  • Emily

    This is one of the few reports on co sleeping that I have found to be unbiased on the part of the reporter. Great job showing both sides of the argument, Bryan! It definitely is misleading when the media lumps all baby deaths into one category if the awful event involved sleeping. A dad coming home drunk and passing out on his baby on the couch is much different than a mother who safely uses all precautions and soberly shares her sleep space with a healthy infant. This needs to be differentiated in the news in order to stop bed sharing from becoming so taboo that it needs to be driven underground. Only for there to be even LESS education on how to do it safely, because of the mother’s fear of judgement from her peers and the media. A baby sleeping in a crib in another room can be JUST as dangerous, if not more so. That being said, each parent has to responsibly make the best decision for her family. As far as alcohol and drugs go, I disagree that it is a conscious decision to get in bed with a baby after drinking. If you have ever had a “black out” you know what I mean. However, if it happens and someone dies, it should be treated just like s death by someone driving a vehicle while intoxicated. That is only my opinion.

  • Linds Brewer

    There is a difference between BED SHARING and CO-SLEEPING…
    Co-sleeping means you sleep in the same ROOM as your child
    Bed sharing is sharing the same bed.

    I slept with my son from day one…there were maybe a handful of times he slept in his bassinet/crib, usually at naps. Otherwise, we’ve slept together. He turned 3 in December and magically a week and a half ago, he started to want to sleep by himself. I have one of the MOST independent pre-schoolers that I know of and I thank bed sharing for that. He knows that I will always be there for him because I was there for every nightmare, cry, night terror, teething episode, tummy ache, and fever. I am the one having the difficult time with this transition, not him. I’m taking it harder haha. I miss my baby snuggles.

    When he was a newborn/infant and slept with me he was either in a sleep sack or onesie type pajama so I knew he was warm enough and then he slept on top of my bedspread in the crook of my arm. I was never drunk or high. Bed sharing saved my sanity in the middle of the night with breastfeeding.

    I wish I could confidentially say that I hope these people feel remorse for the deaths of their children, I hope that they do and that treating them like a criminal isn’t necessary. But, at the same time, if you kill someone while intoxicated, that’s a crime…so killing your child while intoxicated, “Accident” or not, how is that not a crime? I don’t know…this is an example of why I am glad I am not a lawmaker or anything.

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