In the months leading up to her third birthday in July 2022, Michelle Robinson loved spending time outdoors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The 2-year-old would run out of the house when his grandmother opened the front door, and he would sit in the driver’s seat of his child-sized car on the sidewalk.
“He was very curious. He wanted to know about many things. He was adventurous, somewhat of a daredevil,” said his grandmother, Stephanie Robinson.
The little boy also spent time in the hospital during those months, receiving treatment for multiple fentanyl poisonings — including an overdose that would ultimately kill him.
“He was a happy child. A sweet kid,” Robinson said. “I’m making it my life’s goal to make sure something good comes out of his death – so that this doesn’t happen to any other child.”
Robinson, who was not Mitchell’s primary caregiver, told Scripps News that she initially believed the child’s emergency trips to the hospital were caused by seizures, not drug exposure.
“I remember sitting there bargaining with God (saying), ‘Take my life. “Give him his life back,” she said. “It was only after his death and the autopsy that we came to know the truth.”
Fentanyl didn’t show up in standard drug tests, but Narcan worked
What makes Michelle Robinson’s case so troubling is that despite clear indications that she had been exposed to opioids on multiple occasions, a standard hospital drug test did not detect fentanyl in her system, so no one knew she was in harm’s way. Didn’t move out of the way.
Hospital staff alerted the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services twice that Michelle may have been exposed to opioids because she responded to Narcan (an antidote that reverses the effects of opioid overdose).
Concerned doctors also ordered more extensive testing after Mitchell’s second hospital visit – including fentanyl drug testing.
Although doctors provided positive test results to DCFS a few days later, no caseworkers personally evaluated Michelle before she died.
“Once you get (to the hospital) the second time, there are red flags everywhere,” said Dr. Ashley Saucier, a Louisiana-based pediatric emergency physician who is familiar with Mitchell’s case.
Saucier didn’t talk 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 testing.
“Narcan is an opioid antagonist, and it has a job. And that’s the only thing Narcan does,” she said. “If a child reacts to Narcan, they are suffering an opioid overdose.”
‘The system completely failed this young man’
Ron Haley, an attorney who represented Mitchell’s family in a lawsuit against DCFS, said, “This was avoidable, and the system completely failed this young man.” “I mean, as a parent, I say, ‘What the hell is going on here?'”
The lawsuit also names former DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters, who resigned after Mitchell’s death.
“The Department of Children and Family Services is saddened by the death of Michelle Robinson,” Walters wrote in an August 2022 statement, before the lawsuit was filed.
Walters said caseworkers had verbally contacted Mitchell’s mother, Whitney Ard, but had never made personal contact with Ard or Mitchell before they died. “Our failure is that we did not reach back home on time. I deeply regret not doing so,” Walters wrote.
How did Michelle overdose so many times?
In an interview with police investigators after Mitchell’s death, the boy’s older sister reported seeing “a lot of pills” on their mother’s bed and said Mitchell “took mom’s pills.”
Ard pleaded not guilty to a charge of second-degree murder in connection with Mitchell’s death and is now awaiting trial.
“I am not the monster the media is portraying me as,” he wrote in a letter to the judge handling his case. “I’m a grieving mother who needs help.”
According to court records, Ard’s home was also the target of a drug raid about a month after her son’s first overdose.
She told the judge she struggled with drug addiction.
She wrote, “My 3-year-old son was the sweetest, most beautiful and smartest person I have ever met… I will carry his spirit with me until the day I die.”
MLAs join in
“We didn’t do enough. As a state, we did not do enough to make sure that child was safe,” said State Senator Regina Barrow, chair of the Louisiana Select Committee on Women and Children.
Barrow said Michelle’s death shocked her especially deeply because she knew her family. She cried as she told Scripps News about her memories of Ard as a strong student attending one of the best schools in Baton Rouge.
“I knew something really bad had to happen for him to get to a place like this. That girl was destined for great things,” she said.
Barrow called legislative hearings after Mitchell’s death to investigate failures in the Louisiana child welfare system.
Ultimately, the Department of Children and Family Services implemented a new protection policy that would affect cases like Michelle’s in the future.
The new policy required child welfare caseworkers to respond immediately “face-to-face” to cases referred to DCFS by a medical professional, but a Scripps News investigation found that this policy was followed by a similar policy a few months later. It was not enough to stop the incident.
Another child overdoses twice in the same environment
On May 3, 2023, a New Orleans-area mother took her baby girl to a local firehouse, where firefighters revived the child with Narcan.
According to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s report, a deputy reported the incident to DCFS, but a drug test came back “negative.” The little girl came back home with her mother.
A few weeks later, on June 22, the mother took him to the same firehouse, where he received another life-saving dose of Narcan. This time, a drug test revealed the child had fentanyl in his system, according to Captain Jason Rivarde, commander of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The child’s mother, Tina Burton, was arrested on charges of cruelty to a juvenile. Court records indicate she intends to plead not guilty.
DCFS would not comment to Scripps News about the latest case and declined multiple interview requests, citing the ongoing lawsuit filed by Mitchell’s family.
Senator takes action after Scripps News uncovers new case
Scripps News brought the latest case to Sen. Barrow, who had not previously heard of the latest incident.
“I’m learning that there are still a lot of holes in the whole process,” Barrow said. “That kid shouldn’t have gone back into that house.”
Barrow said she plans to hold additional hearings to address the latest case and examine how the new policies are working. She also said she might propose legislation that would require rapid, standardized fentanyl testing in similar cases.
“It shouldn’t have been a big deal,” Barrow said. “This should have been something that should have been implemented by changing the rules… but it may require legislation.”
If Barrow files legislation, she would follow 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, new laws were named after adults who died from fentanyl overdoses.
Other states are making recommendations for more testing
A Scripps News review of more than 260 fentanyl deaths and near-deaths involving infants, toddlers and young children across the country found many cases in which children tested negative on standard drug screening before further testing, leading to He was confirmed to have been exposed to fentanyl.
Such cases have prompted leaders in many states to consider similar changes to health policies and testing procedures.
For example, the Nevada Executive Committee to Review Child Deaths drafted a 2022 statement encouraging “all hospitals in the state to begin testing for fentanyl as part of their standard drug testing panel Went.”
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 are significant delays in determining fentanyl ingestion as a cause of unresponsiveness in children, leading to incorrect medical treatment, inaccurate assessment, and/or ongoing safety issues.
In Maine, members of the Maine Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel Wrote in the 2022 annual report Fentanyl testing “can be of utmost importance, not only to the ability of medical personnel to provide optimal care, but also to the ability of investigative and protective institutions to ensure the child’s safety in the future, given the accuracy of the child’s substance use.” By identifying or disclosing.”
Washington state leaders Said “Early detection of fentanyl use will allow the (child welfare agency) to provide appropriate services and education as well as harm reduction tools to families.”
In reporting the death of a child in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services recommended greater communication between medical professionals, district attorneys, and law enforcement to potentially prevent future overdose cases. It states that “Chemicals are used to cut drugs [are] Constant changes are occurring, making the tests used to determine the substances impossible.
child safety reviews colorado And connecticut Connecticut officials also made observations about gaps in testing, stating that “a large number of emergency departments are now incorporating fentanyl into urine toxicology screens and efforts are ongoing to standardize this practice across the state. ”
Although none of the new policies will bring back Stephanie Robinson’s grandson, she says she takes comfort in knowing that Michelle’s death will have an impact and hopefully save the lives of many others.
“We’re losing a lot of kids,” Robinson said. “I know change is slow and the process is slow, but for (Michelle) that’s my goal in life right now, to make sure no other child dies.”