The Multnomah County District Attorney will not press charges against a homeless woman who gave birth to a baby during a January snowstorm and then did not seek medical care for herself or the child until a bystander found them at a bus stop.
The prosecutor reviewing the case concluded April 9 the mother had not committed any crime.
“The mother of this child was homeless and mentally ill. According to (Multnomah County Medical Examiner Karen) Gunson, the child was stillborn,” wrote deputy District Attorney Charles Mickley. “Consequently, there is no homicide in the present case.”
Mickley declined to specifically comment on why it took him so long to review the case.
The incident followed the deaths of four other homeless people in Portland due to exposure in January and sparked public outrage. Like those deaths, this incident points to failures in Oregon’s and social safety net for people who have mental illness.
The district attorney’s decision not to prosecute ends the case, but not the uncertainty surrounding how a mentally ill woman became pregnant and gave birth on the streets of Portland – or whether her baby could have been saved.
The Portland Police Bureau had assigned a detective from the Multnomah County Child Abuse Team to investigate the baby’s death, due to conflicting accounts of whether the baby was stillborn or alive and breathing at least briefly after its birth.
The Willamette Week obtained police reports detailing the incident in January and first reported the story. OPB has since obtained the same police reports.
A man on his way to work before dawn Jan. 9 noticed a homeless woman with a shopping cart at a bus stop and asked her if she was all right. She answered, “No.”
The woman was barefoot, and her pants were down at her ankles. She showed the bystander the top of a baby’s head wrapped up in her coat. The man called 911.
Notes written by a dispatcher indicated the baby was conscious and breathing, “but has been outside this entire time.”
An ambulance carried the mother and baby to Oregon Health and Science University. Pediatric emergency room doctors attempted to resuscitate the child for 25 minutes before pronouncing it dead.
The Medical Examiner’s Office initially told a police detective that performing an autopsy was unnecessary because the child was stillborn. Later, doctors at OHSU told child abuse detective Robert Harley they had not determined whether the child was stillborn. Doctors said the mother reported going into labor at 6 p.m. the night before and giving birth around 4 a.m. She told the doctors the baby was moving after the birth.
An ER doctor estimated the baby had been born at about 32 weeks.
Harley told the Medical Examiner’s Office that while he did not see anything suspicious about the infant’s death, he was concerned about “an apparent gap in the information coming from the hospital staff.”
Dr. Karen Gunderson, the Multnomah County medical examiner, ultimately performed an autopsy Jan. 10, a day after the infant was discovered.
The mother was unable to answer basic questions about her pregnancy, the delivery, and the baby.
OPB is not naming the woman to protect her privacy.
She told a police officer who accompanied her to the hospital that she had gotten pregnant “via the miracle of immaculate conception.” She also said she was bionic.
In a follow-up interview with Harley, the mother said she was houseless, had no phone, and that the baby had no father. According to the police reports, she was “committed for long term evaluation.”
The Multnomah County Medical Examiner initially refused a public records request made by The Oregonian for Gunderson’s autopsy report.
The Oregonian appealed to Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, who ruled most of the autopsy report was private medical information, but that a few pages could be released. OPB obtained a copy of that heavily redacted report.
It lists the death as natural and the cause as “fetal demise with stillbirth.” It states, as Gunderson has said in interviews, that she found no air expansion in the baby’s lungs, no air bubble in his stomach, and no evidence of injury.
The redacted records released by the Medical Examiner’s Office do not include a toxicology report or any more detailed description of Gunderson’s findings.
Underhill also denied a public records request from the Willamette Week, which had sought a Portland Fire Bureau report on the incident.
“The public is aware that a mentally ill homeless woman lost her child. The public can reasonably conclude that the child would have had a higher likelihood of survival had his mother not been homeless, or, at least, been engaged with services,” Underhill wrote in his denial.
“The exact timing and the cause of this baby’s death would not galvanize public interest any more than the tragic facts [that] are already known.”
The baby’s mother had contact with local law enforcement in the past. Police records indicate she has lived in Portland for many years and was once reported as a juvenile runaway.
In 2015, facing misdemeanor assault charges, she was committed to the Oregon State Hospital for mental health treatment for seven months. She had allegedly hit and bit her mother and brother during a fight, according to court records.
At the state hospital, she was diagnosed with a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
In September 2015, a judge ruled that, based on a psychiatrist’s assessment, she was too ill to stand trial in “the foreseeable future.”
The misdemeanor charges were dropped and she was ordered released from the hospital on the same day, according to court records.
Public records contain no hints of what the woman’s life was like after that, whether she received services, or how she ended up homeless.
If the emergency room doctor’s estimates of the infant’s age were correct, she became pregnant less than a year after she left the state hospital.
In Oregon, six percent of women with new infants reported having been homeless within a year of their child’s birth, according to a study published in the scientific journal Pediatrics in 2011.
The study compared pregnancy monitoring data collected by 31 states. Washington and Oregon had the second and third highest reported incidence of homelessness during pregnancy.
Before concluding his investigation, Detective Harley re-interviewed the bystander who first found the mother and child.
According to Harley, the bystander said he had not heard the baby cry or seen it move. He “thought it was strange the baby was not crying and that the newborn was outside on such a cold morning. ”
Harley also listened to the tape of the 911 call and read a print-out of the 911 dispatcher’s log.
He was trying to understand why a 911 dispatcher had written that the baby was alive.
Harley noted that at 5:53 am, the dispatcher entered a note into the log stating that the baby was conscious and breathing.
That was four minutes before police and firefighters arrived at the bus stop.
“I listened to the recording several times,” the detective wrote.
In the tape, he wrote, the mother “is asked if the baby is breathing OK but her response is garbled and sounds as if she says it’s cold out and needs an ambulance.”
He continued: She is “asked if the baby’s lips are turning blue and she says, ‘No, not blue at all.’”
“Though it is garbled,” Harley wrote, “I believe [the mother] says she ‘wanted an ambulance for him … it’s really cold out.'”