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Babysitter given 8 years for fatal dose of Benadryl

The judge says the child might have survived had the woman told paramedics that she gave her the medicine.

Associated Press
Published August 16, 2003

BARTOW - A babysitter was sentenced to eight years in prison Friday for giving a 31/2-month-old girl a lethal dose of Benadryl to quiet her fussiness.

Paula Burcham, 53, pleaded no contest to manslaughter in the December 2001 accidental death of Grace Fields.

Polk Circuit Judge Dick Prince gave Burcham the maximum sentence allowed under a plea agreement, saying she may have contributed to the death by not telling paramedics she had given the baby the over-the-counter cold medication. An antidote exists to counteract such an overdose and might have saved the baby, but paramedics never knew to give it to Grace, Prince found.

The baby's mother, Tracy Fields, had reluctantly agreed to the plea agreement but said Friday she was satisfied both by the sentence and the widespread attention the case has drawn to the practice of using over-the-counter medicines to quiet cranky babies.

The infant was found unresponsive Dec. 18, 2001, at Burcham's home day care facility. Grace died later that day at Lakeland Regional Medical Center.

Initially, Grace's parents thought their child died from sudden infant death syndrome. But the Polk County medical examiner ruled she died from intoxication by diphenhydramine, the generic name for an antihistamine and sedative used in cough suppressants and sleeping aids.

The sentence capped an emotionally wrenching day. About 75 people packed the courtroom during testimony, which was often punctuated by sobs from the audience and even the judge's clerk.

Prince fought back emotion as he told Burcham the deciding factor for the sentence was that she did not tell paramedics she had given the baby Benadryl when there was a chance the child could be saved.

Burcham didn't admit to giving the baby Benadryl until six months after Grace's death, even though she was repeatedly questioned about it by investigators.

In February 2002, Burcham tried to kill herself by overdosing on a prescription medicine, leaving a note that said she felt guilty for putting the baby to sleep on her stomach.

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