Coroner to probe newborn baby's tragic death in Melbourne prison

Prison guards and a nurse didn’t try to resuscitate an “incredibly vulnerable” 12-day-old baby who wasn’t breathing in a Melbourne prison, a court has been told.

The baby girl, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, died in the mothers and children unit at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre on August 18, 2018.

A coroner will probe the 12-day-old girl’s death in the unit and is expected to examine circumstances around the tragedy, including the prison program, the environment and her medical care.

The infant’s mum woke up between 5am and 5.30am to feed the newborn when she realised her baby wasn’t breathing and her dummy wasn’t in her mouth, counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard told the court on Thursday.

The mum and another prisoner in the unit tried to resuscitate the girl on a nearby couch and rang a buzzer to call for help, she told the court.

“Prison officers and a nurse entered the unit but it appears no CPR was attempted by any of them,” Ms Ellyard said.

Coroner to probe newborn baby’s tragic death in Melbourne prison

Camera IconThe 12-day-old girl died in the Mothers and children unit at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre at Ravenhall in Melbourne. Credit: istock

The little girl had only been released from her second hospital stay the day before, the court was told.

Her proposed medical cause of death was SIDS under category two, Ms Ellyard said.

The baby’s mum was in prison during much of her pregnancy and on methadone treatment, she told the court.

The infant was “incredibly vulnerable”, Ms Ellyard told the court.

“She was vulnerable because she was a newborn baby. She was vulnerable because she’d been born with an opioid addiction from which she was withdrawing and which gave her additional medical needs.”

The little girl was born on August 6 at Sunshine Hospital and was admitted three days later to the special care nursery where she was found to be jaundiced and losing weight since birth.

The nursery staff said the mum was “keenly involved” in caring for her daughter, stayed on the ward and was able to settle the girl when she cried, Ms Ellyard told the court.

The mum and baby were discharged from the hospital after eight days on August 14, but when a midwife visited the pair in the prison the next day, she found the little girl was still jaundiced and her weight had dropped again.

The pair were taken back to hospital and the infant was found to be “clinically well” but was mildly dehydrated, jaundiced, and it appeared some feeding advice hadn’t been followed.

Coroner to probe newborn baby’s tragic death in Melbourne prison

Camera IconA nurse and prison officers didn’t perform CPR on a 12-day-old baby girl who stopped breathing at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (pictured). Credit: Supplied

They stayed in hospital for another three days before the mum and baby were discharged back to the prison unit. The newborn died the following day.

Ms Ellyard told the court the baby’s death raised important questions about children in prisons and how they were cared for and whose responsibility it was to ensure their welfare was “in view”.

At the time the Department of Health and Human Services raised concerns about whether the infant should be in her mother’s care because of fears about her access to drugs in custody.

The scope of the inquest had yet to be decided, but Ms Ellyard said it would be appropriate to get evidence from medical experts into the baby’s care and evidence from child protection officers about supports available to the baby if she had been subject to a report.

She said how the decision was made to allow the infant to stay in the care of her mother at the unit, the environment at the prison and whether there were adequate supports in place and her medical care were key themes.

An inquest will be held at a later date.

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