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Report: Baby died from drug-laced breast milk

  • Ryder Salmen, 8 months, died of a drug overdose in September 2012
  • Methadone, Xanax and a painkiller were found in the child’s system, according to toxicology results
  • Sarah Stephens, 32, is being held without bond on a second-degree murder charge
Report: Baby died from drug-laced breast milk

Watch Nancy Grace Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET on HLN for the latest in the case. 

A California mother is facing murder charges in the 2012 death of her infant son, who reportedly died after drinking his mother’s breast milk laced with a variety of prescription drugs, according to HLN affiliate KTVU. 

Sarah Ann Stephens, 32, of Citrus Heights, was arraigned August 9 on charges of second-degree murder and two counts of felony child endangerment.

On the morning of September 29, 2012, Stephens called 911 to report that her 8-month-old son, Ryder Salmen, was not breathing. The baby boy was pronounced dead at the scene.

According to court documents, Stephens told authorities she put Ryder to bed around 7:30 p.m. the night before. At 9 p.m., the mother said, Ryder started crying so she brought him a bottle and left it propped up in his bassinet. Stephens told police she checked on her son two more times before discovering him dead at 7:30 a.m. the next day.

Court documents state that officers found an almost-full bottle in the child’s crib, but when the contents were tested, no drugs were found.

Additionally, officers who arrived on the scene that day said they did not find any signs of foul play, according to a Citrus Heights Police Department press release.

However, in January 2013, Ryder’s death was declared a homicide when toxicology results revealed his cause of death as “acute alprazolam, methadone, and oxymorphone intoxication,” according to the Sacramento County Coroner’s report.

“Over the following months, Citrus Heights Detectives, in cooperation with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, Sacramento County Crime Lab, Child Protective Services and medical professionals, determined the infant’s mother, Sarah Stephens, knowingly without regard for the infant’s health, administered controlled substances to the infant ultimately causing his death,” police said in the press release.

Police declined to comment on exactly how the drugs were administered to the baby, but documents reveal that in April 2012, months before Ryder’s death, Child Protective Services warned Stephens to stop breastfeeding after the child was brought to the hospital, where high levels of methadone were found in his blood.

After receiving the report regarding that incident, a Child Protective Services social worker determined that Ryder was at risk because he was a “drug-exposed” infant, according to documents obtained by HLN.

As a result, a safety assessment was created by a social worker and submitted for manager approval; however, it wasn’t approved until August 2012. Records show a second assessment stated Ryder faced low risk of further maltreatment.

Stephens was reported to Child Protective Services a second time when, on August 22, 2012, police cited her for child endangerment when the car she was driving went off the road with Ryder in the backseat.

“The case was assigned to CPS but closed as ‘inconclusive’ when they were unable to locate and interview the defendant,” according to court records.

Ryder died less than a month after the officer made the second report to Child Protective Services.

“As child protective services professionals, we wrestle constantly with the difficulties of how to protect children and support families when parents are in drug treatment programs. In conducting our assessments, we also consult with service providers and medical professionals. We have discovered that the medical community is not in agreement about the appropriateness of breast feeding when a mother is on methadone and a baby is going through the painful withdrawal associated with being born addicted,” Sacramento County Child Protective Services said in a statement to HLN.

“There is also disagreement within the medical and drug treatment communities about how to appropriately monitor compliance with drug treatment programs for new and breast feeding mothers. Sacramento County CPS is working collaboratively with medical providers in our community to ensure that treatment and monitoring practices put child safety at the forefront," the statement added.

Meanwhile, Stephens remains at the Sacramento County Main Jail without bond. She faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. Her next court date is scheduled for October 18. 

Stephens’ attorney Michael Sganga refused to give HLN a comment when asked about the case.

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