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Portland Mayor Calls Baby’s Death “A Damnation of Our Response” to Untreated Mental Illness

It’s not clear where the infant’s mother is now.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler says the death of an infant found at a bus stop last week is "a damnation of our response" to untreated mental illness on the city's streets.

The baby was found Jan. 9 in freezing temperatures with his homeless mother along Southeast Powell Boulevard. Local officials do not agree whether the infant died of exposure hours after being born outdoors or was stillborn.

Dr. Karen Gunson, the state medical examiner, says the baby was stillborn. But Oregon Health & Science University staffers who treated the baby disagreed, according to police reports obtained by WW.

Either way, the circumstances of the child's death highlight gaps in Portland's safety net that allowed a woman with a history of mental illness to give birth at a homeless camp behind a Chuck E. Cheese's.

"It's horrible," Wheeler says.

"It's a tragedy that exemplifies the holes in our system," says Kevin Fitts, executive director of the Oregon Mental Health Consumers Association.

Details of the infant's death were found in a Portland police report obtained by WW on Jan. 16.

Related: This story advances reporting from WW on Jan. 16. Read the original story here.

Shortly before 6 am on Jan. 9, officers from the Portland Police Bureau responded at a TriMet bus stop at Southeast 91st Avenue and Powell Boulevard.

The 911 operator texted details to the responding officers.

"Baby was born in a transient camp near Chuck E. Cheese," the text message said. (There's a Chuck E. Cheese's at 9120 SE Powell Blvd.)

The birth occurred hours earlier, officers learned, and the baby had remained outside in weather that hovered near freezing. The texts indicated the baby was alive.

"Baby is conscious and breathing okay, but has been outside this entire time," read a second text. "Baby is ice cold."

An ambulance rushed the child to Oregon Health & Science University Hospital.

At the hospital, officers interviewed the baby's mother, 34. As two emergency room doctors worked to resuscitate the baby, records show, the woman told police a disjointed story.

She said she'd gotten pregnant "by the miracle of immaculate conception," and she struggled to answer basic questions about her address and ethnicity, and where the baby was born.

"It was very clear to me she was very mentally ill," Officer Justin Raphael wrote in his police report. (Records show the woman spent time at the Oregon State Hospital in 2015.)

Hospital staff used CPR for 25 minutes in an attempt to save the child. "The newborn was pronounced dead at 0641 hours," Raphael wrote.

Related: Four people have died of hypothermia on Portland's streets in the new year.

Police soon encountered a difference of opinion about the circumstances of the baby's death, one that continues a week later.

Child-abuse Detective Robert Harley wrote in his report that the Oregon State Police Medical Examiner's Office said the baby—then still at OHSU—was stillborn.

Sarah Blackmon, the hospital's administrator on duty, and Dr. David Sheridan, a pediatric emergency room physician who'd treated the child, told Harley they didn't know how the medical examiner made that judgment.

Instead, "Dr. Sheridan told me it appeared to him the child was born at about 32 weeks," Harley wrote in his report. "Dr. Sheridan told me the child appeared to 'be viable'"—meaning the baby could survive if born under normal circumstances.

If the baby died of exposure or other causes, police would investigate. But if the child were stillborn, they would not.

Gunson, the state medical examiner, later disagreed with the OHSU doctor's assessment of the baby's condition.

"After an autopsy, we determined that the baby was stillborn," says Tom Chappelle, an investigator for the Medical Examiner's Office. "Dr. Gunson did the autopsy herself."

Chappelle acknowledges a contradiction remains. He blames a shifting story from OHSU officials, who originally told him the baby was stillborn then told police a different story. OHSU declined to comment on any aspect of this story.

It's not clear where the infant's mother is now.

In his report, Harley wrote that she would be held at OHSU "for a long-term evaluation." Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says the woman later faced a civil commitment hearing, but he did not know the result.

"This is a horrible intersection of homelessness, mental illness and pregnancy that's just heartbreaking at every level," Simpson says.