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Hannah and Andrew
December 20, 2011 3:46 PM   Subscribe

In 2006, Hannah Overton was charged with the death of her 4-year-old foster son, Andrew Burd. Media accounts at the time claimed that Overton had force-fed her misbehaving son a mixture of water and creole seasoning, leading to death by salt poisoning. Convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2008, Overton's case led angry bloggers to call her "the ultimate evil," part of a cult of "child abuse groupies," a murderer that "church cronies" are working to free.

This month's issue of Texas Monthly paints a fuller picture of the short life of Andrew Burd and the conviction of the mother who was working towards adopting him.
posted by mudpuppie (79 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read this this morning and it was interesting, but not as convincing as its author seems to think it is. I don't have an opinion about Overton's guilt but the story about giving the kid Creole seasoning mixed with water instead of soup to "appease him":
Finally she relented, heating up what she had on hand: leftover vegetable-beef soup flavored with Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning. Shortly after noon, Larry picked her and the boys up and took them to a McDonald’s drive-through, and then the chiropractor, before returning to work. (Andrew was told that he could not have any food at McDonald’s, since he had already eaten.) When Andrew complained of being hungry that afternoon, Hannah gave him more of the leftover soup. When she refused to give him a second helping, he threw a tantrum and shouted, “I hate you!” Finally, Hannah resorted to sprinkling some Zatarain’s into a sippy cup of water, hoping that the taste alone would appease him.
...just does not seem like a plausible thing that somebody would do.
posted by enn at 4:07 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's interesting how much of Hannah's defense in this article hinges on her friends' statements that "she would never harm a child." Recent events, along with the experiences of many abused children, suggest that friends are often not the best judge of an abuser's character.
posted by crackingdes at 4:12 PM on December 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


enn: I dunno, I could see trying something like this when a kid is pretty out of control. You'll try almost anything. I wonder how one could even dissolve 6 tablespoons of salt in a sippy cup and make someone drink it. That doesn't really seem possible to me.

crackingdes: When I read the longer article here were the parts that were most compelling to me:

In 2007 he published a seminal paper on salt poisoning, in which he examined, among other things, documented cases of children who had accidentally ingested excessive quantities of salt. He found that they fit a narrow profile: they were between the ages of one and six, they had been in the foster system or were from abusive homes, and they had pica. Moritz, in fact, had been asked to testify as an expert witness for Hannah’s defense at her trial. After examining Andrew’s medical records, he had determined that the boy’s death was likely accidental.

and

The paperwork Orr now forwarded to him, which showed that Andrew’s stomach contained a great deal of water, only confirmed the clinical director’s initial conclusion. “If someone was trying to murder Andrew, they would have restrained him and prevented him from drinking water,” Moritz subsequently wrote in an affidavit. “The very dilute gastric sodium contents suggest . . . that he had unrestricted access to water.” Given these facts, he explained, “There is not a single piece of evidence which suggests that Hannah Overton salt-poisoned Andrew.” Instead, Moritz added, the most likely scenario was that Andrew “accidentally salt-poisoned himself.”
posted by twjordan at 4:16 PM on December 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


...just does not seem like a plausible thing that somebody would do.

Feeding an infant salt (or Zatarain's, etc) doesn't seem plausible as an act of murder, either.
posted by vorfeed at 4:18 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is the first time I've ever hear of salt poisoning. Wikipedia:

Death can occur by ingestion of large amounts of salt in a short time (about 1 g per kg of body weight). Deaths have also resulted from attempted use of salt solutions as emetics, forced salt intake, and accidental confusion of salt with sugar in child food.

I'll be darned. I had no idea.
posted by stinkycheese at 4:20 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


For very small children (2-3), I believe the danger zone starts at about 1 tbsp of salt.
posted by Decimask at 4:29 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's too much doubt here for a conviction. It's possible the mother freaked and force fed him; it's equally plausible that he had pica and poisoned himself.

What's truly sad is that kids who have been starved should simply be allowed to eat when they're hungry, even if they stuff themselves or hoard food: the problem is they don't believe they'll be fed regularly, so restricting them worsens the issue. That's why they hoard and gorge.

Yes, this may mean they will throw up and hoarded stuff will get disgusting (that needs to be dealt with but not in a punitive way) sometimes but it's only when they feel safe that they can get over it. This misunderstanding leads to tons of child abuse of children who were previously abused and neglected.
posted by Maias at 4:31 PM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


I accidentally put salt instead of sugar in my wife's coffee about 10 years ago. She still reminds me of this every so often.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:31 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the first time I've ever hear of salt poisoning.
It's amazing anyone procreates, given the terrifying number of ways one can accidentally kill a kid. So many awful things that will probably never happen that you can stay up nights worrying about!

I never know what to do with stories like this. It's horrifying to think that a parent could kill a vulnerable child, and it's horrifying to think that a grieving parent could be falsely accused of doing such a thing.
posted by craichead at 4:32 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The impression I get from this was that Andrew was a child with some real problems that everyone tried to pretend didn't exist.
posted by tommasz at 4:34 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some people seem to have a punishment fetish. It creeps me right out. As long as somebody is prison (or Hell, judging by the blog comments) they're over the moon.
posted by klanawa at 4:34 PM on December 20, 2011 [13 favorites]


The pediatrician, Ed Cortes, makes some amazing statements in this article.
Cortes believed that Andrew’s death was accidental. “The intentional poisoning of a child is usually perpetrated with sedatives, anticonvulsants, or medications like injectable insulin, not food,” he told me. “The sodium content of Zatarain’s is not listed on its packaging. How do you poison someone with a substance you don’t know the contents of?” That Hannah had not sought immediate medical attention did not change his view. “Benign conditions and life-threatening conditions look the same in the beginning,” he said. “You can ask, ‘Why didn’t she go to the hospital sooner?’ but in hindsight, everything is obvious. If she had taken 
Andrew to the hospital earlier, what would she have taken him in for? Because he was vomiting? Because he felt cold?”
This really does underline the non-obvious nature of the obvious, when it exists in a very emotionally charged situation such as the death of a child, especially if there is even the possibility that they died at the hands of their parent. Even this level-headed guy apparently initially told prosecution that Overton should "fry". I came into this thread and clicked the article with my defenses up and a rein on my anger. It's not excusable, but it is understandable, that basic medical facts escaped the jury's attention.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:41 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


When Andrew’s condition worsened, she and Larry had debated whether to call 911 or go to the nearby urgent care clinic, a concern because Andrew lacked health insurance. (CPS had not yet sent them his Social Security card, which they needed to get him insured.)

When Gilmore polled the jury afterward, all twelve members stated that they had found Hannah guilty of capital murder by omission for not acting quickly enough to save Andrew; none believed that she had poisoned him. Yet to find her guilty, they’d had to believe that she knew he would die if she did not get him immediate medical attention.

Those two details break my heart. She was found guilty because they went to the clinic, partially because of a bureaucratic delay.
posted by sawdustbear at 4:42 PM on December 20, 2011 [14 favorites]


she should have let the jury consider a lesser charge.

all the texas monthly article convinces me of is that the writer is convinced she's innocent.
posted by nadawi at 4:46 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


They claim Hannah Overton is the salt of the Earth.

Seems like a bad way of defending her here.
posted by Slackermagee at 4:52 PM on December 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


What's truly sad is that kids who have been starved should simply be allowed to eat when they're hungry, even if they stuff themselves or hoard food: the problem is they don't believe they'll be fed regularly, so restricting them worsens the issue. That's why they hoard and gorge.

Developmentally challenged children (and adults) can eat compulsively to the point of self-harm, so it's not at all true that you should allow someone to eat unrestrictedly to avoid a confrontation with their food issues.
posted by fatbird at 4:53 PM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


It obviously depends on the food issue, but my point was that restricting eating to meal times and doing punitive things with food the way they appear to have done (whether or not they poisoned the kid) is not helpful.
posted by Maias at 4:55 PM on December 20, 2011


People who say they've never heard of salt poisoning-- what strange forces do you think are at play when people are stranded at sea with no fresh water?
posted by Perko at 4:55 PM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Can't understand how someone who's been through something like this could still continue to believe in a god. But I suppose that's the irrational paradox of faith.
posted by SomaSoda at 4:59 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There have been a couple of cases over a similar time period here - this couple had their conviction quashed, I haven't come across anything to suggest this mother has. I am diabetic and can develop a raging thirst on occasion when my blood sugar is high - it's agony and I can't help thinking that a child with an excess of salt in their system must feel something even worse.

One comment I did read somewhere is that in some cases where salt overdoses are suspected, they can actually be caused by parents unwittingly feeding their young children adult food, which generally will contain more salt than is appropriate - I suppose over a period of a few days, this will build up to toxic levels without the child being forced to eat / drink it in one go and thus throwing up immediately.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:00 PM on December 20, 2011


The Cinderella Effect.
posted by steamynachos at 5:00 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


@perko

sea demons
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 5:00 PM on December 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


This misunderstanding leads to tons of child abuse of children who were previously abused and neglected.

While this adoptive mom-to-be might not have been deliberately trying to kill the child in her care, it seems pretty clear to me that she was using this mix of salt and spiced water to attempt to punish the kid for it's incessant whining for more food. (And by 'punish', I mean impose some kind of Clockwork Orange style behavioural conditioning on the poor kid.)

That strikes me as abusive by any possible criteria, therefore a finding of manslaughter wouldn't have been at all unreasonable IMO.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:03 PM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


Oops, didn't mean to deep link to the criticism paragraph there. Damn I suck at interneting
posted by steamynachos at 5:04 PM on December 20, 2011


Just want to pop in here to mention that Texas Monthly has a pretty awesome back catalog of true crime longreads. I've spent many hours of downtime at work going through them. They're mostly all good, but start with any story by Skip Hollandsworth.

Thanks for posting this, I am looking forward to reading it.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:08 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Damn. Doesn't sound like a lot of evidence to convict this woman for life. I wish her luck on her appeals, if she has some.
posted by agregoli at 5:09 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have to say that even as a biologist, I would have thought the amount of salt necessary to kill someone (even a child) was much larger than it appears to be, and I also would have thought that you'd vomit it up. It's not really a very plausible murder weapon for someone uneducated - although manslaughter due to abuse seems entirely possible.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:10 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Refused McDonalds, given salt water. Sounds like an even comparison to me...
posted by Chuffy at 5:12 PM on December 20, 2011


Derr, read further about the appeals. Still hope she gets some relief.
posted by agregoli at 5:13 PM on December 20, 2011


People who say they've never heard of salt poisoning-- what strange forces do you think are at play when people are stranded at sea with no fresh water?

When I think 'salt water' - or, more properly, water with a bunch of salt dumped in - what comes to mind is my mother giving me a glass of same when I had a sore throat. She'd tell me to swish it around my mouth and then spit it out. I don't live near any large body of salt water, so quite honestly I'd never considered your question beyond knowing that, if you drink salt water while you're floating in it, that's a no-no.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:17 PM on December 20, 2011


I know you'll die if you drink salt water when stranded out in the ocean and all, but I had NO IDEA you could potentially kill a two year old by giving them a tbsp of salt. As if I needed more to worry about.....I already have extraordinarily vivid nightmare scenarios of knives pulled off counters, headlong plunges down the stairs, a sudden dart into traffic, etc. etc. (I'm convinced they're an evolutionary thing to keep me on my toes).

Tragic case. I find it very very hard to believe that this was premeditated murder.
posted by Go Banana at 5:18 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


it seems plausible a kid with pica would eat condiments and spices in dangerous quantities. i've always skewed more sweet, but from my earliest memories i'd try to hide in the kitchen with the container white sugar and eat it by the tablespoon.
posted by nadawi at 5:29 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was under the impression that drinking seawater while shipwrecked etc. is fatal due to severe dehydration (in that it kills you by exacerbating an existing condition rather than by direct action. you'd have to drink a lot of water to get up to 1g per kg), but maybe that's just another way of describing salt poisoning. This is based on having read a dozen or so "lost at sea" type first-person narratives, so I could simply be mistaken.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:31 PM on December 20, 2011


From the article:

THE MOST UNSETTLING ASPECT of The State of Texas v. Hannah Ruth Overton, which got under way in August 2007, was how effectively a woman who had spent most of her life as a do-gooder could be recast as a monster.

Now, replace the name with "Sandusky" and I don't get unsettled at all. Dude ran a charity for underprivileged kids, how could he be a monster? Well ...

But I don't think she's a monster. I don't think many people know that Zatarain's can kill a child (e.g. I had no idea). I don't think she was a great choice to take in a foster kid, but if she really wanted to kill the kid, a sippy cup of Zatarain's wouldn't be the item of choice.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:32 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are some kind of scary practices around the rearing of troubled foster/adopted kids. It's hard not to take on either the attitude, "Well they come from somewhere worse so anything I do is surely better than where they came from" or, "Let's put together a STRUCTURED punishments restrictive environment to force the child into obedience"

I have spent a good deal of time reading foster parent blogs and am good friends with a few and there are some AMAZING foster and adoptive parents to kids from the foster system who use research based and peaceful means of connecting with and working with kids with behavioral issues---- and there are also some really creepy movements out there of "discipline" techniques that make my hair crawl.

Having worked with kids with behavioral problems, you REALLY CAN work with children with behavioral problems, without trying to punish and terrorize them into submission. I think a lot of foster and adoptive parents need a lot more support learning techniques to create a compassionate structured environment and guide a child into a routine of behaviors and trust that work. It's so hard and people doing this deserve to be honored.

But I do think some people think that because it's hard and it's "charity" that means you can do it however you want and since these kids are ultimately someone elses damaged goods you can do no wrong.

Which can lead to a rather lenient attitude toward foster/adoptive parent use of abusive punishment strategies both in specific foster/adoptive parent communities and also in the social workers trying to manage it all. There often just aren't enough foster/adoptive parents to be as picky as they should be, or enough money to offer as comprehensive training about special needs/traumatized kids.

I doubt she intended this to happen, but it's still really messed up and it sounds like she was in way past her head without a clear course of action to meet the needs of a special needs child.
posted by xarnop at 5:35 PM on December 20, 2011 [16 favorites]


As a young child, my brother ate salt by the tablespoon, like a deer at a lick. (He's fine.) I'm sure my mom had no idea this could be dangerous, and I suspect the same is true for Hannah Overton.
posted by cyndigo at 5:36 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was paddled in elementary school for switching the salt and the sugar in the teacher's lunch room. Seems I might have deserved it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:39 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I first heard of salt poisoning reading about a case where a young kid was messing around at the dinner table and either accidentally or purposely spilled salt all over their plate of spaghetti. As punishment they were forced to finish the plate of spaghetti, and died shortly thereafter. I can't remember what happened to the parents in this case, and Google only wants to tell me about Andrew Burd. It really is shocking how small an amount can be a lethal dose.
posted by Flannery Culp at 5:40 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm no expert on this matter, but I still remember discussing salt poisoning in fifth grade in relation to my science teacher's explanations of the processes of osmosis and diffusion. You may have heard of somebody dying from a "water overdose" --salt poisoning is essentially the opposite process. The body's cells are constantly trying to create a concentration equilibrium & Salt is an extremely powerful agent in drawing water into and out of cells. When you eat a lot of salt, the body's cells have no choice but to draw the salt in so that equilibrium is achieved. Cells being tiny as they are, it really doesn't take "too much" to kill them. According to Wolfram Alpha, there are 32 grams in a tablespoon of salt, so this would only kill a kid who weighed 32 pounds or less and likely wasn't adequatly hydrated.
posted by Perko at 5:46 PM on December 20, 2011


The only thing that screams "crazy authoritarian" about this family is that the children are still being homeschooled (by a church friend), despite the absence of the homeschooling parent. Otherwise, this sounds a little like other cases of women convicted in the media for displaying the wrong emotions (see also: Kate McCann, Amanda Knox.)
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:48 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I dunno, I could see trying something like this when a kid is pretty out of control. You'll try almost anything.

yeah, you might even buy him something to eat when you're at mcdonald's

for pete's sake, why didn't she just give him some real damn food? - kid says he's hungry, you feed him something

how hard is that?
posted by pyramid termite at 5:50 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


for pete's sake, why didn't she just give him some real damn food? - kid says he's hungry, you feed him something

how hard is that?


It's not hard, but it can be fatal. Certain eating disorders that are common to children who are developmentally disabled involve a disconnection between the brain and the stomach, where the brain thinks it always wants food, regardless of feelings of satiety or fullness. Consumption is compulsive, and if it's not regulated by the parents, can kill the child.

It was specifically noted in the article that Andrew was one of these children. He would demand food and eat it regardless of how much he'd eaten or how recently. The most immediate risk, among others, is a ruptured stomach.
posted by fatbird at 5:54 PM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


"seems pretty clear to me that she was using this mix of salt and spiced water to attempt to punish the kid for it's incessant whining for more food."

really? I assumed it was meant to be a kind of 'food substitute': he'd be made happy by getting something that tasted like food, but he didn't need and wasn't getting the extra calories (nor incurring the preparation time and hassle) of a second lunch.
posted by jacalata at 6:17 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Kind of related: a case of accidental salt poisoning in the U.K. with a baby fed adult foods because baby food was too expensive.
posted by dilettante at 6:18 PM on December 20, 2011


Kids in Haiti ate mud during a famine. Kids coming from neglectful situations with food resource issues will eat anything that they can choke down... no pica necessary.

I think a combination of factors, a harried mother not reacting maturely to a kid with some mental health issues, are at play - deliberate murder is a stretch way, way, way too far.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:35 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Otherwise, this sounds a little like other cases of women convicted in the media for displaying the wrong emotions (see also: Kate McCann, Amanda Knox.)

Yeah, that was the thing about this story that struck me too. Of all the totally irrational things that scare me about having kids, getting arrested for Grieving Wrong is high on the list.

It seems like a necessary evil in this case, though. Everyone seems to agree on what happened, and the only controversy is over what her intentions were. So maybe the armchair psychology is inevitable on this one.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:36 PM on December 20, 2011


I can completely see trying the "bit of flavor in mostly water" trick - my parents did that with me and apple juice when I was little, because it was the only thing that shut me up. I drank a gallon of apple juice a week, heavily diluted with many more gallons of water.

I was also a total salt nut. Ate it straight: pouring it out on the plate and just scooping it up like other kids did with sugar.
posted by SMPA at 6:38 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I was also a little salt fiend. I have a really early memory of (warning: gross) licking the top of the salt shaker because I thought it was so tasty.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:58 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


None of the jury members believed she intentionally poisoned the boy. One of the jury members later testified that she didn't believe there was even an intentional act of omission. How can it be a murder charge?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:07 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Because the jury had no choice if they thought she was at all to blame. She really should have allowed the jury to consider the lesser charge, they would have chosen that.
posted by agregoli at 7:14 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, this sounds like a complete miscarriage of justice. The prosecutors are inhuman scum that rush to make political hay out of a hot-button case, because they wanted to blame somebody.
Two doctors, both experts in the case -- one for the prosecution, the other for the defense -- believe Hannah Overton was wrongly convicted, and they spoke on camera for the first time to "20/20."

Dr. Edgar Cortes, the same pediatrician who treated Andrew at the emergency room and later consulted for the prosecution, said he always believed Andrew's death was accidental. Cortes is not being paid by the Overton defense team.
[...]
Prosecutor Sandra Eastwood said she doesn't recall Cortes expressing doubts about Hannah's intent.

"Sounds very disingenuous," Cortes told "20/20," "I was very clear from day one and very forceful as to my opinions."
Naturally. Not only should her conviction be overturned, but the prosecution team should be in jail.

This will never happen. People suck, life is bleak and hopeless, and the only good news is that everyone has to die eventually. But hey, someone's being punished, so we can all be stiff as a board in excitement at that, and people can pen hysterical blog posts about how Hannah is the ultimate in evil, grinning at a dead 4-year-old.


Was it on Metafilter that recently I read someone say that you could sum up most of our politics/culture as a pathological desire to "Punish the Sinner"?
posted by hincandenza at 7:47 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


This case just underscores the do not talk to police without a lawyer, even if you are completely innocent message. Her interview with police frustrated them and allowed them to have a bad impression of her.

I too did not pick up a sense of punishment with the Zatarains in water. She said it was meant to satisfy him. Also, the testimony from a previous foster mother that he was "normal" was bizarre.

Then, the withheld evidence, looks like prosecution thought they had their culprit and now were going to convict. The stomach contents did not hold high amounts of salt. It is possible that this was a build up over the course of the day. All too often our justice system is about convicting whomever you found the most plausible and not finding the truth :/

It really seems rather accidental to me and underscores the unfairness of Texas system. I cannot believe they denied her an appeal w/the lack of testimony from a doctor on the prosecution's list Because it was not clear that prosecution thought he would bring evidence that could exonerate Hannah's culpability for premeditated murder. Really? If you don't know what your witness will say you can ignore any inconvenient testimony? It is sad that defense couldn't/didn't bring in a similar witness. It is also clear to me that the defense attorney did not clearly explain to Hannah what the lesser charges meant. They kept urging her to allow the jury to consider alternative charges. She kept denying the permission because she thought that would be admitting guilt. That lawyer needed to stop urging and start educating his client.

It looks to me that many people and systems failed Hannah and Andrew. The foster system should have been aware of his behavioral disabilities and offered behavioral intervention (where is the public school's early intervention program? It seems that while in Foster Care, the administrator can determine the child's education path, so that would counter Hannah's home schooling). Foster also should have provided periodic respite care to give the family a break and time to breathe.

I co-parented a child with moderately severe behavior problems (he was diagnosed bipolar and eventually diagnosed Aspergers when he was in HS). We had to do the restrain until he was calm. That is not abusive - this was for his and everyone else's safety. We would ask if he could control one limb at a time and release him as he was able to control himself. It appears Andrew was also unable to control himself. Pica is tough to deal with, you cannot let the child eat everything and anything!

My "step son" needed highly structured daily activities and that included scheduled meals and snacks. He had time outs and natural consequences. (you toss your ice cream on the floor, you don't get any ice cream - these did not involve basic eating, sleeping or security items). These kids have to be handled in a different way than typical children. It was noted that Andrew was told to wait, and refused to do so. Thus, he had his lunch prior to McDonald's. You cannot let children that will eat until they throw up and continue to eat after eat anytime they want. They can literally kill themselves :(

Was zatarain's diluted in water a bad idea? Evidently so. However, I would never have known it, and I doubt many other people would have either.
posted by Librarygeek at 7:56 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


I am related to a child with severe disabilities who has this level of eating disorder. He will eat til the point of vomiting and then immediately eat more to the point of vomiting again if left to his own devices.

My nephew has had fairly severe mental disabilities since birth and has been raised in a loving, non-abusive home. This behavior has become a bit better as he has grown, but my sister has learned to keep all food inaccessible. There are things that are within the spectrum of human existence that defy a diagnostic term. It may appear to be hoarding behavior or pica, but there can be a malfunction in what normally serves as appetite and the feeling of being sated.

I'm inclined to believe the worst about people that home school and raise children to believe the bible as the be-all and end-all of wisdom, but I think she's innocent of murder. They should have sought proper medical help sooner, but damn that lack of insurance and potential for thousands of dollars in debt can de a detriment to a good, quick decision.
posted by readery at 8:05 PM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I had NO IDEA you could potentially kill a two year old by giving them a tbsp of salt

Go gt a tablespoon of salt and dump it in your hand and try an imagine eating it. You're closing on enough salt to make a whole adult circulatory system's worth of isotonic saline there.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:08 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Instead of educating themselves in what medical issues he had, I think these folks though they could love him enough and throw enough bible and god stuff at him and he would be all better. I don't think, if I am to believe the article, that they meant to hurt this child. However they are guilty of not doing their due diligence on this kid's problems.

Another thing, why would they be approved to adopt a kid whose medical and psych issues they could not afford? What was CPS thinking? They were stretched beyond their means as it was, big surprise they could not get this kid proper evaluations. That kind of infuriates me too. It's like they were told, here have this kid who is really in need of a whole hell of a lot of treatment, oh and fuck you if anything goes wrong.

I have read a lot lately of the corporal punishment in "Christian" parenting, this doesn't sound like it to me, just pure ignorance and a failure of the system.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 8:56 PM on December 20, 2011


There are some kind of scary practices around the rearing of troubled foster/adopted kids.

There's such an impulse to blame someone for this, and I don't get it. I'm sure there are scary practices out there, but did the Overtons engage in them? I don't see the evidence that they're among the "good enough for foster kids" people you've encountered in your personal experience.

She seems like a good, patient mother who did her best (while temporarily incapacitated by a neck injury) for a child whose myriad problems she had not yet fully identified, after he had spent only four months in her care. Neither had his pediatrician! Of course she didn't have a compassionate, informed plan for treating his pica: his pica hadn't even been diagnosed.

If restricting his food was the punitive part: I don't see how the "solution" of letting him eat what he wanted would have helped. He was choosing to eat enough salt to kill himself. That was basically the point of the expert testimony (did anyone read it?): he was going into that spice cabinet and eating the salt-based seasonings straight, because he was mentally ill enough that he couldn't stop himself. Any life-saving solution to that problem is going to include an intake restriction.

I would have no idea how to help a child like Andrew, nor, if I had been Hannah Overton that afternoon, even how to identify the life-threatening event that had just occurred (apparently, him being found in the spice rack).

This was a tragedy without a villain -- well, no. The villains are the birth parents who so neglected and abused him that, at 3 years old, he could kill himself looking for comfort.
posted by palliser at 9:15 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


The lessons of this story are: a child with a history of food deprivation will sometimes develop a compulsion to eat quantities of edible substances that will kill that child.

The US foster care system is not equipped to predict which children are at risk of this.

And Texas evangelicals are about as rational as jackals when they smell blood.
posted by SakuraK at 10:56 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Prosecutor Sandra Eastwood said she doesn't recall Cortes expressing doubts about Hannah's intent.

"Sounds very disingenuous," Cortes told "20/20," "I was very clear from day one and very forceful as to my opinions."
You know how some people CC absolutely everyone on internal corporate emails? This is why. It boggles the mind that something like this should devolve to he-said-she-said.
posted by vanar sena at 11:35 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Perko: According to Wolfram Alpha, there are 32 grams in a tablespoon of salt, so this would only kill a kid who weighed 32 pounds or less and likely wasn't adequatly hydrated.

Your math is dangerously(!) off - it's one gram of salt per KILOGRAM of body weight, meaning a tablespoon of salt would be enough to kill a kid who weighed up to 32kg, or 70.4 pounds.
posted by syzygy at 12:04 AM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


I weigh 220 pounds. Not dangerous for me (yeah, I should have read that part closer)
posted by Perko at 12:48 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I used to have terrible salt cravings. I still prefer salty tasting things over sweet things. But intense cravings are not like pica.
Pica is a few notches beyond pregnancy cravings. The only thing she could have done was lock cupboards and the fridge, and offer unlimited safer snacks.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:49 AM on December 21, 2011


Remember that all that LD/50 "mig per kig" data is not typically based on human data and that you should always put a big safety margin around that number to account for individual variation, differences between rats and humans, and so on. Also that, depending on the mode of toxicity, a dose well below the threshold of fatality might still cause you symptoms to which death might be preferable.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:01 AM on December 21, 2011


[...]Any God, Christian or not, would have wanted a better mother for Andrew.”

People are viciously judgmental of mothers and this seems to be primarily a particularly tragic extension of that pernicious form of sexism. She wasn't found guilty of murder, she was found guilty of being a bad mother. How do you know someone is a bad mother? Simple: their kid isn't perfect.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:59 AM on December 21, 2011 [10 favorites]


It's weird. I vaguely recall when I was quite small, tasting instant beef bouillon for my first time. Seriously, I was instantly quite crazy in demanding it. I wasn't allowed much, but I was clever, and learned I could get some joy just smelling the scent from the jar. But the point is, a small kid can catch a weird craving for something salty.

So some kid with lots of other issues gets hit with something like this? A flavor that absolutely must be had? I can see so easily a mother trying a bit in some water, to sooth the craving. (It's funny how vividly I recall my own craving. Not sure I ever had anything quite so strong, ever again. I couldn't have been more than 6). Difficult for both, and maybe even frightening for the kid, if he felt the powerlessness. Only other food ever came close was marzipan, and that was pale in comparison. But there's mom, trying to handle a difficult child with a crazy craving for something that seems reasonable but odd?
posted by Goofyy at 4:58 AM on December 21, 2011


Instead of educating themselves in what medical issues he had, I think these folks though they could love him enough and throw enough bible and god stuff at him and he would be all better. I don't think, if I am to believe the article, that they meant to hurt this child. However they are guilty of not doing their due diligence on this kid's problems.
My aunt and uncle adopted my cousin out of the foster care system, and they were probably about as qualified as they could have been. They were experienced foster parents, and my aunt is a social worker who worked with kids in crisis. And I think they'd be the first to tell you that they massively underestimated the extent of my cousin's developmental and mental health disabilities. The issue, I think, is that pretty much all foster children are initially really traumatized. Being removed from one's home is traumatic. Being shuttled around between foster homes is traumatic. Living in group homes as a little kid is traumatic. It's incredibly difficult to tell the difference between the short-and-medium-term effects of trauma, which often can be overcome with love and effective parenting, and permanent disabilities. You don't have to be an inexperienced fundie dingbat to get it wrong.

I guess I think there's a fundamental tension here. On the one hand, I do think that the "good enough for a foster kid" attitude exists. But on the other hand, a lot of people are really suspicious of foster parents, and I don't think most people understand the challenges that foster parents often face. That means that there's both the risk of excusing inexcusably bad parenting practices, on the one hand, but also of blaming foster parents for things outside their control, on the other.
posted by craichead at 6:07 AM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Man, I feel so awful for his mother, and for the poor kid to be wired to be constantly hungry. Thanks for posting this.

Re: who would put the seasoning in water to calm the kid down, children and adults both drink boullion cubes dissolved in water for something that tastes substantial without containing calories. It's really not unusual. If she didn't have any and he was into that seasoning, it'd actually be a reasonable idea to try so he wouldn't eat himself sick. I had bouillion cubes all the time as a kid: sometimes to tide me over to the next meal, sometimes if my stomach was upset and I couldn't keep anything down but liquid, sometimes for a savory alternative to hot drinks that are usually sweet, etc.
posted by Nattie at 6:11 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Belle O'Cosity: Instead of educating themselves in what medical issues he had, I think these folks though they could love him enough and throw enough bible and god stuff at him and he would be all better. I don't think, if I am to believe the article, that they meant to hurt this child. However they are guilty of not doing their due diligence on this kid's problems. Another thing, why would they be approved to adopt a kid whose medical and psych issues they could not afford? What was CPS thinking? They were stretched beyond their means as it was, big surprise they could not get this kid proper evaluations. That kind of infuriates me too. It's like they were told, here have this kid who is really in need of a whole hell of a lot of treatment, oh and fuck you if anything goes wrong.

"Oh and fuck you if anything goes wrong" is pretty much the response my parents got from the State when they were attempting to deal with four kids they adopted (they were sibs, so it wasn't just my parents being a glutton for punishment), who ended up having vastly significant more issues than they were told when adopting by social workers who meant well but had a vested interest in minimizing the problems with kids who were already incredibly difficult to place. My parents were conservative fundies who certainly did believe that love and jesus would work wonders, but they also tried really, really hard to get proper medical and psychiatric diagnoses and treatment for those kids, even when dad's company went belly up and we were bankrupt and could barely buy food, much less appointments with psychiatrists. But, well, the (state provided) therapist basically told them "If you loved them more, they wouldn't be acting out." The medical doctors told them it wasn't anything physical. Meanwhile the eldest boy kept trying to molest the youngest girl and the older girl trying to smother the third one in her sleep and the youngest one had issues with food (hoarding, among other things). And my parents were begging the State for exactly the education and resources that you blame these parents for not seeking, but Ohio said "You adopted them in Kentucky, not our problem" and Kentucky said "You're living in Ohio, not our problem" and my parents were saying "We're trying to help these kids but we don't even know where to start." When there's no diagnoses, as there wasn't with Andrew Burd, it's pretty hard for these parents to even know where to start looking for the education and resources to deal with nebulous issues that social services isn't officially acknowledging exist.

I'm not claiming there are no bad adoptive/foster parents (there certainly are), or that my parents were some kind of saints that did everything with these kids right (they didn't), or that the Overtons didn't do anything wrong or outright abusive with Andrew (I don't have enough information to make a case either way and have enough of a bias to not try). But it's really, really easy to judge parents in this kind of situation for not trying hard enough when their real crime is not knowing how to navigate an incredibly broken system and a culture that thinks that if anything goes wrong it's because the parents weren't good enough and not anyone else's responsibility.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 7:46 AM on December 21, 2011 [8 favorites]



One of the issues with growing up with a Therpist/Social Worker is that one becomes very jaded about children in Foster Care/The System.

It is sad that there are so many kids born to parents who themselves are too damaged to properly rear children.

I worked in a group home, a residential place for 5 boys. The parents in the group home wanted to keep Jeremy. The most important thing you need to know is that Jeremy was 1 of 6 children, two of whom drowned under their Mother's "care" because she was too checked-out to be bothered with actually caring for them. (this was two separate incidents mind you.)

Jeremy was so disruptive that the other boy's were deprived of appropriate, positive attention. Jeremy peed in people's drinks. Jeremy tried to set fires. Jeremy screamed, yelled, carried on, and it all came to a head when he killed a kitten.

My father (bless him) let the house parents try. They thought that love would cure him. But at the end of the day, the situation was untenable. Jeremy needed to be in a different environment and he was removed.

I was upset at how the events transpired, and my Dad told me, "there are just some kids who are so broken, that no matter how you put them together, they're going to be missing huge pieces." Some times, despite your best intentions, some kids will not be cured. Interestingly enough, in many cases, once you put kids in a stabile loving environment, they'll straighten right out.

So kudos to the folks who keep trying.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:18 AM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nattie: "Man, I feel so awful for his mother, and for the poor kid to be wired to be constantly hungry. Thanks for posting this.

Re: who would put the seasoning in water to calm the kid down, children and adults both drink boullion cubes dissolved in water for something that tastes substantial without containing calories. It's really not unusual. If she didn't have any and he was into that seasoning, it'd actually be a reasonable idea to try so he wouldn't eat himself sick. I had bouillion cubes all the time as a kid: sometimes to tide me over to the next meal, sometimes if my stomach was upset and I couldn't keep anything down but liquid, sometimes for a savory alternative to hot drinks that are usually sweet, etc.
"

And I would be one of those. In fact, at a prior job, I would use my one cup pod coffee maker I kept at my desk to quickly get hot water and I kept a variety of bouillion flavors and some favorite spice mixes (Some, I imagine, not far off the Zatarain's) as a way to keep the hunger monkey off my back with a satisfying, very low calorie snack.

Keeping in mind his earlier meal was soup with the Zatarain's, I can quite logically see her giving him the seasoned water as a way to hopefully assuage his "hunger" with "food" while trying to have the time to deal with other issues/children and without adding a bunch of calories.
posted by Samizdata at 1:48 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's possible the mother freaked and force fed him; it's equally plausible that he had pica and poisoned himself.

This incident doesn't really meet any of the criteria for pica, like a pattern existing for a month or more and the ingested material being non-nutritive.
posted by dave78981 at 3:04 PM on December 21, 2011


If you read the article he was eating a lot of non-nutritive things; not in this example. I think he had pica but this wasn't it.

To me it sounds like the kind of accident that happens when a parent is stressed, injured, overwhelmed, and simply ignorant of how dangerous a common household item can be.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:12 PM on December 21, 2011


We had dinner tonight with a friend who is a recently retired cytogeneticist and I mentioned this thread to him. We discussed the possibility of some genetic component to this poor child's issues with food, such as Prader Willi. The friend thought it would be unlikely to be something like PWS, as there are typically very obvious physical and intellectual markers alongside the excessive hunger. He also said that typically in his understanding, children with PWS seek out food of a high calorific value.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:34 PM on December 21, 2011


From the article: “If Hannah had been looking for a ‘way out,’ she would have called the adoption agency and told them that she and Larry couldn’t go through with it.”

Social services themselves put enormous unethical pressure on parents they deem "fit." And Hannah's history is tailor-made for social services to use as a dumping ground for a very difficult child. Not that Hannah herself didn't enthusiastically participate, and her husband, and the community.

Reading this, I felt jaded. I've seen the same damn story play out over and over again. These weren't even real people to me, they were templates of many people I've known.

A few points.

*Social services is underfunded and undermanned. They cannot cope with the volume of these children.

*It's remarkably common for foster kids to undergo abuse in their adoptive homes.

*No one, not one of the people commenting here really understands what it's like to have a child in their homes who smears feces, bites, kicks, spits on passersby in a fast food restaurant when you tell them they can't have coke for breakfast, breaks windows, and in general misbehaves constantly. The stress is mindboggling, and often their are no signs of improvement, ever, and the kids end up on the street once they're old enough to leave.

*I totally believe she killed the kid, and that she didn't mean to. I've known adoptive parents who put locks on their kitchen cabinets. Forcing a kid to drink seasoned water (and no, I don't believe she just offered it to him) is fairly mild. I've seen some nutty an creative punishments, and one of the things that foster families do is to try to impose a sense of order. In a twisted way, this punishment made sense, like letting the kid eat until he puked. The problem is that these children are so profoundly broken that the any imposed sense of order is not going to break through.

*I also believe the woman is mentally ill, and the church and the social system helped fuel that. It was very telling to me that she had a broken home, wanted a large family, and thought she couldn't have any more kids. It tells me that she had a "need" to create a perfect home, and when she was thwarted, she looked for a way fix it. Incidentally she did so in a way guaranteed to increase her social status in her community. Her husband is not blameless. And don't even get me started on the futility of one person staying home and managing a house full of six children. That is not adequate child care, and the emotional and physical stress are both unreal.

*No one really gives a crap about the broken system until things like this happen.
posted by thelastcamel at 5:51 PM on December 21, 2011


Argh. Their should be there.
posted by thelastcamel at 5:52 PM on December 21, 2011


It was very telling to me that she had a broken home, wanted a large family, and thought she couldn't have any more kids. It tells me that she had a "need" to create a perfect home, and when she was thwarted, she looked for a way fix it.

No: she had a few miscarriages between her first and her second children, but after that she had three more, five total, before they took Andrew in -- again, only four months before his death. At the time they took Andrew in, they already had a large family and no longer worried that she had problems with fertility.
posted by palliser at 8:04 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a really heartbreaking story.

Some of the comments here have me wondering if people read the article all that closely. Some things that I think are notable:

- Andrew had an obsession with food which went beyond just cravings (as we understand them) or loving the taste of something. He tried to eat his foam mattress.

- The day he was rushed to the hospital, he had, as usual, been begging for food and was found in front of the open seasoning cupboard with something in his hand. It was unclear how long he had been there but I don't think it's at all unreasonable to assume that he may have been standing there eating straight salt. Despite the focus on it, I really don't think the Zatarains had much to do with his death. I think that he had already ingested a lot of salt on his own and this may have pushed him over the edge, if anything.

I know the article may be biased but I really believe that she is innocent. The doctor even said that it's unlikely that he would have survived had she called an ambulance in a more timely manner.

There are lots of things wrong with our system, as people have mentioned - health care costs that made her pause before calling for help, underfunded social services etc. - but the real wtf aspect of this whole story, for me, is this:

Capital murder carries two possible punishments in Texas—the death penalty or life without parole—and the district attorney’s office had already decided not to seek death. If convicted, Hannah would receive an automatic life sentence. However, Judge Longoria could allow the jury to consider a lesser charge if he felt that the evidence did not support capital murder, and after hearing the state’s case, he did so, telling both the prosecution and the defense that he was willing to let the jury consider manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. (Both carry shorter sentences and differ from capital murder on the issue of intent; a motorist who hits and kills someone while driving too fast is often deemed to be criminally negligent in that he did not set out to take a life but was aware of the danger of speeding.)...[Hannah decided against this course of action]...

But had jurors fully understood the decision they had been asked to make? When Gilmore polled the jury afterward, all twelve members stated that they had found Hannah guilty of capital murder by omission for not acting quickly enough to save Andrew; none believed that she had poisoned him. Yet to find her guilty, they’d had to believe that she knew he would die if she did not get him immediate medical attention. According to juror number three, a high school English teacher named Margaret Warfield, that was not the case. “The jury found that Mrs. Overton failed to procure medical care within a reasonable time frame,” she wrote in an affidavit that was later filed with Hannah’s appeal. “It seemed to me, based upon the wording of the charge, that we had no choice but to find her guilty of capital murder.” But, Warfield added, “I do not believe that Mrs. Overton knew that her actions (or lack thereof) would kill Andrew Byrd [sic]. Although I believe that Mrs. Overton was remiss in seeking timely medical care for Andrew Byrd, I do not believe that she intended or knew that this would result in his death.” [emphasis mine] The wording of the jury charge, she added, had been “ambiguous and confusing.” Ultimately, Warfield wrote, “I do not feel that justice has been served."

The jury had to choose between deciding that she had actively decided to kill her baby OR that she had not reacted in a timely enough manner to save him - knowing that he would die - both of these carrying the same sentence. Yes, the defense should have worked harder to persuade her to agree to a lesser plea, but...really? Not one person on the jury believed that she deliberately killed him and they had no other choice than to find her guilty of failing to act. Even the judge didn't think that a charge of capital murder was appropriate. That this kind of thing can be allowed to happen is a damning indictment of the justice system.

An incredibly sad story all around.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:35 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry, this part is a quote and should be in italics:

Capital murder carries two possible punishments in Texas—the death penalty or life without parole—and the district attorney’s office had already decided not to seek death. If convicted, Hannah would receive an automatic life sentence. However, Judge Longoria could allow the jury to consider a lesser charge if he felt that the evidence did not support capital murder, and after hearing the state’s case, he did so, telling both the prosecution and the defense that he was willing to let the jury consider manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. (Both carry shorter sentences and differ from capital murder on the issue of intent; a motorist who hits and kills someone while driving too fast is often deemed to be criminally negligent in that he did not set out to take a life but was aware of the danger of speeding.)...[Hannah decided against this course of action]...

But had jurors fully understood the decision they had been asked to make? When Gilmore polled the jury afterward, all twelve members stated that they had found Hannah guilty of capital murder by omission for not acting quickly enough to save Andrew; none believed that she had poisoned him. Yet to find her guilty, they’d had to believe that she knew he would die if she did not get him immediate medical attention. According to juror number three, a high school English teacher named Margaret Warfield, that was not the case. “The jury found that Mrs. Overton failed to procure medical care within a reasonable time frame,” she wrote in an affidavit that was later filed with Hannah’s appeal. “It seemed to me, based upon the wording of the charge, that we had no choice but to find her guilty of capital murder.” But, Warfield added, “I do not believe that Mrs. Overton knew that her actions (or lack thereof) would kill Andrew Byrd [sic]. Although I believe that Mrs. Overton was remiss in seeking timely medical care for Andrew Byrd, I do not believe that she intended or knew that this would result in his death.” [emphasis mine] The wording of the jury charge, she added, had been “ambiguous and confusing.” Ultimately, Warfield wrote, “I do not feel that justice has been served."

posted by triggerfinger at 11:56 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


it seems pretty clear to me that she was using this mix of salt and spiced water to attempt to punish the kid for it's incessant whining for more food.

How can than seem pretty clear to you? we are at such a distance from this, reading portions of an adversarial court process, third hand reports and some pretty unhinged blogging.

I can't help but wonder whether juries feel embarrassed to admit to doubt, as if doubt is somehow weak and indecisive, and instead cough up a bullshit 'verdict' rather than admit they don't know.
posted by compound eye at 12:57 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


And, I must say that several factors in this case smelled to high heaven to me.

Enough so that I wish I had been a member of her jury, because I would have stalled a judgment ad infinitum on the grounds of reasonable doubt.

Of course, I am sure none of these people (judge included) have never made a bad/untimely decision ever, especially under the pressure of a sick child.
posted by Samizdata at 5:15 PM on December 24, 2011


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