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Sleeping in unsafe conditions No. 1 cause of death in neglected children

JessicGordholds phoher baby PaytMatthew Burke ResurrectiCemetery Romeoville. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Jessica Gordon holds a photo her baby, Payton Matthew Burke, at Resurrection Cemetery in Romeoville. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 12, 2013 2:41PM

The night Jessica Gordon accidentally smothered her baby, she sang him the lullabies she’d sung since he grew in her womb.

Then mother and child went to sleep — the baby in a bassinet next to Gordon’s bed.

Hours later, when the 10-week-old baby boy woke up, Gordon cradled her son on the bed as she breast-fed him. Both of them fell asleep early that September 2011 morning. Hours later she was jolted awake when the baby’s father discovered the tiny child they called “bug” wasn’t breathing.

Then came an even more horrifying realization — Gordon had accidentally suffocated Payton Matthew Burke while they slept in the bed.

It’s the leading cause of death in neglected children.

Child welfare investigators found no evidence of abuse or neglect in Gordon’s tragedy, but she is speaking out to save other parents similar anguish.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through,” she said.

Forty children who died last year because of abuse or neglect died when they were put to sleep in unsafe conditions, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Sometimes the baby slept with a parent, who then rolled over the baby. Other times, the child was placed on its stomach, on soft furniture or in a crib with a blanket — all leading to suffocation.

The newly compiled data by the state agency shows child death caused by abuse or neglect “skyrocketed” in 2012. Last year, 90 Illinois children died in situations caused by neglect or abuse, and more than 60 investigations are still pending, according to the state agency. Once all the investigations are complete, DCFS expects the number last year to surpass the high of 102 deaths in the late 1980s.

After unsafe sleeping conditions, homicide was the leading cause of death in cases where abuse or neglect was substantiated.

Last year, 22 children were killed by those charged with caring for them, according to DCFS data.

Gordon said she never let her baby sleep on the bed, but on that fateful morning it happened by accident.

“I didn’t plan on falling asleep,” she said, but the early hours and the relaxed feeling she felt while breast feeding lulled her asleep.

While they slept, the baby apparently “turned into my body or my breast went into his face,” she said. His mouth and nose were apparently covered.

Speaking at her son’s tomb in Romeoville — decorated with a picture of the smiling baby, a Christmas tree and stuffed animals — Gordon, of Joliet, said she wants to prevent other babies from dying while they sleep.

“I want people to think of Payton when they put their kids to bed,” the 24-year-old said. “I want people to think of Payton for the sake of their children. ... There’s no reason a child should be in an adult bed at all.”

On their last night together, Gordon sang Payton the classic lullaby “Baby of Mine” from the movie “Dumbo.”

It goes, “Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine.”

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