INDIANAPOLIS -- An Indiana woman whose 16-year-old son committed suicide in July is accused of driving him to take his own life because he lived in constant fear her drug addiction would lead her to a fatal overdose, court documents state.
Sabrina A. Howard, 40, of Muncie, was arrested Monday on preliminary charges of causing suicide and neglect in the death of her son, who died of an overdose of prescription medication. She has not yet been formally charged but was being held without bond Tuesday at the Delaware County Jail.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Howard found her son, Charles, unresponsive on a couch in their home on July 10. He died the next day, and his death was ruled a suicide attributed to high levels of prescription medications.
Relatives told police that Howard was a morphine addict and her son "was in great duress" from confronting her over her addiction and his fear that she might overdose, the affidavit says. Charles Howard threatened to kill himself in January, the affidavit states, but Howard told officers she ignored medical advice to sign him into a treatment center because he "didn't want to go."
Indiana has had a causing suicide law on the books since 1976, but it has been used rarely, if at all.
Fran Lee Watson, an Indiana University law professor, said she can't recall any prosecutions for causing suicide in her more than 30 years of practicing law in Indiana.
As written, the law applies to "a person who intentionally causes another human being, by force, duress, or deception, to commit suicide." Watson said that means prosecutors would have to prove Howard intentionally caused her son's death.
"They have to show that by duress she intended to bring about his suicide as opposed to failing to get him medical care when she should have reasonably assumed that he had ingested her medication," Watson said. "That's what intentionally means under Indiana law – that her intent was to bring about a specific result."
Similar charges have been rejected by courts over the last decade. In 2006, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Connecticut woman who prosecutors said kept such a messy home that it endangered her 12-year-old son's safety and mental health. The boy, Daniel Scruggs, killed himself in 2002, and the case sparked a national debate over what responsibility a parent holds for a child's suicide.
The court in the Scruggs case found prosecutors couldn't identify objective standards to determine when a messy house becomes a risk to a child's mental health.
In Howard's case, prosecutors may still be weighing whether to proceed with the causing suicide charge, Watson said.
Messages left for the Delaware County prosecutor weren't immediately returned Tuesday. Jail records listed no attorney for Howard.
According to the probable cause affidavit, Howard told officers on July 10 that she thought her son had taken her pills – including 30 Xanax and 26 Lortabs – when she found him on the couch.
In an interview with police days later, she said confronted her son about 8:30 a.m. on July 10 about drugs that were missing. She said he denied taking them but she suspected otherwise because he had slow speech and was "groggy acting."
"Sabrina even told Charles that what he consumed could kill him," the affidavit says.
But Howard allegedly did not seek medical help for her son. She told police she instead checked on him periodically during the day as he slept on a couch to make sure "he was still breathing."
Howard called 911 about eight hours later, at 4:45 p.m., after she checked on Charles and found him not breathing and with a grayish/white skin color.
According to the affidavit, Howard told officers that she was a former intravenous morphine abuser. But officers said in the document they noticed what appeared to be "fresh track marks on her left wrist/hand area" and relatives told them "she is still using."
A relative who answered the telephone Tuesday at Howard's parents' home said the family has been devastated by the charges and did not want to speak to media.
Stephanie McFarland, a spokesman for Indiana's Department of Child Services, said the agency had contact with Howard's family "recently." But she said she could not comment further because of state and federal confidentiality laws.