THE LITTLEST VICTIMS

How Heroin Kills Kids Without Even Touching Them

The tragic case of Bella Bond exposes how overwhelmed Massachusetts is by the opioid crisis, and how children of addicts are falling through the cracks.

A dead baby in a bag. Heroin. Demonology. Alex Jones. At times the trial of Michael McCarthy, the 37-year-old Boston man charged with striking 2-year-old Bella Bond in the stomach until her face turned swollen, lifeless, and gray, seems almost too much to bear.

The Bella Bond trial is not polite coffee shop talk. To speak of the case in Boston is to be met with plugged ears and requests to be spared the facts. Even the Herald metro columnist, the local tabloid, whose readers usually eat up blow-by-blow coverage of local murder trials, wrote of a significant loss in Twitter followers while reporting. Indeed, some on Boston news Twitter have publicly voiced their abhorrence to coverage of this trial.

Can you blame them? The grief this case conjures—the death a young child, the horrors of her short life, and even the lives of the adults in this case, addicts, almost all of them, some of whom (as prosecutor David Deakin aptly put it) have “almost literally hollow[ed] themselves out with substances”—is as palpable as the defendant’s gray suit, the court officers’ muffled walkie-talkies, the wet air blowing the open window, and the sound of Rachelle Bond wailing on the witness stand.

Bella captured the world’s attention when her body washed up in a garbage bag on the shores of Boston’s infamous Deer Island. A woman walking her dog thought the bundle looked strange, and hacked away at the plastic with a sea shell until flies, and then finally, Bella’s small legs fell out. For months, Bella was called Baby Doe in place of a real name. Her likeness was posted on billboards, televisions, newspapers, shared tens of millions of times on Facebook, and still, nobody claimed her as theirs.

She was a mystery and that was the story’s appeal. Where could this child have come from that no one missed her? In court, we are learning more about that place everyday. But now that we are beginning to understand, can we afford to look away?

The prosecution’s argument, that McCarthy killed Bella because she was a “demon” and it was “her time to die,” and the defense’s counterpoint, that it was Bella’s mother, Rachelle, not McCarthy, who believed her daughter was possessed, may at times sound strange. McCarthy’s ramblings about “new world orders” where “the rich who move to the cities will be the ones they keep around and control,” and Bond’s diary entries about cabals of world leaders, kidnapping, and killing children so “reptilian demons can have a moment’s sanity,” may lead one to think that this murder trial is an sensational anomaly.

Don’t let the demons fool you. Bella Bond’s death is a story about the opioid epidemic through and through.

The trial comes at a time when Massachusetts foster homes—where Bella, by all accounts, should have been sent—are overcrowded with children whose parents are too addicted to opioids to give them the care they need. Meanwhile, opioid fatalities may be tapering off in Massachusetts, after a spike which claimed thousands of lives, perhaps in part due to increased fundings for medication like narcan, which can reverse the symptoms of an overdose. But in Boston, the number of nonfatal opioid related medical transports continues to rise.

These numbers indicate that while the number of people struggling with opioid addiction continues to increase, the epidemic may be getting more difficult to pin down.

Take the “hallow[ed] out” men and women who have taken the stand as the government presented its argument this last week.

Michael McCarthy’s childhood friend, Michael Sprinsky, was the first person Rachelle Bond told about her daughter’s death. At the time, according to his own detox intake forms—he was in and out of detox three to five times that spring, he can’t remember exactly—he was shooting up 3-4 grams of heroin, and drinking 3-4 pints of vodka a day.

Sprinsky, with his pale blue pinpoint eyes, the left one squinting as time wore on, testified over the course of two days, but he also spoke of his struggles with opioids in his own unique poetry of addiction.

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Pills were, “beans and deans,” his old phone was his “Obama phone.” At times, when his struggle was so bad he was contemplating suicide, he wrote to McCarthy, “I’m seeing lucky charms floating around, bye bye time.” When Sprinsky wrote of demons, it seemed almost metaphoric, like the demons were his addiction itself, and he wrote about them at the same suicidal time, “I don’t know buddy, I’m hopeless, all I see is dark demons everywhere following me, trying to suck the life out of me. I’m not right buddy, I haven’t been.”

Sprinksy lived with McCarthy, Bond, and Bella for about a month, in the apartment in Dorchester, which from the courtroom testimony, it appears Bond ran more or less like a heroin den. There he saw McCarthy lock Bella in the closet and saw Rachelle spank Bella, because she “wouldn’t tell her about the demons that were inside her.”

But peppered in between Sprinsky’s testimony are more mundane details, the type of things you might know about Sprinsky if he wasn’t on the witness stand. That day Bond told him McCarthy killed Bella, after he ran into her on Methadone Mile, he had just come back from dropping his stepson off at school.

Joseph McCarthy Jr., McCarthy’s older brother, used to come over to Maxwell Street apartment, and shoot up, according to his testimony. He, Bond, and his brother would rotate: One would get high in the bathroom, while the others would take turns minding the 2-year-old girl. Later he would say he did not recognize Bella from her computer generated photo, because he could not imagine that any harm would ever come to her.

McCarthy Jr. is also a plumber, a stay-at-home dad, and his fiancé is a nurse at a nearby hospital.

Meanwhile, on the stand Bond described shooting up four to seven times a day. She sold her prescription pills while she pushed Bella in her stroller. She invited people over to the house so she could sell them pills there. When she told Bella’s father, Joseph Amoroso, that their daughter was dead, instead of calling the police, they went to get high. But her neighbor remembers Bond playing peekaboo with her child, and praying with her before meals.

In two incidences, the Department of Children and Families was called to check on Bella and failed to properly inquire after the child, and instead cut and pasted information about Bond into the reports from before Bella was born, according to a public review by the Office of the Child’s Advocate on Bella’s death (PDF). According to the report, “DCF relied on Ms. Bond’s own statements in some cases and did not delve deeper by contacting professionals or agencies with whom she should have been working.” This happened after Bond previously had two other children taken away by DCF; in both instances, her parental rights were terminated.

In 2014, the last year for which we have data, Massachusetts had the highest rate of abused and neglected children in the nation.

But on the heels of Bella’s death, and several other high-profile deaths of children in DCF care, Governor Charlie Baker scolded the DCF, saying “a lot of people dropped the ball” and promised an overhaul of the agency’s intake process, and clarified the agency’s mission from keeping families together, to making sure children are safe. Baker plans to invest more funding the following fiscal year.

Erin Bradley, the executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s League, says the changes are working. Though, she adds the opioid epidemic has added an additional toll on the welfare system, and there is a continued need for a multilateral approach to child care, and increased efforts to not only remove children from dangerous situations, but to give parents, “what they need to succeed.”

Bradley notes that Bella comes from the third generation of DCF involvement, and calls for tools to “break the cycle.”

“[Bella’s death] was a tragedy, but she was not the first and I know she won’t be the last.”

Change in this state came at the expense of children’s lives, and it still may not be enough. If we turn our back on Bella, this case, and the addiction that continues to ravage the state, we will have to learn this lesson again.