Mother never suspected baby died of drug given at Hillsborough day care

Akeena Sylvestre has hired Tampa lawyer James Mancuso to help her navigate legal issues surrounding the death of her infant son De’Arron, who received a lethal dose of medication. A day care operator faces charges in his death.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Akeena Sylvestre has hired Tampa lawyer James Mancuso to help her navigate legal issues surrounding the death of her infant son De’Arron, who received a lethal dose of medication. A day care operator faces charges in his death.

TAMPA — On the first morning of August, Akeena Sylvestre drove her three boys to day care. She looked back and saw her 5-month-old smile from his car seat.

That evening, she and baby De'Arron left the day care in a speeding ambulance.

She sat in the front, looked back through a small window and watched a rescue crew try to save the baby's life.

"I already knew it was over," she said, her voice breaking.

What she didn't know: Why the baby boy she dropped off at Tina Toney Lark's home-based day care center ended up dead.

"I just wanted her to sit there and tell me what happened," said Sylvestre, a 29-year-old single mother who is a case manager at an assisted living facility.

She never got an answer from Lark. But authorities later pointed to something she said she never suspected:

A lethal dose of the drug diphenhydramine, an antihistamine often used for allergies and in sleep aids, was administered within six hours of his death. Investigators say Lark was the one responsible.

On Saturday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office charged Lark, 44, with aggravated manslaughter. She was released Tuesday after posting a $15,000 bond.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office showed the baby died of intoxication by the drug. The baby also had obstructed airways.

Weeks after the death, detectives with a search warrant found a basket with Sominex and a baby pacifier on Lark's kitchen table.

De'Arron was not sick that morning, Sylvestre said in an interview. He woke up at his usual time, drank a bottle and stared at cartoons while his brothers, ages 3 and 4, got ready.

Even if he had been sick, Sylvestre said, she never gave Lark written or verbal permission to give medication to her children.

"If my boys were sick, I'd take care of it at home," she said. "I never expected her to take anything in her own hands."

Lark, who lives at 9503 Woodborough Court in Town 'N Country, was licensed by Hillsborough County to serve up to 10 children at a time there.

Lark agreed to temporarily surrender her license after the child's death, according to county spokeswoman Kemly Green. On Wednesday, the county served her with a notice of revocation, pending the outcome of the criminal case, Green said.

Sylvestre had used Lark's day care for about three years, starting with her older boys. She found it through a referral service.

She said the older boys liked Lark. Her home was clean and had a nice setup for the children, so it seemed natural to start to take De'Arron, too, when he was about 2 1/2 months.

"I didn't think twice about bringing the baby to her," Sylvestre said.

Hillsborough inspection records for Lark's day care date to October 2009. She has been found in violation of several regulations, but none related to medication. The violations concerned certain certifications and a working landline telephone.

County regulations say day care providers must provide a written record documenting medication provided to children. That information must include the name of the medication, the dosage and date, along with a signature of the parent.

Lark's phone remained disconnected Wednesday. She could not be reached for comment.

Sylvestre has hired Tampa lawyer James Mancuso to help her keep tabs on the investigation and figure out her options.

• • •

On the morning of Aug. 1, Sylvestre was scheduled to work a double shift at the assisted living home. She dropped the boys off at the day care just before 7 a.m.

Not long before 7 p.m., Lark called her. She was, Sylvestre recalled, "hysterical."

Lark told her to get over to the house quickly. By the time a colleague raced Sylvestre over, ambulances and fire trucks had already pulled up.

"She kept saying, 'I'm sorry, this has never happened to me before,' " recalled Sylvestre.

At the hospital, the doctors didn't stay gone long. They came to get her within 10 minutes.

In the emergency room, they had taken out the tubes and wrapped De'Arron in a blanket so Sylvestre could hold him.

"I felt like I was outside myself, watching myself," she said. "It wasn't real. It wasn't real."

Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Mother never suspected baby died of drug given at Hillsborough day care 09/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 11:47pm]

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