Around the time Hurricane Katrina touched down in August 2005, Tiffany Woods gave birth to a baby boy she named Emanuel Woods.
The newborn would spend time in the intensive care unit until it was time for Woods, her boyfriend and their three other children to evacuate. But months later, prosecutors would charge Woods and the child's father with baby Emanuel's death.
"I was stressed out. I was depressed. I was lonely. My family wasn't around me. I didn't know they were alive. And I made poor choices," Tiffany Woods recently told the Louisiana Parole Board.
After Hurricane Katrina the family ended up in Shreveport, Louisiana and like many others struggled to find housing after the storm. Woods says she was getting baby formula through the WIC program, but at some point, she ran out of the free formula.
"I changed his formula to organic milk," she said. "And due to my choices, I thought I was making the right choice. But clearly, I didn't. And a couple of months in he passed away."
Their newborn baby died months after Woods gave birth. Prosecutors say it was from malnutrition. The prosecutor who sent Woods to prison on a life sentence, Suzanne Ellis, assistant district attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, pushed for Woods to serve the full sentence.
"I thought I had seen everything in my lifetime, but I have never seen anything like this," Ellis said. "There is no doubt in the court's mind that this child starved to death."
Court documents showed Woods had been feeding the baby cow's milk mixed with water. Prosecutors say Woods and the child's father knew better.
"This was not the first time Ms. Woods harmed one of her children in this way," Ellis added. "One of her older children, CPS had to intervene because she was doing the exact same thing."
The World Health Organization estimates undernutrition leads to 2.7 million child deaths annually, or 45% of all child deaths. Doctors across the U.S. say they often battle with misinformation over what kinds of foods and drinks infants can have and when. Some doctors say it has led to a high rate of infant mortality.
Dr. Lakisha Richardson in Greenville, Mississippi, says when struggling families get tight on money for baby formula, they may turn to dangerous methods to feed their infants.
"You know, somebody tells them, 'I'll just dilute that formula. You know, you don't have to do with the instructions,'" said Richardson. "They just give it a little bit more water and, you know, for babies, too much water is bad."
The American Academy of Pediatrics says infants under 6 months should only be drinking breast milk or formula. After that, from 6 to 12 months, they should only be given 4 to 8 ounces of water daily. Too much water can dilute nutrients and cause chemical imbalances in young babies.
Giving cow's milk is not recommended in the second half of the first year. Pediatricians say it doesn't have enough iron and can lead to anemia.
"You have moms trying to do the right thing, especially our young moms because, you know, we have a lot of teenagers here," said Richardson. "So, the pediatrician is saying this is what you do, this is what the baby can have."
But young mothers can get conflicting advice from family members.
"They go home and mom and grandmama says, 'Oh, the doctor don't know what they talking about. This is the same thing I gave you. This baby can have this," Richardson added. "And so who do they trust? You know, do I trust my 80-year-old grandmother and my 50-year-old mom, or my pediatrician that I just met, you know, two weeks ago?"
Woods, surrounded by family during her clemency hearing, told the panel she is a changed woman who has taken multiple parenting classes during her time in prison. She's learned how to be a better mother over the years, a claim her kids — now older — also testified to.
"Her story can impact so many people and she could touch a whole lot of people, especially in the city that we come from in New Orleans," said son Troy John Woods. "This is common, you know what I'm saying? And sometimes tragedy happens."
"She has been there for me and my siblings while incarcerated," said Najohn Woods, another son of Tiffany. "I know, especially for me from my personal experience, when I was in college, she made sure I had birthday gifts."
With the Louisiana Parole Board voting to recommend Woods' release, the matter is now in the hands of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, who has vowed to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the state.
As for Woods, she's lost 17 years so far, but promises If released to help young mothers get the help they need.
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