State Sen. Jeff Tarte says he wants to know why a baby’s death at a University City day care center last year was ruled SIDS.
Four-month-old Logan Bryant stopped breathing after workers at Chesterbrook Academy put him to sleep on his stomach, placed a washcloth on his head and failed to check on him. The state forbids day care centers from laying infants to sleep in that position because they can suffocate.
Tarte told the Observer the death does not fit the definition of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a natural and unpreventable cause of death that strikes otherwise healthy babies in their sleep.
He said he plans to meet with state Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch.
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“The optics don’t make sense,” Tarte said. “It bothers the crud out of me. There appears to be unanswered questions.”
Experts say medical examiners should only attribute a death to SIDS after a thorough scene investigation, autopsy and review of a baby’s medical history have ruled out all other causes.
Records show the Mecklenburg County medical examiner’s office did not visit the day care off Mallard Creek Road after Logan died. Visits to the death scene are widely considered a key first step in investigations.
Mecklenburg County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Owens performed the autopsy and concluded that Logan died from SIDS. Owens has declined to comment.
In a letter to the baby’s family dated May 16, Owens wrote that he calls deaths SIDS only after an autopsy and other evidence rule out other reasonable explanations. He said the placement of the washcloth on Logan’s head had “little to no impact.”
“Another way to look at that is to say, I am at least 75% sure of the diagnosis,” Owens wrote.
SIDS used in defense
Logan Bryant died June 10, 2013, after he was found unresponsive in a crib at Chesterbrook Academy. The Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services cited Chesterbrook for “serious neglect.”
Authorites allege that one of the workers fell asleep and used her cellphone when she was supposed to be watching children. A state investigative consultant recommended the state revoke Chesterbrook’s operating license.
But the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education put Chesterbrook on probation after Steven Meckler, the day care’s attorney, noted the SIDS ruling.
Meckler wrote that the medical examiner’s office didn’t “attribute the child’s death to any acts or omissions” by the day care’s staff.
Chesterbrook reached a confidential lawsuit settlement with Logan’s parents. Former Chesterbrook employees, Stephanie Johnson and Shanita Wright, have been arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of child neglect.
At a legislative subcommittee hearing this week, Tarte cited the case as an example of why North Carolina needs to improve its medical examiner system. Examiners are responsible for investigating suspicious, violent, accidental and unattended deaths.
A five-part Observer series found that medical examiners don’t go to death scenes in 90 percent of cases and violate a requirement to view the bodies in 1 of every 9 deaths.
Tarte, a Republican from Cornelius, served as co-chair of the committee that is recommending a series of changes, including mandatory training and increasing pay for examiners.
Tarte has spoken about Logan’s death with doctors, including his wife, Dr. Nancy Tarte, who is a pediatrician.
“These circumstances would lead even a lay person to believe it isn’t SIDS,” Tarte said.
He noted that the case marks the second time recently the medical examiner’s office has come under public scrutiny following a child’s death. In June 2013, 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died in a Boone hotel room where an elderly couple had died only four months earlier. Medical examiners and other officials committed a number of errors in those deaths.
“We’ve got to stop this nonsense,” Tarte said. “It’s not about being confrontational; it’s how to we do the right thing by these families.”
Ruling bucks trend
A 2010 Observer investigation found that although hundreds of infant deaths in North Carolina were blamed on SIDS, about two-thirds of the cases involved circumstances that suggested the babies suffocated.
When Radisch became chief medical examiner that year, she promised to review the frequent use of SIDS as a cause of death. Since then, the percentage of infant death cases attributed to SIDS has plummeted.
Radisch has credited the sharp decline to new research showing that unsafe sleeping arrangements kill babies more often than was once believed.
But when Tarte criticized the SIDS ruling in Logan’s case during the legislative hearing, Radisch appeared to defend Owens. In a tense exchange, Radisch said Owens had enough information to make an accurate ruling.
After the hearing, she declined to comment and referred questions to Owens.