State documents say workers at a University City day care put a baby to bed on his stomach and covered his head with a washcloth, a position considered too dangerous for infants.
The worker who was supposed to watch the baby fell asleep while the infant was dying. Paramedics, an EMT report states, later found the baby unresponsive with vomit in his airway and nose.
His parents believe their son died from suffocation, but Dr. Thomas Owens, the Mecklenburg County chief medical examiner, reached a different conclusion: sudden infant death syndrome.
Owens’ ruling in the 2013 death of 4-month-old Logan Bryant looms large in a legal fight over how much the day care center – and its workers – should be punished.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police announced Thursday that two former employees at Chesterbrook Academy have been arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency and neglect of a juvenile.
Investigators allege that Stephanie Johnson, 35, and Shanita Wright, 32, handled infants in a rough manner, slept while on duty, and failed to supervise children. Police said they have identified four victims, including Logan.
But police noted that Owens determined that Logan died of SIDS, a natural and unpreventable cause of death that strikes while otherwise healthy babies sleep.
“It doesn’t feel like” a serious enough charge for the day care workers, said Logan’s father, Thomas Bryant of Charlotte. “The police and district attorneys did what they could, given the result of the medical examiner’s ruling.”
Bryant and his wife are suing the company that owns Chesterbrook Academy, a Pennsylvania-based operator of day care centers and private schools. The Bryants said the day care off Mallard Creek Road should be shut down.
An investigative consultant for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services agreed. Last year, she recommended that the state revoke the center’s operating license. Logan’s death was the second substantiated case of child neglect against the day care in less than a year, she wrote.
In November, state officials put Chesterbrook on probation, which allowed the business to remain open.
An attorney for Chesterbrook argued that the workers’ actions did not play a role in Logan’s death because the medical examiner concluded that he died from SIDS.
Owens, who was appointed Mecklenburg’s chief medical examiner earlier this year, did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday. A county spokesman said Owens was unavailable.
In a letter to the family dated May 16, Owens wrote that he only calls deaths SIDS after an autopsy and other evidence rule out other reasonable explanations.
“Another way to look at that is to say, I am at least 75% sure of the diagnosis,” Owens wrote.
A 2010 Observer investigation found that, in North Carolina, two-thirds of autopsies in SIDS cases also list risks that raise the possibility of suffocation.
Nationally, a growing number of researchers and medical examiners no longer call those cases SIDS. They recommend parents put babies to sleep on their backs, alone in a crib, with no blankets, pillows or other objects.
In a 2011 memo, N.C. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch, who oversees death investigations, said cases should be labeled SIDS “if all investigative findings and risk factors are negative.”
Bryant and his wife, Saovarot, called Logan their “miracle baby.” He was born after the couple endured the pain of multiple miscarriages.
About 9:30 a.m. last June 10, they took him to Chesterbrook Academy near their home for only the third time. Outside of an infection from his birthmark, the parents said he was happy and healthy.
He was fed and workers put him down for a nap about 1:30 p.m.
Shanita Wright, a day care staffer, placed Logan in a crib on his stomach, a violation of state safe-sleep rules, according to state records obtained by the Observer. Wright put Logan in a crib assigned to another infant, which breaks sanitation guidelines.
About five minutes later, Stephanie Johnson began supervising Logan and other children because Wright left for lunch.
Johnson walked over and placed a washcloth over the baby’s head, which also violated state rules. She told investigators she had placed a washcloth on the side of Logan’s face earlier, while feeding him. It appeared to have a calming effect, she said.
A letter the state sent to Chesterbrook’s owner states that Johnson failed to check on the infant during the next hour, as required. A video recording showed her using her cellphone and falling asleep.
At the time, the letter states, she had five children in her care. Four were awake and on the floor.
Another day care worker came to the room about 2:30 p.m. and checked on Logan. She found him face down with his mouth and nose in the mattress and the washcloth covering the back of his head. He had no pulse and was unresponsive.
Paramedics’ attempts to revive him failed. A paramedics report says they suctioned “copious” amounts of formula from the baby.
‘I can’t fathom it’
Owens, the chief medical examiner, performed an autopsy and labeled it as SIDS.
Thomas Bryant said he and his wife were shocked. They tried to persuade Owens to change the ruling.
In his letter, Owens told them that vomit seen coming from Logan’s mouth and nose when he died likely was not a sign of suffocation. He said the vomit and other fluids are part of the dying process.
“I cannot prove nor do I believe that he smothered/suffocated in the mattress or that he choked on vomit,” Owens wrote. “The placement of the washcloth on the back of his head and covering the sides of his head/face, likely had little to no impact on the situation.”
Bryant said he believes Owens did not consider all of the circumstances.
“He had the opportunity to change it, and he squanders it,” Bryant said. “I can’t fathom it.”
Company defends record
Chesterbrook Academy is operated by Nobel Education Dynamics Inc. The company owns more than 180 centers in 17 states under different names such Enchanted Care Learning Centers and Merryhill Schools.
The day care in University City enrolls 110 students, ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.
State records show Chesterbrook has been accused of violating state rules in recent years.
In one case, a child was left unsupervised in a classroom. The report also says two staff members got into a verbal conflict in front of children.
In August 2007, a child fell and suffered bruising to the face. Less than two weeks later, the child’s face was bruised again.
“There are concerns that the children in this classroom are not properly supervised,” the report states.
Kathleen Shaffer, a spokeswoman for Chesterbrook, said she could not answer specific questions. But she said Chesterbrook has been deemed safe by the state. The day care remains on probation and must undergo monthly inspections, Shaffer said.
After Logan died, records show Chesterbrook begain retraining workers. An official with the Mecklenburg County Health Department taught a course on SIDS and safe-sleep practices.