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In re Sophia M.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 4, 2019

In re Sophia M.

          Kent County Family Court (15-4108-1) Associate Justice Karen Lynch Bernard

          For Petitioner: Karen A. Clark Department of Children Youth and Families Karl D. Beauregard Court Appointed Special Advocate

          For Respondent: Robert E. Craven, Esq. Nicholas A. Solitro, Esq.

          Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia JJ.

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice.

         Anna Brugeman (Anna or mother) appeals from a Family Court decree finding that she abused and neglected her infant child, Sophia. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the decree of the Family Court as it pertains to Anna Brugeman.

         I Facts and Procedural History

         Sophia was born to Anna and Ernest M. (Ernest or father) on November 14, 2015. According to the parents, on the evening of December 4, 2015, three-week-old Sophia was fed, bathed, and placed in her bassinet prior to 9 p.m. without any sign of injury. Anna testified that, when Sophia woke up crying during the night, Anna "couldn't keep [her own] eyes open," so she asked Ernest to feed Sophia, telling him that she would wake up for the next feeding. Anna said she went back to sleep until 7:30 the next morning. In the meantime, Ernest tended to Sophia, changing her diaper before giving her a bottle. Ernest testified that, while he was feeding Sophia, her lip struck his collarbone. According to Ernest, Sophia cried for about five minutes after the incident, but she then took her bottle.

         Anna testified that she first noticed an injury to Sophia's lip the next morning. When she asked Ernest how the lip bruising occurred, Ernest told her that when he was burping Sophia, her lip hit his collarbone. Ernest testified that, after this brief conversation with Anna, he changed Sophia's diaper and dressed her, but did not see any other injuries on her body. Later that day, Anna and Ernest brought Sophia and L.M., [1] Ernest's other daughter, to a mall to take pictures with Santa, accompanied by L.M.'s mother. After arriving home from the mall, Sophia napped while Ernest took L.M. to the dog park at their apartment complex.

         Anna changed Sophia's diaper when the infant woke from her nap that afternoon. Anna testified that she noticed a "weird shaped" bruise on Sophia's back, a lot of bruising above her upper shoulder blades, and a "little red bruise" on her stomach. Anna took pictures of the bruises and sent them to her mother around 2:30 p.m.; her mother advised her to call the pediatrician. Sophia's pediatrician suggested that Anna take Sophia to the hospital.

         Shortly after, when Ernest and L.M. returned from the dog park, Anna told Ernest about her conversations with her mother and Sophia's pediatrician. Anna testified that Ernest was hesitant to go to the hospital at that point and that he suggested that they should wait until Monday to see if it cleared up. After a brief discussion, Ernest and Anna took Sophia to Hasbro Children's Hospital around 5:30 p.m., and the infant was admitted.

         Ernest recalled at trial, however, that when he arrived home from the dog park earlier that afternoon, Anna notified him of a rash on Sophia's stomach, not bruising. He testified that he treated Sophia's stomach with lotion, and suggested to Anna that they take Sophia to a doctor if the "rash" did not clear up in a day or so.[2] Ernest testified that he then took L.M. to CVS, and that it was only after he returned that Anna showed him the mark on Sophia's back. Ernest testified that he told Anna to call the pediatrician, and that he did not hesitate to take Sophia to the hospital.

         Christine Barron, M.D., the on-call physician at Hasbro's child protection center, was consulted to examine Sophia at the hospital on the day after her admittance. Doctor Barron reviewed Sophia's emergency department records, obtained histories from Anna and Ernest separately, and then conducted a physical examination of Sophia. In his statement to Dr. Barron, Ernest said that the lip injury to Sophia occurred while he was burping Sophia, and that Sophia lifted her head and "cracked on his collarbone[.]" Ernest could not provide Dr. Barron with an explanation for the other bruises on Sophia's stomach, upper back, mid-back, right flank, and diaper area. Anna gave a similar history to Dr. Barron, differing only on the specific time that she noticed the bruise on Sophia's stomach and the question as to whether or not that bruise was actually a rash. Anna also informed Dr. Barron of a family history with "von Willebrand disease," a mild bleeding disorder.

         Doctor Barron ordered a skeletal survey, a head CT scan, [3] and a "full workup," all of which came back normal; also, there was no indication that Sophia had a bleeding disorder. Doctor Barron's physical examination revealed that Sophia had petechia[4] on her chest and "bruises of different colors" on her abdomen, diaper area, upper back, mid-back, and right flank into her right buttocks. Although she could not age the bruises, Dr. Barron listed the stomach bruise as "acute[, ]" meaning "identifying usually within 12 to 24 hours." Additionally, Dr. Barron testified that the bruise on Sophia's right flank had not been documented in the emergency department, but emerged a few hours after Sophia arrived at the hospital. She testified that this injury did not occur while Sophia was in the hospital, explaining that it would not be uncommon for a bruise to "take a few hours or * * * even a day to demonstrate itself." Doctor Barron noted that, from the day of her admittance until her discharge on December 11, 2015, Sophia's injuries healed normally and she did not sustain any additional bruising while in the hospital.

         In accordance with her standard protocol, Dr. Barron also reviewed the medical history of L.M., then three years old. L.M.'s medical records indicated that she had been brought to the hospital with unexplained bruising on her stomach and diaper area a few weeks after she was born, and that L.M.'s mother was instructed "not to allow the father to be [L.M.'s] sole caregiver[.]" Although the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) had not been contacted during L.M.'s visit to the hospital, Dr. Barron testified that "on full review of the older sibling[, ] * * * those injuries would be consistent with child physical abuse." Doctor Barron stated that she found the similarities between the ...


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