A bill authored by Sen. Dan ''Blade'' Morrish R-Jennings seeks to prevent parents from being falsely accused of child abuse. Senate Bill 109 was inspired by the experiences of an Iota couple Jerry and Amanda Spaetgens, who were wrongly accused of child abuse after their 3-month-old daughter died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, April 13, 2013 3:30 PM
A bill by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, seeks to prevent parents from being falsely accused of child abuse.
Senate Bill 109 was inspired by the experiences of an Iota couple who were wrongly accused of child abuse after their 3-month-old daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome.
The bill would require more than one opinion and physical exam when cases of child abuse are suspected. Only one physical exam is now required to open an investigation.
The nightmare began for Jerry and Amanda Spaetgens in October 2011 when Jerry found their daughter, Calli, unresponsive in her crib. A respiratory therapist, Jerry called 911 and began CPR. He continued to perform CPR as the infant was being flown to a Lafayette hospital, where she was placed on a ventilator.
Amanda went in to speak to her daughter and her eyes fluttered and she noticed bleeding in her eyes.
A doctor at the hospital said the bleeding was caused by shaken baby syndrome, though other medical personnel suggested that the CPR and two shots of epinephrine to restart her heart may have caused retinal hemorrhaging. That opinion was enough to trigger a nearly six-month investigation by state child protection agencies.
“It was the most horrible feeling, sitting there and watching her struggle to live and knowing it was likely SIDS and we were now being accused of child abuse,” Amanda said. “We knew it wasn’t true and other doctors and staff didn’t agree with his opinion.”
Calli was later transferred to Tulane Medical Center, where doctors told the family that if she survived she’d likely be in a vegetative state. The family asked for more time with her and spent the last few hours at her bedside.
“I told her God had given her to us and now he wanted her back,” she said.
Until that time Calli had been a “happy, healthy” baby, Amanda said. She was almost 10 pounds at birth and continued to have a growing appetite, she said.
“It was a blessing that we got to see some of her milestones before we lost her, and I took comfort in knowing that my daddy was waiting for her,” Amanda said, noting that her father had died days earlier.
Two days after the heartbreak of planning their daughter’s funeral the Department of Children and Family Services opened an investigation into the family, placing them under a “care plan,” which would not allow them to be alone with their two older children without approved adult supervision.
“I was crying because I didn’t want them to take my other two children away,” she said of her older daughters, Gracie and Maddelyn. “When they walked in it was horrible because I thought they were there to take my children.”
The social worker apologized for the family’s loss, but said officials had to investigate the abuse claim made by the doctor.
To stay together, the family had to move out of their home and stay with relatives.
“It was hard because that’s a time you need your family most, but all of a sudden all your parenting and mothering roles are taken away.” she said. “I couldn’t even do the little things like going out to play with my kids, taking them to school or to see Santa Claus without someone else having to be there. We had to work our lives around everyone else’s schedule.”
The family met with several lawyers, but did not want to slander the doctor or the hospital who had wrongly accused them of child abuse.
“At that point all we wanted to do was seek legal help so that hospitals could better handle these cases so that other families wouldn’t have to go through what we went through,” she said. “We just felt that there could have been better testing and the doctors could have done better observations.”
She said second or even third opinions are needed instead of relying on one doctor’s diagnosis.
During her research and after talking to medical staff and lawyers, Amanda found similar cases throughout the U.S., including some in Louisiana.
“We found one case similar to ours with a similar abuse claim at the same hospital by the same doctor. The only difference is their child lived and mine passed away,” she said.
Law enforcement officers found no wrongdoing and closed the case after a few weeks, she said.
Bone scans on Calli and an autopsy showed no signs of abuse or neglect and suggested she died of SIDS.
By late December 2011, the social worker told the family that a state committee had also found them innocent and told them they would be going home soon. Three months later they were still waiting to go home. Authorities told them they were waiting on the coroner’s report.
Amanda contacted the coroner herself and was told the autopsy had been completed and turned over to the state two weeks after Calli’s death.
The family went back home in March 2012 — nearly six months after Calli’s death.
“It was bittersweet for us,” she said of returning home. “When we walked in her clothes were still laid out, her bottles were still in the dishwasher and her bassinet was next to the bed.”
Earlier this year, after sharing their story with others, the family met with Morrish, who agreed to help.
“For so long we had been waiting for the right person to come along to help us,” she said. “After just one meeting, I knew he was perfect.”
Amanda said the proposed legislation will not only protect innocent parents from being accused of child abuse, but could help save children from abusive parents.
The measure would require hospitals and physicians to do more complete exams and seek a third opinion when the initial exams do not agree, before reporting cases to the state agencies for further investigation.
“The journey has been bittersweet, but I know through our pain and suffering we can go forward and help other families,” Amanda said. “We are not asking for much, just a better process.”
Amanda will testify before lawmakers in a push to get the bill passed during the session.
To learn more about the bill, visit the family’s Facebook page, “Prayers for Calli and Family.”