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INJURIES TO A BABY NOT TRACEABLE TO A SPECIFIC PERSON OR EVENT CANNOT AUTOMATICALLY BE IMPUTED TO A PARENT

The Superior Court recently overturned a mother’s conviction for Endangering the Welfare of a Child and Recklessly Endangering Another Person in the matter of Commonwealth v. A.R.C., No. 1296 WDA 2015 (Pa. Superior 11/1/2016), reasoning that just because a baby’s injuries are not traceable to a specific person or event, criminal liability cannot automatically be imputed to a parent.

 

FACTS

A.R.C. was convicted by a jury of endangering the welfare of a child (EWOC) and recklessly endangering another person (REAP) as a result of injuries sustained by her two-month-old daughter, M.S.

The victim, M.S., is the infant daughter of A.R.C and her then-boyfriend, B.S. A.R.C. and B.S. began dating when A.R.C. was 14 years old and B.S. was 19 years of age. Prior to M.S.’s birth, B.S. moved into A.R.C.’s family trailer where she lived with her sister and mother.

Over the first two months of M.S.’s life, A.R.C. took the infant to all of her regularly-scheduled pediatric well visits. At each of her doctor visits, M.S. was given a full-body examination which consisted of, in part, checking the child’s musculoskeletal system. Doctors never noted any positive findings or any serious medical issues.

Approximately one month after M.S. was born, A.R.C. returned to work as a hotel housekeeper. When A.R.C. returned to work, B.S. became M.S.’s primary caretaker. One night, while A.R.C. was in bed and B.S. was caring for M.S., B.S. fell on the baby while trying to remove the family dog from the bed where he had been changing the baby’s diaper. A.R.C. had no reason to believe that M.S. had been seriously injured at that time. However, when A.R.C. arrived home from work that evening, B.S. was applying ice to M.S.’s leg, which was red and swollen. The couple took M.S. to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with a fractured femur.

Although B.S. initially told authorities that the family dog had fallen on M.S., he ultimately admitted to falling on the baby the prior evening, as well as having dropped the baby out of her infant car seat when she was just weeks old. B.S. was charged with REAP, EWOC, simple assault and aggravated assault. In a separate proceeding, B.S. pled guilty to REAP, EWOC and simple assault and was serving a prison sentence at the time of A.R.C.’s trial.

The Commonwealth also charged A.R.C. with REAP, EWOC, and simple assault. After her trial, the jury rendered a guilty verdict for REAP and EWOC.

ISSUE

Whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the “specific intent” and “actus reus” elements of the crimes charged when the undisputed evidence established that the Defendant did not cause or know about the injury to the child, that she proactively took the child to the hospital repeatedly, that doctors did not discover apparently existing injuries during repeated examination, and that an expert testified there was nothing more the Defendant could have done to discover that the child was injured.

HOLDING

The Commonwealth failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that A.R.C. engaged in reckless conduct that placed M.S. in danger of serious bodily injury or that A.R.C. violated her parental duty of care to M.S.

Judgment of sentence was vacated and A.R.C. discharged.

REASONING

ENDANGERING WELFARE CHARGE

The crime of endangering the welfare of a child is a specific intent offense. The intent element under section 4304 is a knowing violation of a duty of care. Violating a duty of care under the EWOC statute includes omissions to act, as well as acts.

The Superior Court reviewed the record of evidence presented by the Commonwealth as outlined above. Among the [lack of] evidence supporting the charge and cited by the Superior Court were the facts that A.R.C. took M.S. to every scheduled well-check; voluntarily took M.S. to the doctor when M.S. seemed excessively fussy at 52-days-old; A.R.C. complied with the doctors’ treatment for M.S.’s thrush and impetigo diagnoses; and, that none of M.S.’s healthcare providers either suspected or discovered any of the baby’s injuries prior to her July 30th hospital visit where she was first diagnosed with a broken femur and 17 pre-existing fractures.

Ultimately, the Superior Court concluded that the Commonwealth failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that A.R.C. was aware that M.S. was placed under circumstances that could threaten her physical welfare or that A.R.C. failed to act to protect M.S.’s welfare.

RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT CHARGE

The mens rea required for the crime of REAP, “recklessly,” is defined as a conscious disregard of a known risk of death or great bodily harm to another person. Acts of commission or omission by parents towards their children may create a substantial risk of death or great bodily injury.

After reviewing the record, the Superior Court concluded that – similar to EWOC charge – the Commonwealth failed to produce sufficient evidence to show that A.R.C. recklessly endangered M.S.

CRIMINAL LIABILITY CANNOT BE AUTOMATICALLY IMPUTED TO A PARENT

Though notably taking issue with the trial court in some respects, the Superior Court did agree with the trial court’s conclusion that “this is an unusual case in that no one has been able to account for how M.S. sustained 17 of her 18 undisputed, non-accidental fractures.”  However, the Superior Court specifically noted that “just because those injuries were not traceable to a specific person or event, criminal liability is not automatically imputed to a parent.”

In other words, the Commonwealth is still (and will always be) required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the elements of the crimes charged.

LINK TO CASE:

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A23008-16o%20-%2010286887514130204.pdf?cb=1

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