Fort Bragg, N.C. — When Santino “Sonny” Degenhard came into the world on Oct. 25, 2011, his laughter came easy. For parents Rachel and Jason Degenhard, that laughter now lives only on video.
The last time Rachel Degenhard saw her son’s smile was March 9, 2012, as she dropped him off at Pope Child Development Center on Fort Bragg, where she and her husband are soldiers. Jason Degenhard was on assignment at the time.
“I went to work and received a dreadful call,” Rachel Degenhard said. “When I saw him, I knew that something bad had happened. I just didn’t know what happened to him.”
Sonny suffocated on the floor during tummy time while a child care worker got the room ready for the day by cleaning bottles and putting sheets on mattresses. The baby boy was on life support for six days before his death was official on March 15, 2012.
“The last time I saw him, he was a beautiful, healthy boy,” Jason Degenhard said. Now, his wife spends every Friday reading to their 4-month-old son at his grave site.
“The first time I got any details was when I requested it from the state’s investigation, and I received it in September – six months later,” said Jason Degenhard, who has tirelessly pored over the documents, trying to understand how his son died without child care workers noticing.
Camera captures Sonny's struggle
A surveillance camera captured the scene as Sonny struggled to breathe while on his stomach, unable to roll over. The day’s events were documented in reports by Fort Bragg investigators and the North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education:
- 5:30 a.m. – Rachel Degenhard drops Sonny off at the child care and places him in a bouncy seat. The daycare’s procedures state that a child should not be left in a bouncy seat for longer than 15 minutes. However, staff members leave Sonny in the seat for about 90 minutes.
- 7:12 a.m. – Two staff members take Sonny and three other children to their assigned classroom.
- 7:13 a.m. – Child care worker Vera Grant places Sonny on his stomach on a red vinyl mat. She is responsible for watching Sonny and three other children, ages 9 months, 13 months and 17 months.
- 7:16 a.m. – Grant puts a blanket under Sonny as he remains on his stomach. She then cleans the classroom and performs non-caregiving activities, including going into the closet and bathroom, failing to provide appropriate supervision for the children in the classroom. Meanwhile, Sonny begins fussing and tries to lift his head a few times, but Grant does not respond to him.
- 7:24 a.m. – Sonny kicks, the blanket bunches up near his mouth and he stops moving.
- 7:26 a.m. – A cook comes in the room, points at Sonny and says he doesn’t look right, but no one checks on him.
- 7:30 a.m. – Another staff member comes in the room and says Sonny looks funny, but no one checks on him.
- 7:32 a.m. – Grant picks up Sonny, puts him in a crib and realizes he’s not breathing. She puts him on a changing table and begins CPR by giving him breaths, but no chest compressions. A school nurse and a medic, who was dropping off her child, rush into the room and perform CPR on Sonny. A staff member calls 911.
Emergency workers arrived about five minutes later and took Sonny to Womack Army Medical Center. He was transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, where doctors determined he had suffered a brain injury consistent with oxygen deprivation.
The Degenhards then made the difficult decision to take their son off life support after they were told he did not have any brain activity. Sonny died at 12:20 a.m. on March 15, 2012, and his organs were donated.
Child care center changes name after Sonny's death
Pope Child Development Center dismissed Grant, who said in interviews with investigators that she followed the same routine each day and that she was focused on getting everyone to the table to eat at the same time the morning that Sonny suffocated.
Public records requested by the WRAL Investigates team show that Grant was current in her training, including pediatric first aid and infant/toddler safe sleep and Sudden Infant Death risk reduction. She told Army investigators she had 36 years of experience in child care. Nearly a year later, Fort Bragg investigators say the criminal case is still pending.
Grant and her attorney did not respond to WRAL Investigates’ requests for an interview.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services declined an interview but released a statement, saying it is monitoring the center’s training and preventive measures: “(The department) takes any allegation of misconduct in a licensed child care facility very seriously. As long as this center remains licensed by the State of North Carolina, DHHS will closely monitor to ensure compliance with all applicable state requirements.”
Since Pope Child Development Center is on federal property, it was not required to maintain a state license but chose to do so anyway. After Sonny's death, the state investigated and revoked the center's license on Oct. 5, 2012. The center was then given a 12-month probationary license and remained open.
The child care used to be part of Pope Air Force Base, but became part of Fort Bragg in July 2010. Even though a name change had been in the works, leaders decided to change the center's signage to Eagle Child Development Center about a month after Sonny's death.
The state's day care database did not reflect the name change until recently, state officials said, because the center’s paperwork was not in order. That was problematic for parents who wanted to research the facility, because they would have to know the center’s old name to look up the facility’s history online. After WRAL began investigating, the child care's name change was reflected in the state's online child care database.
While Pope Child Development Center had no history of neglecting or abusing children, Sonny's death wasn't the only incident Fort Bragg investigated.
On March 15, 2012, six days after Sonny suffocated, a 1-year-old toddler walked out of the day care unnoticed and went outside to a fenced in playground by himself. The child's mother, who had come to pick him up, saw him standing outside. About the same time, a staff member saw the boy at the door and alerted the worker in charge of the child, according to the report.
Fort Bragg's investigators noted that the 1-year-old easily opened the door, no alarm sounded and that caregivers did not notice him leaving the building.
On March 27, 2012, the father of a 3-year-old boy complained that a female day care worker struck his child on the buttocks as she changed the boy's clothes. The worker was temporarily moved to administrative duties, but the allegation was deemed unfounded and she was allowed to return to her normal duties on April 26, 2012.
State's tummy time training not very specific
As in Sonny's case, tummy time can be dangerous for infants who lack neck strength, which is why experts recommend babies sleep on their backs. However, when they are awake, short periods of supervised tummy time are necessary to help babies develop their muscles and avoid getting a flat head.
The WRAL Investigates team examined public documents showing the state’s training on tummy time is not very specific, saying only that infants need to be awake and supervised.
Fort Bragg's tummy time training is more specific and requires a staff member to be sitting on the floor, within arm's reach of the child, while maintaining eye contact – a rule that was broken in Sonny’s case. Fort Bragg's tummy time rules also state:
- No more than 3 to 5 minutes, twice per day, for a child who cannot roll over.
- Increasing to 10 minutes, twice per day, for a child who can roll over.
- Maximum of 20 minutes, twice per day, for an infant who is getting ready to pull themselves up.
Despite Fort Bragg's policy, many of the workers the Army interviewed after Sonny's death did not recall the details of the supervision policy. Fort Bragg spokesman Tom McCollum says the Army recognizes the horrible tragedy of Sonny's death and remains committed to learning from it.
“There was a lot of extensive training that followed this, and that was all part of our review of was there something that we could’ve done that could have prevent it,” he said. "Please don’t jump to the conclusion that we only keep (the child care) open because it’s convenient for our families. We keep it open because, right to this date, nothing shows that there was any reason to close it because of the operations.”
Despite Sonny's case, the state hasn't changed tummy time training or alerted child care providers of Sonny’s death. A DHHS spokeswoman says an alert was not sent out because the department was still investigating and gathering facts.
An investigator in the state Medical Examiner's office did raise a question as to whether an alert should go out about the danger of blankets.
The FBI has since taken the lead in investigating Sonny's death, which has been forwarded to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fayetteville for review, McCollum said.
Degenhards remember 'four months of pure love'
The Degenhards say they are frustrated because their son's death was preventable. They want resolution to the state's and Army's investigations and for the public to know what happened to their son so no child dies the same way.
“I have a vested interest in my son’s life, and I don’t feel that (the Army and state) have the same vested interested,” Jason Degenhard said. "Not one person has sent us a card, called to apologize, sent us condolences, sympathies, anything. There has been absolutely no response to us as soldiers or parents to say, 'We're sorry.'"
At Sonny's funeral, Jason Degenhard delivered his son’s eulogy and talked about how he and his wife had prayed for years to have a baby.
“Four years of our patience turned into four months of pure love. He was alive for exactly 142 days, and unofficially, I think he received 10,000 kisses," he said. "I can actually say that I helped bring him into this world, as I watched him be pulled from his mother’s womb, and I held him as he left for heaven’s gate."
The grieving father remembered special times with his son, including watching Jeopardy and cooking shows together and cuddling after bath time. During the eulogy, Jason Degenhard also read a letter that his wife had written for their son's funeral.
"I want my heart to memorize each one of these moments, things not captured by video or camera – his touch, his smell, the emotion that consumed our family whenever we looked at him," Rachel Degenhard wrote. "One of life's greatest blessings is children. I'm very grateful for the time God allowed us to have this most precious and divine gift from heaven. There are no words of comfort or length of time that can take away the pain of losing a child ... I look forward to the day that we can hold him again and hear his laughter and see his wonderful smile."