Fort Bragg, N.C. — The parents of an infant who died after suffocating at a Fort Bragg day care in March 2012 have filed a $10 million lawsuit against the U.S. government.
The lawsuit, which was filed Monday, alleges wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress in the case of Santino "Sonny" Degenhard, a 4-month-old who suffocated during tummy time at Pope Child Development Center on March 9, 2012.
Sonny's parents, Jason and Rachel Degenhard, said they were "heartbroken and disappointed" in April after the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to file criminal charges against the day care worker who was supposed to be supervising their son.
"They have walked away from their duty to preserve justice for those who cannot speak for themselves," the couple wrote. "Rachel and I wonder if it was their child, would they come to the same cowardice conclusion that they have 'no case.' We were promised justice and help from the beginning of this all, only to be completely let down by a very heartless decision."
The WRAL Investigates team reported on the Degenhards' story on Feb. 25, including their push for legal action.
A surveillance camera captured the scene as Sonny struggled to breathe while on his stomach, unable to roll over as a child care worker stood nearby, cleaning bottles and putting sheets on mattresses.
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 center and places him in a bouncy seat. The day care’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.
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 showed 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.
Grant and her attorney did not respond to WRAL Investigates’ requests for an interview in February.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services declined an interview but released a statement in February, saying it was 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.”