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Fight for Innocence: Peoria woman’s search for answers to her newborn’s mysterious injury

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Peoria, IL (HOI) - She calls her 'my favorite surprise'. Not knowing she was expecting her second child until she was five months pregnant, Morgan Carlton welcomed her daughter Blake on June 15th, 2019.

Blake Carlton

"Dark hair... oh my gosh just beautiful. Just beautiful. We fell in instant love with her," said Morgan Carlton.

But it wasn't the pregnancy that would be the biggest surprise, but the accusations coming just weeks later.

Morgan's nightmare started when Blake was just shy of three-weeks-old. Like many newborns, Blake was experiencing constipation, so she was taken to the hospital.

There, Morgan says the resident on duty started doing maneuvers with Blake's legs to help with bowel movement.

(Here is an example of these types of maneuvers)

"We felt like she was being rough but we didn't say anything because, she must know, she knows what she's doing," said Morgan.

After a few hours in the emergency department, Morgan says they went to her mom's house where Blake seemed comfortable and was able to fill her diaper. This was just in time for her regular newborn appointment the following day.

"So when we get to the doctor I notice when I'm undressing her, that her leg is swollen. So I noticed it and told it to the nurse who was taking her vitals…I noticed and told the resident who told her pediatrician," said Morgan.

Both Morgan and the doctor noticed the swelling, but no bruising on Blake's leg. Xrays were ordered to see what was going on.

"Not even fifteen minutes after leaving the xray my phone is like blowing up. I missed the first call because I didn't hear it. They call me again so I answered… they're telling me she has a fracture. So I lose it. I just started bawling because this just doesn't make any sense, where? where from", said Morgan.

Blake was immediately taken to the Children's Hospital of Illinois.

Children's Hospital of Illinois

"She starts explaining to us, this type of fracture is suspicious as non accidental… non accidental trauma… "
"Eventually, around 11pm, 1130pm… we hear a knock on the door and income two officers… DCFS was hotlined," explained Morgan.

That night in the hospital, Morgan learned that her two daughters could no longer be in her care alone, and the girls have to stay at their Grandma's house.

"I had to do it, because I didn't want someone else to do it. But it was hard. It was hard because I felt like I was taking it away from my daughter," said Kim Carlton, Morgan's mom.

Morgan is now being accused of abusing her 3-week-old baby girl after the child abuse pediatrician, Dr. Channing Petrak, diagnosed Blake with a bucket handle fracture at her ankle that was considered 'non accidental'.

In the days following, CT and MRI scans were ordered, Morgan says this would show if someone shook Blake or caused other injuries. Both of these tests came back normal. However, when a full skeletal X-ray was performed, the doctor says it revealed three, possibly four broken ribs.

"We had numerous, numerous discussions about what could have happened and I just kept thinking, did something happen in utero before I knew she was there, did something happen at birth," said Morgan.

The question remained for months as Morgan followed the safety plan from DCFS, hired an attorney, and started reaching for more opinions on her daughter's case.

Her lawyer, Floyd Dailey, was granted Blake's medical records after several attempts. Morgan had those documents sent to a radiologist in Springfield that specializes in cases like these, Dr. David Ayoub.

"He said this is absolutely not what you've been accused, this is not a bucket handle fracture, he said you need to sue for malpractice, is what he told me," said Morgan.

Dr. Ayoub had different explanations for Blake's case, saying she had slight rickets in her ribs and skull, which is likely why it looked like she had fractured ribs in the X-ray.

Rickets is a softening and weakening of bones in Children, usually due to inadequate vitamin D.

"It felt like we were finally uncovering truth," said Morgan.

Dr. Ayoub then sent the records to Dr. Christopher Sullivan at University of Chicago Medicine, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, who echoed his findings.

"The rib fractures turned out not to be real fractures because there was no evidence of healing of the fractures on x-rays that were taken later, that should have demonstrated robust healing of the fractured areas," said Dr. Sullivan.

However, the ankle did show signs of healing, but Dr. Sullivan doesn't think it's because of a non-accidental injury, due to the quality of Blake's bones at three-weeks-old.

"It's not uncommon that babies that are deficient in their vitamin D levels that end up having a fracture that occurs because their bones are weaker than normal and they may have radiographic findings related to the vitamin d level being low that are misinterpreted as fractures and that was the case here with Blake."

Blake's vitamin D levels were considered insufficient at 21 units, as 30 is considered normal.

In his letter to the state, Dr. Sullivan wrote that the growth plate in infants is the weakest part of the bone, and this type of injury happens when the ankle joint is bent or moved beyond range of motion. He says this would require external force, but these forces could be as simple as a change of clothes or other normal handling.

"A problem with vitamin D levels being inadequate will cause bone to not grow normally, and since bones in infants and children are growing, the growth plate needs calcium to add to the new matrix material in order to make the bone strong," said Dr. Sullivan.

Dr. Sullivan thinks the constipation maneuvers at the emergency department may be one possible cause for Blake's injury.

This letter by Dr. Sullivan was dated December 2, 2019. By January 21st, 2020, Morgan was allowed unsupervised visitation with her kids. This meant she could go places with her kids alone, but they weren't fully in her custody yet.

On February 18th, Morgan was granted guardianship on her two daughters again.

After 394 days of being accused of child abuse, DCFS voluntarily unfounded her case. On August 5th, 2020, Morgan was finally free of accusations.

"I would say that is the third happiest day of the life, besides the days they were born," said Morgan.

"I think I yelled at the top of my lungs at Menards… I said, 'oh my god thank you god'," said Kim.

But even with that relief, the emotional trauma and financial burden stays with Morgan. She says it cost her $12,500 to prove she didn't hurt her newborn daughter.

"I would never put a dollar sign to what I would ever do to take care of them, ever in a million years, but when you're spending that kind of money just running and running and running to prove that you did not do something, I feel absolutely they should give me that back," said Morgan.

But to get to this point, Morgan took the guidance of the Family Justice Resource Center, a local group that helps families that are falsely accused of child abuse.

Executive Director Michelle Weidner says she was wrongly accused of child abuse 10 years ago, which prompted her to help others.

"Families who are accused of abuse find themselves spending tens of thousands of dollars and they often have to dig into their child's savings, their retirement savings, even Grandparents find themselves digging into their retirement savings to support their child through the allegation. That's something no one is prepared for."

Weidner says cases like Morgan's aren't as rare as people may think.

"We are seeing this happen to an increasing number of people when a child presents at the hospital, typically under the age of three, with certain medical findings that triggers this automatic abuse investigation," said Weidner.

She emphasized that her organization is not to get just anyone out of abuse charges, but the families that are clearly wrongly accused.

To learn more about Family Justice Resource Center, click here.

Jenise Rebholz

Evening Anchor, Heart of Illinois ABC
@JeniseRebholzTV

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