Friday, August 05, 2005

Hospital didn't report birth by girl

Indications were 13-year-old Guatemalan victim of abuse
By JEFF CULL
JCULL@NEWS-PRESS.COM
News-Press.com
Article published Aug 2, 2005


Hospital workers never reported to authorities that a 13-year-old Guatemalan girl had given birth to a premature baby despite indications she may have been abused and the victim of a crime.

Florida law says it's a felony to have sex with someone younger than 16, even if consent is given. That made the girl a potential crime victim, a fact the hospital never reported to law enforcement or child-abuse authorities.

Lee Memorial Health System officials said last week ­ in response to a recent report in The News-Press about how safety nets had failed the girl ­ that laws governing patient privacy wouldn't let them make a report.

"The mere fact that she's young and pregnant doesn't trigger reporting," said Mary McGillicuddy, the hospital's chief lawyer.

McGillicuddy said state law allows health-care workers to report only child abuse, gunshot wounds and life-threatening injuries due to violence. Other criminal acts such as domestic violence can't be reported. [So, trafficking and statutory rape aren't considered child abuse? - Donna[

The girl is at the center of a human trafficking case being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney in Fort Myers.

She told FBI agents she was sold by her parents in Guatemala and smuggled into the U.S. where she was enslaved, beaten and raped.

The girl entered Cape Coral Hospital, part of the Lee Memorial system, in October 2003 with unexplained internal bleeding. She was in premature labor and had been transported to the hospital by a stranger.

All the red flags for child abuse where there, Jennifer Benton, executive director of Abuse Counseling and Treatment Inc. in Fort Myers, said last week.

"A 13-year-old who is pregnant? How much do they have to have? It's scary," she said.

Lisa Goehle of LA Social Services in Lehigh Acres agrees.

"There may be a law, but common sense or maternal sense would make them make that call," she said. "The hospital's negligent for not reporting this."

State child-abuse laws require reporting if a health care worker has "reasonable cause to suspect that a child is abused ... ."

Health care workers, however, decided there was nothing to report.

But the state attorney's office questioned that appraisal.

"They would certainly investigate, you would think," said Chere Avery, state attorney's office spokeswoman.

Lee Memorial officials would not release additional information about the girl other than to confirm that her case was not reported to authorities, but they did offer hospital guidelines to reporting abuse.

"If anyone in the health system has suspicions, then it is reported," said Madolyn Gingell, director of medical social workers for Lee Memorial Health System.

The problem, hospital staffers said, is laws make patient records confidential.

"We can't share medical records. If we'd have been told she was abused, it would have triggered a report," said Karen Krieger, a spokeswoman for Lee Memorial.

Officials at Gulf Coast Hospital, the county's other hospital that delivers babies, said they follow the same state laws as Lee Memorial.

Lee Memorial board member Nancy McGovern said she didn't know enough about the case to comment but said the girl had told hospital workers she wasn't abused.

However, that should be expected, said Nola Theiss, co-chair of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida.

Trafficking and abuse victims are often threatened with reprisals if they tell authorities the truth, she said. "Victims don't speak for themselves."

The girl was six months pregnant when a neighbor took her to Cape Coral Hospital, part of the Lee Memorial system, after she complained of stomach pain.

The neighbor, Irma Rivera, said it was the first time she had seen the girl even though she had known other members of the household for six months.

At the hospital, Rivera said she translated for hospital workers who asked if she knew why the girl was bleeding internally. Rivera asked the girl's companion, Matilde Pascual Andres, 26, who said she didn't know.

The girl had an emergency Caesarean section about 30 minutes after entering the hospital, Rivera said. The baby, a boy who weighed 1 1/2 pounds, was transferred by helicopter to HealthPark Medical Center.

The girl was released three days later. That's when she told Rivera that Fernando Pascual, 21, had kicked her in the stomach the morning she delivered the baby.

A month later, child protection officials removed her from her Cape Coral home, where she said she had been raped, beaten and forced to cook and clean.

Pascual was arrested in May, along with Andres and Andres' husband, Pascual Sebastian, and charged with sex trafficking.

Hospital officials said the "staff acted properly" but would welcome changes in the law that would allow for more cases to be reported.

"If the state attorney or Legislature wants to give us some different guidelines, we'd be open to that," McGillicuddy said.

State Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, said he's looking into issues of human trafficking in Florida and would look at reporting laws.

"If there's a weakness in the statute, we'll bring that up in the next legislative session," he said.

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