Lonnie Gautreau has a score to settle. His 7-year-old granddaughter, Olivia Grant, died in 2017 after being treated for an illness she may not have had. Grant’s mother, Kelly Turner, was arrested two years later for murder after police alleged that she lied about her daughter’s illness.
Now, Gautreau and several other family members are suing Colorado Children’s Hospital for $25 million for treating Grant, even though it seems she wasn’t sick.
Suspected Child Abuse
Records show Turner first brought her daughter to the hospital to be treated for constipation in 2012. Grant went on to visit the same facility 1,000 times over the next five years.
Gautreau says he is angry at Turner for forcing his granddaughter to undergo treatment for a disease she didn’t have, but he’s also angry at the doctors and nurses that failed to notice anything was wrong.
“I want the truth. I want to know why nobody called; that policy the hospital had has to be changed to protect other children,” he said.
He says providers at Colorado Children’s Hospital performed over two dozen medically unnecessary procedures on Grant and that they failed to report child abuse to the authorities, despite Colorado’s mandated reporting laws.
“Six doctors testified she was not terminally ill, and when they got down to the end, they had these ethics meetings about what to do, and there were arguments,” Gautreau said.
The hospital investigated claims that Grant wasn’t actually sick and may have been suffering from child abuse, but they didn’t reach out to authorities. Providers eventually caved to Turner’s request to put her daughter on hospice.
“She convinced us it was the best, the doctors said it would be the best thing for her, and we had no reason not to believe we had one of the best freaking hospitals in the country,” Gautreau added.
Grant was denied basic nutrition in hospice care. She died after being heavily medicated and fed nothing but popsicles and juice for 19 days. “She opened her eyes and looked at me and recognized me and said, ‘Paw Paw, I’m hungry.’ She was hungry,” Gautreau remembers.
“She was just a joy to be around. She was so energetic, so loving, caring and loved to play. She loved life so much,” Gautreau remembers of Grant.
Reporting Medical Child Abuse
Now, Gautreau and several others are suing the facility. The hospital had refused to comment on the situation, writing, “We cannot comment at this time, given pending and actual litigation. Children’s Hospital Colorado intends to vigorously defend itself against any claims regarding its care of Olivia, and we continue to share sadness in Olivia’s short-lived life.”
At least one doctor who treated Grant felt that something may have been wrong with her care, but decided not to report it to the authorities for fear of making a mistake. Many providers hold off on reporting child abuse if it means taking the child away from the parent or dealing with the child welfare system, especially if the system is flawed, as is the case in Colorado.
“It’s a common attitude for anyone who is significantly familiar with the child welfare system,” says Dr. Benjamin Levi, a pediatrician, founding director of Penn State’s Center for the Protection of Children.
A recent survey of over 1,200 providers asked them how sure they would have to be that the child was being abused before reporting it to the authorities. The most common answer was 50%, but just one in six agreed that was an appropriate level. About one in 10 said they would have reasonable suspicion if they were 10% certain, and one in 25 said they’d need to be 90% sure.
“It’s essentially a Rorschach test about the person,” Levi said, “which has to do with their knowledge of child abuse…and it depends upon what you think about the value of reporting.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, around 1,000 of the 2.5 million cases of child maltreatment reported in the U.S. every year involve some form of medical child abuse, making it rare in the industry.
In 2020, the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services substantiated more than 10,000 instances of neglect, and about 1,100 instances of physical abuse across the state. The agency substantiated just 152 cases of medical neglect or abuse.
In most cases, medical child abuse occurs when a parent fails to seek care for their child or decides to take their child out of the hospital, despite the doctor’s orders. It’s rare to see a parent seek out medically unnecessary care.
Authorities believe Turner may have been motivated by sympathy from friends and family.
Gautreau says if just one doctor at Colorado Children’s Hospital would have come forward with their concerns, Grant might still be alive. “That would have saved her life. We’d have custody. She’d still be with us,” he said.
“Her mother told everyone she was going to die, carrying out a ‘bucket list’ to become a policeman for a day, a firefighter and bat princess at a Make-A-Wish Foundation party,” Gautreau told a local news outlet. “I’m not sure if Kelly or anybody else told her what a bucket list meant, but she wanted to be all those things she went through, and she was happy.”
Dr. James Metz, head of the child protection team at University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, says looking for medical child abuse can be like “looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“It’s not often in the top five things, the top 10 things, or even the top 20 things” on a doctor’s mind when they see a patient, he said.