TAMPA — A breathing regulator for tiny lungs sits on the dresser piled with stuffed animals.
There's a puppy, a bear and an Elmo doll who has a twin sitting a few feet away on a changing table. A crib in a corner holds most of the tiny plush family, across the room from a twin bed where 19-year old Violet Mae Hinrichs slept.
Her family says Hinrichs has been a doting mother to her 7-month-old boy. He could scarcely let out a whimper before she would scoop him up. Recently, when the boy was hospitalized for sleep apnea and seizures, she stayed with him and posted pictures to Facebook. Her family says there were no signs of trouble.
But early Wednesday, Hinrichs was arrested, accused of repeatedly choking her baby to the point of unconsciousness. The boy's recent medical problems, police say, were the result of repeated acts of deliberate child abuse.
"I don't believe it," said Hinrichs' aunt, Tina Ritz. "She was a very good mother."
The Port Richey boy was first taken to Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor a few weeks ago, the family said. Then, he went to Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Doctors found nothing wrong and he was discharged. On the way home from the second hospital visit, he had another seizure, Ritz said. Doctors said the incidents might be the result of sleep apnea triggered by acid reflux. When the seizures kept happening, he went to Tampa General Hospital for tests. Later, he ended up at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
He was kept in a room monitored by video and audio. Detectives and hospital staff later reviewed the footage, which showed the boy's arms flailing, his skin turning blue, and his mother choking him, police said. Inevitably, his heart rate and brain waves would slow, triggering medical alarms. It happened four times, and only when Hinrichs was present, police said. They also found bruises on his neck.
During questioning, Hinrichs admitted choking the infant, police said. She was jailed on four counts of aggravated child abuse and held on $80,000 bail.
Her sister, Tiffany Coffey, said Hinrichs changed since the birth. The baby boy filled a void in her left by tragedy early on.
The family has been profiled several times in the Pasco Times, beginning in late 2002 when Fred and Jessie Hinrichs took in the children: Violet, Fred Hinrichs' daughter from a previous relationship, and her siblings, James, Tiffany and Christina.
In 2004, Jessie Hinrichs died. Fred Hinrichs followed in 2006. Violet was 11. After that, the children's birth mother, Dianne Coffey, got custody. While some of her siblings took a downward turn in their teens — Tiffany and James both spent time in jail — the impact of the loss never seemed to manifest in Violet, family friend Debra Walker said.
Violet got pregnant for the first time when she was 17. The baby girl was immediately put up for adoption, her mother said. Walker noticed some depression after that, and Violet talked about missing the baby.
The family, sitting on the front porch Wednesday afternoon, all said they couldn't imagine Violet Mae harming the baby. But briefly, they entertained that possibility.
Dr. Marc D. Feldman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama, said the case bears the traits of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a form of child abuse in which parents intentionally injure or make children sick. Affected parents often do that to get attention or fulfill some other psychological need.
"Often a mother feels out of control and manipulating a child's health may allow them a sense that they're in control," Feldman said. "The behavior tends to be pre-planned and thought out and involves the conscious deception of other people."
Experts estimate there are just 600 to 1,200 new Munchausen by proxy cases in the United States each year, Feldman said. It is among the deadliest forms of child abuse, with a mortality rate as high as 10 percent.
After her son was born, Hinrichs' family said, she put him in a day care next to Ridgewood High School where she continued to work at her diploma. She was enrolled in a program for students with learning disabilities, Ritz said. On breaks, she would step over to the day care to feed him.
The infant remained in the hospital Wednesday, authorities said. The Department of Children and Families, which is providing temporary care for the boy, had no prior contact with Hinrichs. She and her child were subjected to two previous Pasco County sheriff's investigations but officials declined to offer details, saying the incidents occurred when Hinrichs was a juvenile. A spokesman described the cases as "minor."
She had begun counting down the days to his first birthday and was deciding between Chuck E. Cheese's or Lowry Park Zoo.
On Facebook, she posted photos of her son. "My baby is 7 months today 5 more months he will be a year — feeling excited," she wrote on April 25. A friend asked if the baby was feeling better. Hinrichs did not reply.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]m or (813) 226-3386.