TAMPA — Amanda Gary loves children. That is abundantly clear to the people who know her and have seen her work as a foster mother.
In more than a decade, she’s helped nurture upwards of 50 babies. She moved to a Wimauma farm to offer a therapeutic safe haven for the children in her care, many of whom come from circumstances where they have been abandoned, abused or neglected. Friends say she treats her foster children like they are her own.
So it was perplexing three years ago when Gary was accused of hurting an infant. The child suffered a broken leg while Gary was changing a diaper. She took the baby to a hospital. Doctors suspected abuse, though Gary insisted she did not hurt the child.
A criminal charge a year later upended her life, sapped her finances, and barred her from partaking in what she always felt was her calling.
Last week, her long legal odyssey ended when the state decided to discontinue prosecuting the aggravated child abuse charge against her.
New evidence, uncovered by Gary’s defense attorney, Richard Escobar, showed the child likely had developed a nutritional deficiency while still in the womb, which made her bones vulnerable to fractures.
It began Sept. 8, 2017. With a 6-week-old in her care who needed feeding at night, Gary slumbered lightly on a couch. Toward midnight, she awoke to feed the baby. She found her diaper needed changing. She would later recall, more than once, that she lifted the baby’s legs up to clean her bottom. She heard a pop.
She woke her boyfriend, Bill Burnes, a former Coast Guard medic, telling him she thought something was wrong.
“When we got to the emergency room, then my nightmare started,” Gary said.
At St. Joseph’s Hospital South, the baby was found to have a fractured thigh bone. A doctor immediately suspected child abuse. A sheriff’s deputy came. Then a detective. Each time she was asked what had happened, Gary gave the same account.
More than a year later, she got a call from her attorney. An arrest warrant had been issued. She later turned herself in and was released on bail.
She was barred from fostering children, a devastating blow as she had dedicated her life to them. Supporters helped raise funds for her legal defense. She worked with multiple attorneys before her case was referred to Escobar.
The prominent Tampa lawyer thoroughly probed the case. He questioned medical personnel who were part of a child protection team, an independent entity that assists law enforcement in child abuse cases. He also hired his own medical experts.
Last week, Escobar asked a judge to dismiss the charge. In a lengthy written motion, he outlined a litany of problems with the state’s case.
Among them: A physician who saw the infant at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital said that she ordered a test to see if the baby had a vitamin D deficiency, but realized during a deposition that she ordered the wrong test. Vitamin D is a nutrient essential for infants to develop strong bones when they are in the womb. A vitamin D deficiency can make a baby’s bones vulnerable to fractures.
There were other signs that the infant in Gary’s care may have had nutritional problems, according to the motion — acid reflux that could affect the intake of nutrients, a low red blood cell count that could indicate a vitamin deficiency or disease.
A radiologist hired by the defense opined that the infant’s skeleton showed signs of rickets, a softening or weakening of bones that can be caused by a nutritional deficiency. An endocrinologist, likewise hired by the defense, reviewed the infant’s medical records and concluded there was evidence of metabolic bone disease.
Medical personnel who cared for the baby when she was hospitalized did not conducts tests to assess her bone density or other factors that could have contributed to the fracture.
Medical records showed the baby’s biological mother had taken medication used to treat opioid addiction, according to the court motion. She received little prenatal care and her doctor was concerned about the unborn child being harmed by drug use. The mother was also known to have used antacids while pregnant, which medical literature shows can reduce a baby’s calcium intake.
A nurse practitioner who opined that the broken femur was intentionally inflicted acknowledged having no formal training in investigating child abuse, according to the court motion. The nurse said in a deposition that the fracture was the result of blunt force trauma, but the child had no bruises, scratches or abrasions that would have accompanied such trauma.
“We made the decision to charge based on evidence that the injury resulted from abuse, but further investigation showed a strong possibility that the injury was the result of a medical condition that was previously undiagnosed,” Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, said in a statement. “Ultimately the truth is unclear — and we cannot prosecute someone for a crime without clear evidence of what actually took place.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the case, stood by its investigation. In a statement, they noted that the evidence presented to the state attorney included opinions from the child protection team, which is independent of the agency.
The team, which is affiliated with the University of South Florida Health, includes a doctor and nurse practitioners. A spokeswoman for USF Health did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Escobar opined that the team should be reworked.
“The child protection team should have a group of doctors that meet on every single case and make a determination as a group whether it’s child abuse or not,” Escobar said. “Because if not, we put loving parents, both foster and other parents, in this horrific nightmare that they will never forget. That has got to change. We need to spend whatever money it takes in order to do that.”
With her freedom no longer in jeopardy, Gary wants to help bring change in how child abuse cases are investigated. She wants to meet with lawmakers to talk about her experience and discuss solutions to prevent parents from being falsely accused.
“One of my biggest fears is that people will be afraid to take kids,” Gary said. “I had two friends who wanted to be foster parents, and after what happened to me they won’t. More than anything, I don’t want this story to make these kids suffer, because we need foster parents. We need good homes for these kids.”