STURGIS, Mich. (WOOD) — The autopsy report on the death of an identical twin baby girl in Sturgis suggests she may have died from Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
The rare syndrome is described as a mental health problem in which a caregiver — usually a mom — makes up or causes an illness or injury in a child.
“Looking back on it, I see the hospital had referenced Munchausen several days before Braelynn’s death,” said the baby’s paternal grandmother, Teresa Clark, who’s fighting to help her son gain custody of the remaining twin Addelynn. “I wish there had been some kind of intervention done.”
Braelynn Hope Clark, 13 months old, died July 14, 2018, at the Sturgis home of her maternal grandmother after the baby’s mom laid her down for a nap.
“I’ll never get to see her go to her first day of school, graduate, be married,” a tearful Clark said.
Clark reached out to Target 8 after she said Sturgis police told her criminal charges against Braelynn’s mom are unlikely without a confession or other evidence.
“If I don’t get some help, if I don’t get somebody else to look into this, then her passing will just be swept under the carpet and there will never be any justice for her,” Clark said.
The twins’ mom told Target 8 she did not make up Braelynn’s symptoms nor hurt her in any way.
“I’m their mom and this is where they belong, and I’ve never done anything to harm my kids and I never would,” Jordan Carr, 24, said.
When asked what she thinks happened to Braelynn, Carr said, “I honestly don’t know.”
“She was at her dad’s for a week. She came home and all this stuff started happening… She was just having episodes where she would stop breathing. She would have tremors or seizures of whatever they were, and that’s why I would call 911,” she recalled.
In the week before Braelynn died, Carr called 911 four times** and made four trips to the hospital within four days, reporting her baby was choking, not breathing, unconscious and having seizure-like episodes. In one case, medics found Braelynn “lethargic” with a low-grade temperature. On another call, firefighters described the baby as “alert and oriented” upon their arrival.
Braelynn’s mom acknowledged that, despite multiple calls and hospital trips, doctors could not pinpoint a clear cause for her baby’s reported distress, even after 33 hours of observation and tests at Bronson Medical Center.
According to the autopsy report, it was after the baby’s fourth trip to the ER that doctors diagnosed Braelynn with “BRUE (brief resolved unexplained events)” with “concern for factitious disorder by proxy (episodes of seizures and cyanosis occurring in the presence of mom only.)”
Factitious disorder is also referred to as Munchausen syndrome.
Then, three days later, Carr told police she put Braelynn down for a nap at her mom’s Sturgis house on an adult bed with pillows, blankets and a bottle. The young mother then left for the store. According to the autopsy report, Carr’s mom reported she checked on the baby five minutes later, and Braelynn was “cold to the touch and unresponsive.”
“Per law enforcement reports, approximately 30 to 35 minutes passed from when Jordan took Braelynn into the bedroom and when Braelynn was found unresponsive,” wrote the pathologist in the autopsy report.
During the autopsy, the pathologist reported finding “several abrasions of the neck,” as well as hemorrhages near the hyoid bone and a muscle that attaches it to the sternum. The hyoid bone is a wishbone-shaped bone in the neck that can break during strangulation.
While Braelynn’s official cause of death was “undetermined,” the pathologist made it clear she considered Munchausen by proxy a possibility.
“(The hemorrhages) are not easily explained by natural disease or (medical treatment-induced) injury,” Dr. Elizabeth A. Douglas said in Braelynn Clark’s autopsy report. “The chief … consideration for this finding in this case is homicidal asphyxia. In most homicidal pediatric asphyxial deaths, the victims are very young, the child is smothered and autopsy findings are minimal or absent. Many cases come to light only after a confession or when multiple children die in the care of the same individual.”
Maternal grandmother Kim Ater told Target 8 she thinks some sort of “baby sleep apnea” may have led to Braelynn’s death.
“There is not a bone in my daughter’s body that could harm her children,” Ater said.
The autopsy also showed Braelynn’s “neuropathologic examination was significant for elongation of the cerebellar tonsils, consistent with a Chiari Type I malformation.”
Chiari malformations are described in medical literature as “structural defects in the base of the skull and cerebellum.”
“Infants may present with sleep apnea including near miss sudden infant death syndrome, stridor and feeding difficulties,” wrote the pathologist in Braelynn’s autopsy.
“Compression of the brain stem and nearby neuronal structure involved in respiratory control and maintenance of pharyngeal wall muscle tone may result in respiratory changes during sleep,” stated the autopsy report.
A month after Braelynn’s death, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services took Carr’s two remaining children, including Braelynn’s twin, into protective custody. Since fall, Jordan Carr has had supervised parenting time (her sister must be present) with her daughters every other week. In April, the state filed a petition to terminate Carr’s parenting time. It has not, however, filed to terminate her parental rights altogether.
“Given the highly suspicious and concerning manner in which Braelynn died … the Department moves this Court to terminate Respondent Mother’s parenting time to protect Brooklynn and Addelynn from harm,” a petition by the state filed in St. Joseph County Circuit Court reads in part.
There is a hearing scheduled July 31 in family court at which time both sides will present their cases regarding custody.
The case against Carr is being pursued on behalf of MDHHS by prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office.
“It’s a tough one. It’s a tragedy,” said John McDonough, the St. Joseph County prosecutor, whose office is not trying the family court case. “Our office did not feel like the standard to move forward with the case could be met based on the evidence we reviewed.”
The Sturgis police investigation remains open.
In order to take children into protective custody, the state has to prove by a “preponderance” of evidence that the children are at risk of harm. To terminate parental rights, the state must prove its case by “clear and convincing” evidence.
Carr’s defense attorney declined to discuss the evidence prior to trial but said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to get to court.
“(Jordan’s) done nothing wrong. She did nothing to cause the death of her child,” said T.J. Reed of Bird Scheske Reed & Beemer, a Sturgis law firm.
In one filing, the state referenced a potential motive, reporting that days before the first reported seizure, Carr and her boyfriend broke up.
“Respondent Carr repeatedly told (her boyfriend) about Braelynn’s health issues and asked him to come and be with her at the hospital,” the state wrote in a notice to admit evidence. “The day Braelynn died, Carr refused to leave the hospital until (her boyfriend) showed up. He did not believe what Carr had reported about Braelynn.”
**July 8: Carr told dispatchers Braelynn was choking. “Braelynn was placed face down in horizontal position to facilitate back blows,” read the autopsy report, prepared by a pathologist at Western Michigan’s University’s School of Medicine, which serves as Medical Examiner for St. Joseph and multiple other counties. “Before back blows were performed, a quarter fell from Braelynn’s mouth,” the pathologist wrote.
Less than three hours after Braelynn was discharged from the Sturgis Hospital Emergency Department for the choking incident, Carr called 911 to report “an unconscious infant.” Upon arrival, medics described Braelynn as “lethargic” with a temperature of 99 degrees. At discharge on that trip, doctors at the Sturgis Hospital Emergency Department diagnosed Braelynn with “breathing problem, stable,” and recommended a follow-up in the morning.
July 8: Carr called 911 to report Braelynn was “not breathing.” Paramedics reported finding the baby “sleeping on the couch, breathing, and with good color.” But Carr reported Braelynn’s face “went blue” before she called 911. At Bronson Medical Center, the autopsy shows a doctor diagnosed Braelynn with a fever-induced seizure.
July 11: Carr called 911 to say Braelynn was not breathing, and the ambulance service reported “one rescue breath given, and Braelynn began to breathe normally.”