In this case, UNNAMED DAD's girlfriend has pleaded guilty to the assault of the father's child. Unfortunately, the mother--because of her own family history and our culture's exaltation of a father, any father--got sucked into the "parenting plan" nonsense now promoted by our family courts. So of course, all kinds of harrassment and problems arose, because courts are completely incompetent when it comes to raising children, and court "miscommunication" is rampant, making it easy to miss required hearings. So this is the end result: Daddy's whacked-out girlfriend smacked the child's head against her crib several times, and now the child is blind and will have lifelong neurological problems. At least Dad has given up his parental rights now.
December 6, 2009
Family grapples with aftermath of abuse on 15-month-old
By KRISTEN CATES
Tribune Staff Writer
Look at 15-month-old Seraphina Bernardi as she claps her hands twice when her mother sings "If you're happy and you know it."
Watch her smile and giggle when she hears a camera click.
Watch the way she holds on to her grandmother's coffee table and bounces.
But look a little closer and you'll notice that Seraphina isn't looking back.
When she was almost 6 months old, she was picked up and smacked hard against a crib two or three times, leaving her blind. It's not uncommon for her to experience seizures.
Her attacker, Alicia Jo Hocter, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and criminal endangerment. She faces a maximum of 30 years in prison under a binding plea agreement.
Seraphina faces a lifetime of challenges.
At the time of the abuse, Seraphina was living with her father and his girlfriend, Hocter, and Hocter's 1-month-old daughter.
"I want people to know the whole story," said Seraphina's mother, Kendra Bernardi. "It's been done to her. I'm not going to let it happen again."
Bernardi said it is important that people know the damage child abuse can cause.
"I'm still in disbelief," said the 21-year-old mother, who also has another daughter, 3 1/2—month-old Emilie Wilson. "I'm learning how to raise a blind child."
All she ever wanted was to be a mom, Bernardi said. She said she grew up with a mother who was addicted to drugs and an abusive father. Her grandmother, Carolee Bernardi, confirms this.
But when Kendra Bernardi found out on New Year's Eve 2007 that she was pregnant, she had mixed emotions. Three months into her pregnancy she left her boyfriend — Seraphina's father.
At one point she considered abortion, but after getting connected with Lifeway Pregnancy Services, she came to understand the joy she carried in her womb. She bought 10 outfits in case the baby was a girl and 10 sets of clothes for a boy.
On Aug. 24, 2008, she delivered healthy, happy Seraphina.
"It was amazing," Bernardi said. "Really, really amazing."
Because she grew up without a strong father figure, Bernardi said she wanted Seraphina's dad to at least meet his daughter after she was born, and he did take an interest in her life.
Bernardi and Seraphina's father tried to share custody of their baby, but with neither a parenting plan in place nor a healthy relationship between the parents, a custody battle ensued.
Seraphina's father filed a parenting plan, which is an outline of custody, with Cascade County District Court. It allowed Bernardi to visit Seraphina for two hours one day a month. His plan also called for Bernardi to have drug testing and parental counseling. The parenting plan was approved by a judge because Bernardi failed to show up to court on the day the proposed parenting plan was up for review.
Bernardi said she was given legal advice that if she didn't show up, the plan would be dropped and they could start over on an amended parenting plan.
She said she was surprised when she received the court papers in November 2008 outlining the approved plan, because she and Seraphina's father had already worked out a parenting plan that called for joint custody of their daughter. At this point, Hocter was living with Seraphina's father and Bernardi had begun dating William Wilson.
Bernardi hired an attorney, but in the meantime she abided by the court-approved parenting plan until it could be reviewed in court.
She said she never did anything to be denied custody.
Meanwhile, Seraphina was spending time with her father and Hocter. Bernardi said that when she saw her daughter, Seraphina seemed skittish. Bernardi said it once looked like her daughter had a black eye. She made reports to the Division of Child and Family Services, commonly known as DCFS, which also received reports against her. Court documents show that the reports against Bernardi were unfounded.
In early February she became fed up, but her grandfather, a retired police officer, kept her from doing the unthinkable.
"I decided I was going to kidnap her," Bernardi said. "I was prepared to take her. I was going to do anything I needed to keep her safe."
On Feb. 11, the birth father's parenting plan was dismissed. A Feb. 24 court date was set to draw up a new, more agreeable, parenting plan.
On Feb. 18, Bernardi was in the emergency room at Benefis Health System because of pain from her pregnancy with Emilie. Little did she know Seraphina was being carted in on an ambulance stretcher at the same time.
"They just said she was there," Bernardi said. "I was panicking."
According to court documents, Hocter told emergency crews that she dropped Seraphina while attempting to put her in her crib, but didn't call 9-1-1.
Doctors and police quickly realized Seraphina's injuries were not consistent with being dropped. Hocter later admitted to picking Seraphina up, smacking her against the crib two or three times, throwing her in her crib, turning up the radio and leaving the room until she heard the child making strange noises. When Seraphina's father returned home, he grabbed a cell phone and called 9-1-1.
Court records indicate that on Feb. 18 the Department of Child and Family Services received a "priority one" — the highest priority call — requesting assistance for a 1-month-old baby (Hocter's child) and a 6-month-old. The latter was taken by ambulance to Benefis for "severe head injuries and possible death."
Seraphina had subdural bleeding on the left side of her brain, swelling on the brain and possible blood on her right retina, court documents state. She was admitted to the intensive care unit and later suffered seizures. Doctors told Bernardi and others that Seraphina will have "lifelong significant neurological problems and disability."
Bernardi was in shock.
"She was like the perfect child," Bernardi said. "She was always happy. She was always looking around."
Seraphina spent seven days in the hospital. DCFS then requested and was granted temporary legal custody by the court, documenting the fact that Bernardi didn't have full custody and that the agency did not feel it was safe to return the child to her father.
Seraphina was placed in a foster home, where she began healing from the trauma. Bernardi was granted supervised visits. She described Seraphina's foster family as "wonderful."
On May 10 — one of the greatest days Bernardi can remember — she got Seraphina back.
That date also marked the beginning of a long journey.
Bernardi and her family, along with social workers, came up with an individualized family service plan through Quality Life Concepts. They set goals for development for Seraphina, who basically had to restart her development from scratch.
Some of the preliminary goals were to get Seraphina to crawl five feet, sit up unassisted and finger feed herself.
"We had to teach her how to eat texturized foods again," Bernardi said. "She wanted to give up. We had to force her to sit up — that was really hard."
Seraphina is in physical, speech and occupational therapy.
Though she is almost 16 months old, Seraphina still doesn't walk, and — in one recent physical therapy appointment — she even was hesitant to crawl.
Karen Thornton, her physical therapist at Benefis, tried to get Seraphina to crawl toward noisy toys on the floor. She also tried to get Seraphina to balance herself on a ball. She did well for a little while, but quickly got tired.
"She's changed so much," Bernardi said. "She wakes up in the middle of the night."
For a while, Bernardi said, she would wear the same necklace when she would pick her daughter up in order to comfort Seraphina.
"She'd actually grab my necklace and hold on to it," Bernardi said. "That way she knew it was me."
Though she isn't always comfortable in therapy, Seraphina is a fairly happy little girl at home, and she loves being a big sister.
Emilie was born Aug. 11. The picture on Bernardi's laptop is of Seraphina giving Emilie a hug. The family celebrated Seraphina's first birthday in August with a birthday cake that they helped her get all over her face.
When Seraphina is standing on her feet, she starts bouncing like she is feeling out a trampoline for the first time — a wide smile stretching across her face.
"When she does something that makes me laugh, she'll do it over and over again," Bernardi said.
Bernardi and Wilson are engaged to be married July 21, and Seraphina's father has given up his legal parenting rights. Wilson hopes to adopt her.
"Her first words were 'Da-da,'" Bernardi said. "He wanted to be known as Daddy, but she said it."
Last week, Bernardi and Wilson had Seraphina and Emilie baptized in a private church service. Bernardi said it was an awesome experience.
In a couple of months, they hope to get Seraphina enrolled in preschool at the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind. It's been recommended that Seraphina see a pediatric neurologist in Salt Lake City, but Bernardi and Wilson can't afford that right now.
"I'm still really nervous about long-term effects," Bernardi said. "She's still not talking."
But Bernardi can't help but have hope when she looks at her little girl, who has been through so much at such a young age. Since Bernardi didn't get to see her daughter during the holidays last year, she's planning to make this Christmas extra special.
She also said she is confident that her daughter has a future.
"I hope she goes to school and is happy," Bernardi said. "And that she knows no matter what happened to her, she's always loved."