Friday, February 5, 2010

Saving the life of a shaken baby, abused by her father (San Francisco, California)

This is a horrifying case in many ways. Most of all it's horrible that this child has had to survive so much after her father, PAUL COTE, abused her--nearly to the point of death. But it's also horrible that the mother has been demonized for the actions of another, though she was working when the abuse took place and two other adults living in the home didn't notice the abuse either. Shaken baby injuries can be difficult for trained professionals to recognize. And yet we expect mothers to be superwomen, who both work full-time and magically know what's going on with their babies at all hours of the day. Most of all, we need to stop promoting useless father "caretakers" (unemployed abuser-losers), especially for infant care, and let moms take care of their babies. Decent maternity leaves would be a nice first step.

Saving the Life of a Shaken Baby
Byron and Susan Mondoks' adoption of their granddaughter, abused by her birth father, unearths the meaning of love in action.

Christine A. Scheller

Justice is what love looks like in public, so says Princeton professor and pop philosopher Cornel West. When we think of justice though, we generally think of that which is found in courts or through political activism, or, failing these avenues of redress, what will be found at the judgment seat of Christ. But sometimes, justice is found in extraordinary acts of familial love.

Such is the case for Allie Rae Mondok, a little girl whose birth father shook her in January 2007 until her brain was irreversibly damaged. His one abusive act left Allie legally blind, paralyzed, comatose, and on the verge of death. But Paul Cote, then 22, quickly confessed to having abused his daughter several times a week during the few months that Allie and her then 19-year-old mother, Charity Mondok, lived with him and two other roommates in a San Francisco apartment. X-rays revealed old injuries including shoulder and rib fractures. Cote told Allie’s doctor that he would sometimes grab his 10-month-old daughter by the neck and choke her. He also force-fed her until she vomited. All of these things he did knowing that they would only make things worse, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.

In his final act of violence against Allie, Cote shook her vigorously for what he said was 20 seconds and then he squeezed her hard, because she wouldn’t go to sleep. Finally, she went limp in her bed, and a roommate called 911.

When Allie finally emerged from her coma, it was not to life as any of the Mondoks had previously known it, but to a future that doctors described as incredibly grim. Charity relinquished her parental rights and later attempted suicide. Her parents, Bryon and Susan, began a year-long process of becoming adoptive parents to their granddaughter. In order to do this, they left their home in Florida (which was subsequently lost to foreclosure), along with Bryon’s job as a missions pastor, and their 18-year-old son, Aaron, who lived with friends until they returned.

Susan moved into the hospital with Allie for the better part of eight weeks. During her stay, Allie was virtually inconsolable, says Susan. “For a long time, we just lived with no hope . . . because when you have a kid like this who cried all the time, there was no consoling her, there was no making her happy. The nurses would come in and say, ‘How do you handle sitting here with all this crying all the time?’ and I think I just tuned her out after a while, but she would cry sometimes ten hours. . . . We just said, ‘Well this is our life. We’ve got to move on with her and hopefully she’ll get better.’ ”

Even when they felt hopeless, Susan and Bryon held onto the faint possibility that Allie would improve, and she did. A speech therapist taught her how to suck from a bottle; then the feeding tube that had been keeping her alive was removed. Bryon says, “It was a major turning point when she started taking food by mouth. She had no possible source of self-soothing. She couldn’t get her hands in her mouth. . . . She didn’t get fed ever, so once we were able to start giving her a bottle, things changed drastically. She stopped crying.” What her father could not accomplish with his anger, her grandparents and others accomplished with their love and devotion.

According to Susan, Allie’s first case worker told them she was not their friend, but the veteran who replaced this naysayer fought for them to get custody. He said grandparents don’t usually get involved in these situations. Susan couldn’t believe it. She wondered, What grandparent wouldn’t take their grandchild?

Eventually the Mondoks moved back to Florida and rented a spacious, waterfront condominium in the same complex where Paul’s mother lives. Paul's mother sees her granddaughter and the Byron and Susan regularly, but declined to be interviewed for this story. She reportedly had been planning to return to her home in South America before her son did the unthinkable. Despite her own grief, she changed her plans and faced potentially hostile caretakers to help ease the suffering her son had caused. Aaron Mondok moved back in with his parents so that he too could support them and his niece/little sister.

Charity told me she’s afraid to have more children. The authorities made her feel like a criminal for not knowing that Paul was abusing their baby. Never mind that she was at work when the abuse occurred, and the two other adults in the home didn’t know either. She says she had never known abuse and thus didn’t suspect it. She is grateful to her parents for taking on a situation that she could not handle. She’s doing well and sees her family every couple months.

One day when Allie was still in the hospital in San Francisco, Paul’s father came to visit. Susan says he told the inconsolable child that Paul loved her. Susan was livid. Although she would rather Paul get help than spend years in prison, she says, “To me love is an action. When you love someone, you don’t put them in a coma.”

No, you die to your own hopes and dreams and devote yourself to their care. And in the process, a little girl receives a measure of justice that far exceeds whatever the courts dole out to her abuser or activists accomplish through their efforts. She gets to have a meaningful, abundant life.
A bevy of specialists have worked with Allie since she was shaken three years ago. When I visited her in Florida late last year, I met a happy, curious little girl and two devoted parents. Susan says she doesn’t allow herself to think about where Allie might have been as an ordinary 3-year-old because it would sink her. Bryon says he doesn’t have time for anger. He’s too busy with love. The whole family is.

For more information on Shaken Baby Syndrome, visit the website of the Shaken Baby Alliance. For more on Byron and Susan's life with Allie, visit their personal blogs.