Inhospitable and in Denial

The parents of two little girls placed them in the Broward Children's Center hoping their daughters would be cured. Something went wrong.

Cohen says Evans was just following an obstructionist pattern set by the center's attorneys. Attorney Robert Cousins, who represented the center, wrote a letter to Cohen's law firm in 1995 that again blamed Cristal's health, rather than mistakes made at the center, for the incident.

"The defendant would affirmatively show that the injuries or damages alleged are the result of the natural consequences and course of [Cristal's] illness and not the result of the negligence or departure of care of any health care provider," Cousins wrote.

The center chose to refuse an early settlement offer of $1 million extended by Cohen's law firm. The following summer Cohen began deposing staffers and, as he puts it, "the truth started pouring out."

Cohen says the depositions not only proved that the center was negligent but that it was more negligent than even he suspected. Dr. Robert Spear, a veteran pediatric doctor who works at Children's Hospital in San Diego, was deposed on November 6, 1995. Spear, who was commissioned as a witness by Cohen, had reviewed the depositions and Cristal's available medical records. He testified that Cristal would have likely developed normally, independent of ventilators and tracheostomy tubes, had not staffers both been negligent and acted inappropriately.

He concluded that the reason Cristal went into cardiac arrest in the first place was almost certainly because Vadakkel accidentally pulled out the tracheostomy tube when he unhooked the ventilator. He testified that the ventilator never should have been unhooked while Cristal was asleep and that the untrained Vadakkel never should have been asked to unhook it under any circumstance. Spear also determined that it took way too long for staffers to call 911.

In short, Spear placed the blame for Cristal's catastrophe squarely on the center's shoulders.

On December 7, 1995, less than a month after that deposition was taken, the $4 million settlement was finalized.

Cohen says the way Broward Children's Center dealt with Cristal's case was reprehensible. "It was a screwup, and they tried to imply that they did nothing wrong," says the lawyer. "There was an attempt at trying to portray this in one way when it happened in another. It was frustrating."

The center is still denying any fault.
"That was our insurance company that made the settlement," Beggs says. "They did so without consulting us. We did nothing wrong."

Evans, who started the center 25 years ago, never returned messages left by New Times.

While Cohen and his lawsuit shed ample light on what happened the morning Cristal was brain-damaged, the truth about where all that thioridazine went and why Jenna died with dangerous levels of it in her bloodstream may forever be a mystery.

Medical Examiner Perper says that while the investigation is still officially open, he expects it will soon be wrapped up. Without records or a feasible explanation of where the medication went, few questions have sufficiently been answered.

"You cannot establish proof without evidence," Perper says. "We've been unable to produce an explanation."

As for the high levels of the drug in Jenna's system, Perper sent the results to toxicologist Hearn in Miami for a second opinion. Hearn determined that, though the level is in the toxic range, it wasn't high enough to be irrefutably lethal.

Hearn says another reason he decided not to rule thioridazine overdose as Jenna's cause of death was that Jenna easily might have died of complications of the lightning strike. Her central nervous system had suffered an extreme shock and could have stopped functioning properly at any time, leading to death, Perper says.

But Perper and Hearn both concede that thioridazine could have contributed to Jenna's death. If new information were to come to light, Hearn says, "it might be worth reconsidering. I can't say with absolute certainty that it didn't play a role."

The investigation has not yet been closed, but Perper says he expects it will be closed soon. Pompano Beach Police Det. Bill Wesolowski has also been investigating the case but won't discuss it while the investigation remains active.

Beggs, meanwhile, says Hearn's ruling vindicates Broward Children's Center, which he adds has helped many children have a better quality of life than they could have expected anywhere else. He's right about the center helping children. Everyone seems to agree that the center is often doing important work.

In fact, it still has among its supporters Greg Bernardo, Jenna's father. Despite the suspicious circumstances of his daughter's death, he says he only wants the center to flourish.

"The world needs places like Broward Children's Center," he says, adding that he has no plan to file a lawsuit in his daughter's death.

The father points out that Cristal's case was much worse than his daughter's. Jenna was lost to him, for all practical purposes, not when she died, but on the day that lightning struck. He believes death came mercifully for his daughter; it finally stopped her crying.

At the same time, he says he's concerned that his daughter died with toxic levels of a drug in her system and that the center lost her records. Bernardo wants to know the truth.

"If I said I wasn't concerned, I wouldn't be telling the truth," says the father. "If there were problems at a place where children are cared for and those problems affected my daughter, then other children may be at risk.

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