Yvonne Eldridge had years of experience running a foster home in Walnut Creek, California, when, in 1987, she became one of the first foster parents to participate in a special program for medically fragile babies. Most of the infants in this program were born drug-addicted or with life-threatening conditions such as AIDS, and Eldridge was recruited for the program because of her experience and success as a foster parent. Eldridge was featured in a video produced by the San Francisco Department of Social Services to recruit foster parents and in1988, Nancy Reagan presented her with a “Great American Families” award at the White House.
In 1991, Oakland doctors alleged that Eldridge had intentionally interfered with the medical treatments of several of the children in her care. The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office investigated for a year, but failed to find evidence to support a conviction. But in November1992, at the urging of the doctors, the State Attorney General’s office took the unusual step of reinvestigating the case.
In the spring of 1993, prosecutors sought to revoke Eldridge’s foster care license. Investigators testified at an administrative hearing that she was responsible for the deaths of three children and tried to harm eight others between 1987 and 1991. Although it was not uncommon for the medically-fragile infants in the program to succumb to illness, the state claimed that Eldridge suffered from a rare psychiatric disorder called “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” that caused her to lie about the physical conditions of the children in her care in order to receive attention from medical professionals. As a result, doctors ordered unnecessary medicines and performed unneeded surgeries on some of Eldridge’s foster children.
The state accused Eldridge of piercing the intravenous line of one child and injecting sodium or potassium into others, causing them to suffer symptoms ranging from breathing difficulties to cardiac arrest.
In March 1993, California Child Protective Services took custody of the newborn son of Eldridge’s daughter, Amber, who was living with Eldridge, on the ground that the infant was not safe in Eldridge’s home. In April, Eldridge lost her foster care license.
In November 1994, a grand jury indicted Eldridge on two charges felony child abuse, and on December 3rd Eldridge turned herself in.
Eldridge’s trial began on May 8, 1996. Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Peter Spinetta had ruled that prosecutors could not introduce testimony about Munchausen syndrome by proxy because it might prejudice the jury. Without referencing the syndrome, prosecutors claimed that Eldridge regularly sought medical care for her foster children for mysterious health problems, and that two sick children began to thrive after being taken out of Eldridge’s home. The two doctors who testified against Eldridge were inexperienced in treating the severe medical conditions that the children were born with, and one of them had never even treated the children Eldridge was accused of abusing. As Eldridge’s appellate attorneys would later argue, the medical records of the children greatly contradicted the testimony of these two doctors. Eldridge’s attorney, Contra Costa County chief deputy public defender Bill Egan, argued that Eldridge was innocent and did the best she could with difficult cases.
On June 3, 1996, Eldridge was convicted by the jury of abusing two medically fragile babies in her care. The judge allowed Eldridge to remain free on a $100,000 property bond because Eldridge was caring for her husband, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease and attended the trial daily in a wheelchair.
On July 10, 1996, Eldridge was sentenced to three years in prison. The judge allowed her seven weeks to arrange care for her husband before she had to begin serving her sentence in late August.
Eldridge hired new attorneys, Zenia Gilg and Kristen Wohadlo, who filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that her trial attorney, Egan, had not effectively represented her because he did not call family members, other foster parents, or medical experts who could have testified that the children Eldridge was accused of abusing were genuinely sick and that Eldridge had provided appropriate care. Eldridge’s attorneys also raised evidence that one of the doctors who had initially requested the investigation of Eldridge had a history of accusing foster parents of abuse. Eldridge was allowed to remain free on bond pending the motion for a new trial.
On January 16, 1998, Judge Spinetta ordered a new trial for Eldridge. In February, prosecutors appealed the ruling. In 2000, the California 1st District Court of Appeal remanded the case back to Judge Spinetta, saying that in order to conclude that Egan’s representation was constitutionally ineffective he had to decide that Egan had no tactical reasons for representing Eldridge as he did.
At a hearing on September 29, 2000, Eldridge’s attorneys argued that Egan had failed to call family and friends who could have corroborated Eldridge’s observations about the infants’ ailments. More significantly, Egan failed to find a medical expert to assist in Eldridge’s defense. Egan had asked Dr. Richard L. Oken, a pediatrician, to serve as an expert witness, but provided Oken only with the limited medical records that had been prepared by the prosecution. In a declaration presented at the hearing, Oken stated that, had he seen the entire medical record, he would have been able to provide accurate medical explanations for the children's fragile medical conditions. Eldridge’s attorneys also argued that Egan failed to present evidence that one of the doctors who raised allegations against Eldridge, Dr. Marc Usatin, had previously made a pass at Eldridge, had been accused of a series of unwelcome sexual overtures directed at other patients and hospital staff, and had a history of accusing women of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
On December 21, 2000, Judge Spinetta ordered a new trial based on the ineffectiveness of Eldridge’s trial attorney. The state again appealed the ruling. On Sept 20, 2002, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision. On January 8, 2003, prosecutors dismissed the charges against Eldridge.
- Alexandra Gross