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Bleach abuse case spurs probe of docs who treated toddler

Jennifer Lynn Mothershead, 29, of Buckley, Wash., remains jailed on charges of first-degree child abuse after doctors said she nearly blinded her toddler daughter by replacing the child's medical eyedrops with household bleach.
Jennifer Lynn Mothershead, 29, of Buckley, Wash., remains jailed on charges of first-degree child abuse after doctors said she nearly blinded her toddler daughter by replacing the child's medical eyedrops with household bleach.NBC News

Seattle doctors who may have been slow to report abuse in a toddler whose mother allegedly put bleach in the child’s eyes -- nearly blinding her -- are under state investigation.

Officials at the Washington state Medical Quality Assurance Commission have filed a complaint and launched an inquiry into the care of the girl, now 2, at Seattle Children’s Hospital, a spokesman confirmed.

The girl, identified only as K.L.M., was treated for nearly two months for severe eye injuries in spring 2011, but only reported as a possible abuse victim after suffering a head injury that sent her to a trauma center.

Her mother, Jennifer Lynn Mothershead, 29, of Buckley, Wash., has been charged with first-degree child abuse linked to allegations that she substituted bleach in the child's medical eye drops and administered them repeatedly. 

Internal commission staffers launched the probe this month after media coverage of the incident, said Donn Moyer, a state health department spokesman.

“We’re unable to comment beyond acknowledging that we’re investigating,” he said.

Officials at Seattle Children’s also declined to comment on the investigation.

Last month, msnbc.com reported that Dr. Avery H. Weiss, an ophthalmologist with the Roger Johnson Clinical Vision Laboratory at the hospital, said he suspected child abuse early in the weeks of treatment for unexplained eye damage and infections in March and April 2011.

“That’s why I put her in the hospital,” Weiss told msnbc.com in an April interview. He explained that the girl would improve under supervised care and then worsen when she returned to her mother.

But, he added, he wanted to make sure he was correct before alleging intentional harm.

“Before I say child abuse, I want incontrovertible evidence,” said Weiss, who specializes in treating children who have eye damage caused by shaken baby syndrome and other abuse.

By law, medical practitioners in Washington state are required to report child abuse or neglect “at the first opportunity,” or no later than 48 hours after there is “reasonable cause” to believe a child has been harmed. Failure to report child abuse is classified as a gross misdemeanor punishable by jail time or a fine, state statutes show.

But it wasn’t until May 12, 2011, that Weiss said he became certain. That day, the 14-month-old was flown to a nearby trauma center, Harborview Medical Center, with a subdural hematoma, or brain hemorrhage.

“That prompted the report,” he said.

On April 26, after a nearly year-long probe, Pierce county detectives arrested Mothershead. Court documents allege that she replaced the child’s eye drops with household bleach, then repeatedly “swaddled” the girl and forced the caustic substance into her eyes.

Investigators learned about the abuse only after confiscating the prescription eye drops. When the bottle was opened, a “noxious smell” filled the room, according to reports. Witnesses reported mild nausea.

“Of course we felt guilty,” Weiss told msnbc.com in the previous interview. “We knew from very early on that she had this. But we were reluctant to implicate the mother until we were 100 percent sure.”

Weiss recounted the case in an article in an April issue of a medical journal, where he acknowledged that medical staffers may have missed signs that the girl was being abused.

“After failing to respond to standard therapy, she was eventually identified as a victim of abuse,” Weiss and his co-authors wrote. “We discuss key findings that could have provoked earlier recognition.”

He said he wrote the report as a warning to other ophthalmologists that a chronic or unusual eye infection actually may be a sign of child abuse.

It’s not clear how long the investigation by the medical commission may take, said Moyer, the state health department spokesman.

Jennifer Mothershead remains lodged in the Pierce County jail, records showed. A second child born to her last August was placed in protective custody.

The toddler's father, Cody Mothershead, has custody of the child. The girl is expected to have permanent damage, including severe visual impairment, though not actual blindness.

"This child isn't going to be normal for the rest of her life," Weiss told msnbc.com. 

Cody Mothershead is also a mandatory reporter because he’s a math teacher at White River High School in Buckley. But reports indicate that he saw the child infrequently, for only a few hours every week to 10 days, and that Jennifer Mothershead prevented him from giving the girl her eye drops.

Weiss said he believed that Cody Mothershead didn’t realize the girl was being abused. 

Administrators in the White River School District apparently agree. On Thursday, district superintendent Tom Lockyer confirmed that Cody Mothershead remains in the classroom. 

Msnbc.com writer Sevil Omer contributed to this report.

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