Toddlers brain injuries more likely from hitting a wall than falling down stairs, child neglect expert testifies

Harry Sullivan
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TRURO - Being swung horizontally and impacting a wall with her head is more likely to have been behind a toddler's fatal injuries than a fall down a flight of stairs, court heard yesterday.
"If she were being held horizontally by the seat of her pants ... and slammed into a wall head-first, with a significant amount of force ...," that could have caused the "massive" brain injuries that ultimately led to the March 2005 death of Samantha Marie Mercer, Dr. Steven Bellemare said, during day four of the manslaughter trial against Terry Dean Allen, 27.
Bellemare, an expert in child neglect and injury interpretation who works with the Child Protection Unit at the IWK children's hospital, was the sole witness during Thursday's testimony.
Three-and-a-half-year-old Samantha died after being taken off life support at the IWK two days after being rushed to hospital on the evening of March 1 of that year.
Allen and Samantha's mother Aleisha Mercer had been living together in the Brunswick Street apartment for about a week when the incident occurred. The girl had been left in Allen's care after dropping Mercer off at work earlier that afternoon.
Bellemare said the head injuries the toddler suffered led to bleeding and swelling that essentially cut off the blood flow to her brain, essentially leaving her brain dead.
He testified that she also suffered from a "buckle" fracture on her left arm just below the shoulder and from six vertebrae compression fractures of her spine between her shoulders and the middle of her back. As well, some 57 bruises were recorded from Samantha's scalp to her toes.
While a number of those marks could be accounted for through the day-to-day activities of an active young girl, Bellemare said, one of the most "alarming" aspects of her case were "the sheer number of bruises on her body."
But Samantha did not have a crushed skull as indicated in earlier testimony in the trial, defence attorney Don Murray elicited from Bellemare during cross examination.
And while Bellemare said children who fall down stairs don't typically receive the number and severity of injuries experienced by Mercer, he did acknowledge under cross examination by Murray that it could not be ruled out, depending on whether "someone or something" else was also involved.
Bellemare said the version of events he initially received from Samantha's mother, as told by Allen, was that both the girl and his 150 lb. Rottweiler dog tumbled down the stairs together.
He said Mercer initially informed him that after feeding Samantha her supper, giving her a bath and two chewable Tylenols (she had been suffering from a cold) they were watching television together when he caught her feeding potato chips to his dog.
Bellemare said he was told that after taking the chips away, "reportedly, Samantha then got sulky, went upstairs to go get her blanket (and princess Barbie shoes).
"And, reportedly, Mr. Allen heard Samantha say 'good girl Lady,' talking to the dog, and then this was followed by hearing Samantha falling down the stairs....
"Reportedly the dog was also heard yelping and it was thought that she had hurt herself falling down the stairs as well," Bellemare continued, although it turned out the dog had not been injured.
The doctor also testified that a dent in the girl's bedroom wall, in which "embedded" human hairs were discovered by police, could have been made by an impact from the girl's head.
"My opinion is that the hole in the drywall is not the cause of the injury, it's a marker of the mechanism of Samantha's injury. And it's possible that if she impacted the wall head-first in that area, that would certainly leave a dent in the wall, which would leave hair behind, possibly ..." he said.
Murray also introduced the possibility that some of Samantha's abrasions could have come from impacting the carpet as she tumbled down the stairs. And he questioned whether her arm and spinal injuries could have occurred at a previous time or whether her arm could have been broken by falling down the stairs.
"It could just take one fall on her bum, couldn't it?" Murray asked, regarding the spinal injuries.
"A very significant fall," said Bellemare, who suggested that neither injuries were likely to have occurred previously given Samantha's reported history of being a healthy, active child.
"It was my opinion that this was likely an inflicted injury," the doctor said.
Bellemare's evidence is expected to wrap up this morning after which the day's proceedings are to be taken up with further medical testimony.

Geographic location: Brunswick Street

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