Family, hospital seek to end sleep-related suffocation among infants

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HCMC is reporting a recent spike in deaths of infants from preventable, sleep-related accidents where, often times, the cause of death is suffocation.

It’s a devastating circumstance an Anoka County couple is grappling with after a deadly mistake in the home of a trusted daycare provider. The grieving family now wants a renewed focus on safe sleep practices for babies.

Girlie Lincoln promises she will never let go of her baby, Phoenix.

“At three months, she was discovering her hands,” Lincoln said.

But for more than a year, there have been no more firsts. Only silence and loneliness, which makes every day a struggle.  

“Every morning, I come over here and touch Phoenix’s blanket and just, pretty much, I guess, say hello,” Lincoln said.

In many ways, Phoenix was a miracle for Lincoln and her husband Cory Lincoln.

There was a miscarriage and the couple battled infertility issues for years before a healthy Phoenix Jade Lincoln arrived Nov. 6, 2017.

When it was time for Lincoln to return to work, the couple, upon a colleague’s recommendation, hired Janelle Dickinson to care for Phoenix during the day.

Dickinson was a stay-at-home grandma who looked after her own grandchildren and others in her Coon Rapids house.

“We had a stomach feeling,” Lincoln said. “We were just like, we like her. Her home seems clean from where we walked in the living room and I trust my co-worker as well.”

Everything seemed fine those first weeks at the Dickinson home until the Lincolns got the life-changing call that Phoenix didn’t wake up from her late morning nap and wasn’t breathing.

The Lincolns raced to the hospital.

Tragically, Phoenix never regained consciousness. She was taken off life support a day later.

“I didn’t want it to be some kind of countdown to when my kid was gonna die,” Lincoln recalled. “I was just like, stop, don’t do that. Let me hold her.”

Soon after, their emotions shifted from pure sadness to anger when an Anoka County Social Services and Behavioral Health investigation found Dickinson was negligent in how she put Phoenix down.

Coon Rapids Police snapped photos shortly after the incident showing the pack-n-play where the 3-month-old slept that day. According to the heavily-redacted county and police investigative reports, Dickinson told authorities she placed the infant on her tummy, with two full-sized pillows and covered her up to her shoulders with a blanket.

She went on to explain she “always lays babies on their stomach,” because they are more “content” and she acknowledged she had not completed any related trainings.

The county said Dickinson had not been licensed for daycare since 1996 and was caring for 13 children at the time, including 11 under the age of 3. Because it is unknown the exact relationship between Dickinson and all the kids, FOX 9 cannot determine if she violated state licensing guidelines.

The Medical Examiner determined Phoenix died from positional asphyxia and the manner of death was ruled an accident.

A grand jury indicted Dickinson on two counts of second degree manslaughter and she eventually pleaded guilty to one of those charges involving negligence and child endangerment.

Prosecutors and the Lincolns asked for a year of jail time as part of a plea agreement to avoid trial, but a judge eventually settled on six months electronic home monitoring and 10 years’ probation.

“I don’t get to see her cry anymore, I don’t get holidays with her. I don’t get to spend birthdays with her, graduations, weddings, whatever. And she gets to stay home and have her grandkids sleep over, spend holidays with her family and have all the conveniences of home. How is that fair? It’s not,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln and her husband were completely outraged by what they believed was a lenient sentence for a caregiver who they trusted to follow the safest baby sleeping practices.

"It frustrates me because I thought, running a daycare, you would know these things. You're an established daycare. I'm the new parent. I have to research these things because I'm the new parent,” Lincoln added.

According to Jenette Flynn, a pediatric unit clinical care supervisor at HCMC, babies “should always sleep on back, never their side and never their tummy.”

“Completely empty,” Flynn said. “The only thing that should be in the crib or the pack-n-play or the bassinet is a baby.”

“Really, none of these things should be here,” Flynn added, referencing stuffed animals, spare diapers or any other crib clutter. “All are a risk for baby to suffocate.”

Sadly, Flynn reports a recent uptick in deaths and serious injury from apparent unsafe baby sleep incidents. There have been five such cases in the last six months.

“They don’t know they need to turn their head to be able to breathe. They don’t have the ability to know that. And they may also not have the muscle strength to actually make a movement. So they can get themselves into a situation, but can’t get out of,” Flynn said.

Earlier this year, Hennepin Healthcare was certified as a “Safe Sleep Champion.” It was the first Minnesota hospital to earn the title, with emphasis on prenatal and post-birth education and prevention to make sure all babies reach their first birthdays.

It’s a goal now shared by the Lincolns, who are focusing all their anger, frustration, pain and heartbreak on making sure other parents don’t have to convert their nurseries into a memorial.