More than two years after she died, the family of Christen Gordon is suing the caregivers, pediatrician and for-profit company entrusted with her care by the state of Georgia.
The 12-year-old girl died in August 2013 under questionable circumstances in a “host home” in Macon, Ga., and her mother, LaTasha Gordon of Wrens, Ga., has been demanding answers ever since because the girl was turned out of a state institution by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to those providers.
Christen’s death sparked a year-long investigation by The Augusta Chronicle that found she was one of 500 patients who died that year in community care under the auspices of the department and was one of 82 deaths that the department itself labeled as “unexpected” and required investigation.
But that internal investigation only left Gordon with more questions about how Christen died, particularly since her demands for an autopsy, even after she offered to pay for it, were ignored. The lack of autopsy is even more striking because the state’s own protocols call for one to be done when a death is “unexpected.”
Christen was born two months early at the Medical Center of Central Georgia with some severe birth defects and only three of the four normal chambers in her heart. After her mother was told the girl probably wouldn’t survive, Christen was transferred to the James B. Craig Nursing Center at Central State Hospital, where she thrived.
She would never walk or talk, but she lit up when her doctors, teacher or family members came into the room, and she could communicate with gestures and sounds and clearly enjoyed playing with her toys, according to her mother and caregivers there.
Despite her fragile medical condition and severe limitations, Christen was one of 499 moved out of state hospitals and centers under a 2010 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and into smaller group homes or “host homes” where a family was supposed to care for them.
According to the newspaper’s investigation, 62 of those patients, including Christen, died after being sent into community placement. In Christen’s case, it was through the for-profit ResCare company, which placed her in a home in Macon with nurses Fred and Juliet Ssenjakko.
The lawsuit alleges that the Ssenjakkos did not provide the round-the-clock nursing care that Christen required and the state was paying for and that ResCare failed to provide the nursing support it was required to give the host home providers. In the days before Christen died, the girl was ill and was seen at Primary Pediatrics and by Dr. Donna Payne, where she was treated for a fever and lethargy and blood in her stool was noted.
On the day before Christen died, according to the lawsuit, she was again seen at the practice by Payne, who did not admit her to the hospital despite her ongoing fever, elevated white blood cell count and rapid pulse. The lawsuit, which seeks more than $10,000 in damages, claims Payne failed to admit Christen “despite clear indications of possible sepsis,” or systemic infection that can be life-threatening.
The lawsuit also names Payne, Primary Pediatrics, the Ssenjakkos and ResCare as defendants. Primary Pediatrics and Payne did not return a message this week seeking comment.
“I’m sorry but we do not comment on any pending litigation,” ResCare Chief Communications Officer Nel Taylor said in an e-mail.
After waiting so long, Gordon said her hope was “we get some justice for her. I just hope they do the right thing.”