SALT LAKE CITY — A Duchesne County nurse who pleaded guilty in the death of the 2-year-old foster son has been ordered to serve just one year in jail and 14 years of probation, a sentence Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes called a “travesty.”
Lisa Jo Vanderlinden, 42, of Neola, pleaded guilty in March to a reduced charge of child abuse homicide, a first-degree felony, as part of an agreement with prosecutors. She originally faced a charge of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in the August 2018 death of Lucas Call, whom police said she saw as “difficult” and didn’t want to adopt.
In addition to jail time and probation, 8th District Judge Samuel Chiara ordered Vanderlinden Wednesday to pay a $10,000 fine.
Reyes, whose prosecutors had argued for the maximum sentence available — at least five years and up to life in prison — called the judge’s decision “beyond disappointing. It’s a travesty and undermines the confidence of the public in our justice system’s ability to protect kids from abuse and homicide.”
Probation for a first-degree felony “is almost unheard of,” Reyes continued in a statement. “We are at a loss as to why the court ruled the way it did.”
But defense attorney Ed Brass said the sentence reflected the behavior his client admitted to: failing to render aid to the boy, but not any sort of intentional abuse. Brass argued his client suspected the boy was ill and made a brief, fatal error in judgement in putting him back to bed the night he died instead of seeking or providing medical care. He sought probation for Vanderlinden.
Brass said Reyes was not present for the Wednesday sentencing hearing in eastern Utah and not familiar with the materials the judge relied on in reaching his decision.
“This is a statement from a politician in an election year, a politician who had literally nothing to do with the prosecution of this case,” Brass said.
Prosecutors said the 2-year-old Lucas had acted out during dinner on Aug. 4, 2018, and family members heard the child vomiting and Vanderlinden yelling, along with a “loud bang” from the bathroom where she was caring for him. Vanderlinden later said she had become “mad and frustrated,” court documents say.
Police responded to her home the following day to find the child deceased, with bruises on his face and much of his body. They said Vanderlinden had become increasingly frustrated with Lucas in the days before his death, although she wanted to adopt his little sister.
At the time she entered her guilty plea, Vanderlinden admitted she did not seek the prompt medical attention that would have saved the boy from deadly damage to his internal organs, and that her inaction was “reckless and resulted ultimately in his death,” court documents say. She acknowledged she had searched online about abdominal injuries after believing the boy had one, according to the court records.
Vanderlinden, a nurse in a children’s justice center, had faced several prior allegations of abuse and neglect over the many years she was a foster mom.
“A young child is the most vulnerable victim imaginable,” Reyes said in his statement. The plea agreement secured a first-degree felony conviction just like it would have at trial, but without having to traumatize children who were witnesses, he said.
“The plea deal in no way limited the court’s power to sentence in a way that would serve justice,” Reyes said, adding that a report from parole and probation authorities had recommended the five-to-life sentence. “While we respect the legal process, we don’t have to agree with the outcome.”
Brass noted the judge reflecting on the difficulty he had in determining the appropriate sentence for Vanderlinden.
Of Reyes’ comments, Brass said, “What’s missing from their statement is how she lived the rest of her life.” His client had fostered 40 children, in addition to raising six kids and training new foster parents for the state, he said.
On Wednesday, Lucas’ biological parents, Shelby and David Call, sued the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, alleging Vanderlinden had faced three earlier accusations of child abuse from other foster parents. Shelby Call lodged repeated complaints with the agency, but it deemed her reports of suspected child abuse unsubstantiated, the suit says.
She had noticed during parent time with her son that he “acted like he was afraid of Mrs. Vanderlinden,” the lawsuit says, and that he had injuries including bruises, cuts and a broken arm “in a location uncommon to normal broken arms in children.”
She alleges the agency allowed the boy to remain in the home and told Shelby Call “to quit reporting the abuse or they would terminate her visits with her son.”
The state said the child’s death was tragic.
“Child safety is the reason we exist, and any child death is a true heartbreak. We acknowledge the tragedy of this event and its effects on the child’s family, their community, and our workers,” spokeswoman Sarah Welliver said in a statement. She declined further comment, citing the pending lawsuit and client confidentiality law.
Brass declined comment on the suit, saying he hadn’t read it yet.