Stephanie Torres was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a chronic medical condition that significantly limited her ability to move on her own. The little girl couldn’t even tolerate lying on her tummy, an occupational therapist told a jury Tuesday.
After about a year and half of therapy sessions, Stephanie was making progress as she was nearing her third birthday. The toddler had learned to feed herself, she could crawl on the floor and she was able to sit up on her own.
Sharlyn Wenberg, the occupational therapist who helped Stephanie develop those skills, didn’t see the little girl again after their last session in late June 2012. She tried twice without success the following month to find Stephanie and her family at their Turlock home.
Wenberg knocked on the front door of the duplex apartment for the last time between 4 and 5 p.m. July 13, 2012, but nobody answered. She didn’t hear anything inside the home, “just the television.”
Three days later, the 2-year-old girl was found dead inside a crib. A pathologist has said in court that the toddler had not been fed or given anything to drink for several days before she was discovered.
Stephanie’s mother, Brandy Lee Rose Devine, is accused of murder and willful cruelty to a child. Authorities say the mother smoked methamphetamine and left her daughter in a room all weekend without checking on her.
Devine’s trial continued Tuesday with testimony from Wenberg, who works with many children suffering from cerebral palsy. Through regular therapy sessions, she helps the children improve their cognitive, physical and motor skills.
When Wenberg first started working with Stephanie, the child had about a 50 percent delay in the development of her motor skills. Stephanie was 15 months old and didn’t have control of her hands. She couldn’t roll over on her own. She was fearful when her body was moved around. She could drink a bottle but couldn’t hold it on her own. And she couldn’t sit up on her own or lie face down, which enables children to learn how to push themselves up.
Wenberg testified that she conducted 20 to 30 in-home occupational therapy sessions with Stephanie. Each lasted about an hour. The therapist would always bring a small rug and blanket for Stephanie to lie on during the sessions.
“It was often dirty, unswept,” Wenberg said about the living room floor of Devine’s duplex apartment. There were some times, however, when the apartment was clean, she said. There were a few cats in the apartments, and their litter boxes produced a pungent urine odor in the home, according to Wenberg.
During questioning from Devine’s attorney, Wenberg said Devine’s apartment was not the only messy home she has encountered while working with hundreds of clients. She said she liked Devine from the beginning, and it appeared that the mother loved Stephanie and was interested in the child’s progress.
She said Devine initially seemed engaged in her daughter’s therapy. Devine would participate in the sessions before Stephanie became familiar and comfortable with Wenberg.
It later became difficult to reach Devine and schedule appointments. Wenberg testified that Devine’s phone line was sporadically out of service. While the therapy sessions were intended to be weekly, she was able to work with Stephanie only once or twice a month.
One day, Devine asked Wenberg to conduct the therapy at Devine’s mother’s Turlock home because she was going to be visiting. The therapist thought this would be a one-time arrangement, but she eventually conducted six to eight sessions at Stephanie’s grandmother’s home. Devine was not there.
During cross-examination, Wenberg said some parents leave the room during therapy sessions with their children and that there is no requirement for parents to be present. It’s uncommon, however, for parents to miss sessions, she testified.
Stephanie made good progress during the weekly sessions at her grandmother’s home. The little girl still couldn’t grasp anything with her left hand, which remained closed in a fist. But she could feed herself with a spoon with her right hand.
Wenberg told the jury Stephanie could move independently on the floor and was able to form words.
The therapist described Stephanie as “feisty” and said the toddler could be “charming when she wasn’t being challenged.”
But Stephanie’s progress ended in late June 2012. The child’s grandparents had scheduled a trip to Idaho for their vacation, so the sessions had to be moved back to Devine’s home. Wenberg testified that her attempts to conduct further therapy sessions were unsuccessful.
Testimony is expected to continue today in Stanislaus County Superior Court.