Autistic boy out of coma, recovering, official says

MERCED -- A 5-year-old autistic boy feared near death after his mother allegedly beat him into a coma has regained consciousness.

The unexpected news came from an official at a Fresno care facility where he is being treated.

"He is stable and he's making improvements," said Cheryl Snider, a program director at the facility. "Nobody can make predictions about what might happen, but at this point he's not on his death bed."

Snider declined to provide further, specific information about the boy's condition but said he has been out of the coma and under the facility's care for several weeks. This sharply contrasts with earlier reports provided by sheriff's officials that the boy remained unconscious, hospitalized and near death.

He was hospitalized in May.

"He was in terrible, terrible shape in the beginning and we did think he would die, but that's not the case at this point and it hasn't been for some time," Snider said.

The boy, whose name is not being disclosed because he is a minor, was born with several medical conditions, including heart and respiratory defects and autism.

He was admitted to Children's Hospital Central California in Madera County in May. Authorities suspect that his mother, Martha Franco, 42, of South Dos Palos, is responsible for the massive injuries that that pushed the left side of her son's brain to the right side of his skull.

Franco was arrested May 22 at her home after she called 911, saying her son was unresponsive. Later that week, she pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated mayhem, child endangerment and bodily injury to a child.

Case disturbs officials

Sheriff's officials say Franco beat the boy, burned him and bit him. They say the case is among the most disturbing child abuse cases they've ever seen.

Franco admitted to police that she abused the boy, but said she was careful not to kill him so she wouldn't lose a $2,000-a-month government subsidy she received for his well- being, according to a sheriff's investigation report.

Franco first told police that her son had caused the injuries himself by falling out of his highchair, according to the report. She said he regularly banged his head on the floor and bit and pinched himself when he got mad.

Franco later admitted to authorities that she had caused all of the boys' injuries. She admitted to dropping him, hitting him, slamming his head into the side of a kitchen sink while bathing him and burning him with water she'd heated in the microwave for 30 minutes, said the report. Franco said she hit her son in the head, shook him and threw him the night he fell into a coma, it says.

Father faces criminal charges

The boy's father, 39-year-old Jose Franco, also was arrested in May. He is facing criminal charges for failing to intervene when the alleged abuse occurred and has been released on $50,000 bail. Martha Franco remains in custody in lieu of $1 million bail.

Martha Franco's appointed attorney, Sean Howard, declined to comment on the facts of the case, but said both sides are continuing to investigate, which includes wading through thousands of pages of the boy's medical records.

If the case goes to trial, opening statements are many months away. "There won't be any closure on this for a long time," Howard said. "This is a very significant, cumbersome case." Attorneys will be in court Nov. 15 to discuss discovery matters.

Harold Nutt, the deputy district attorney handling the case, couldn't be reached Thursday.

The Francos also have three daughters, ages 8, 6 and 2. Officials say the girls did not appear to have been abused. They were placed under the care of Merced County Child Welfare Services after their parents' arrests.

Jose Franco's appointed attorney, Ernie Spokes of Modesto, said his client has visitation rights with all of his children, and is on track to regain custody of the girls. Child Welfare officials declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality laws.

Spokes said Franco was unaware his son was being abused, as he worked two jobs. "His son was asleep when he left for work and he was asleep when he got home," Spokes said.

Jose Franco told police that his wife told him the boy's injuries were self-inflicted, and that he believed her, according to reports. Franco declined to comment Thursday.

The boy, who turned 5 last month, had been in the care of his parents for about six months at the time of their arrests. He was hospitalized in intensive care for more than a year after his birth and later lived at two residential care facilities in Fresno because of his disabilities.