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Utah midwife gets probation in baby's death, cannot attend births

Published September 24, 2013 10:07 pm

Courts • El Halta "played God," says baby's grandfather.
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Moab • An unlicensed midwife charged in the death last year of a newborn Moab boy pleaded to reduced charges and was sentenced to probation on Tuesday.

Valerie El Halta, 71, pleaded "no contest" in 7th District Court to a reduced count of unlawful conduct and reckless endangerment, both class A misdemeanors.

A count of negligent homicide was dismissed.

Judge Lyle Anderson sentenced the woman to 72 months probation and ordered her to pay $78,700 in restitution.

No jail time was ordered. But El Halta, as part of her plea deal, has agreed to not practice midwifery, or mentor or train other midwives in Utah.

"Valerie, you disregarded the law and played God," the baby's grandfather said in a brief statement in court, adding that his family believes El Halta is giving the whole community of midwives a bad name.

During the hearing, El Halta declined to address the court at length.

"What can I say?" she asked the judge.

After a brief pause, she appeared to mouth something to the court, but the judge cut her off.

"You either need to say it or not say it," he said. "To mouth it doesn't have any effect on the court."

During a brief interview, defense attorney James Lee said El Halta shares the family's grief. He said that his client has been devoted to helping women have healthy births, and he called the incident a profound tragedy.

"We're glad to have it behind us, even though it doesn't take away from the sadness or bring the baby back," Lee said.

Assistant Utah Attorney General David Carlson said in court that he believes the plea deal was appropriate, given El Halta's age and the absence of a prior criminal history. The agreement also ensures that El Halta stops practicing as a midwife, thereby protecting other people from harm, Carlson said. It will also provide restitution for the victims in this case, he said.

"We feel, as part of this agreement, we've achieved those goals," he said.

El Halta, of Eagle Mountain, was charged in June with unlawful conduct, a felony for which she could serve up to five years in prison. She was also charged with negligent homicide and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors that carry a jail sentence of up to one year.

El Halta has never been licensed in Utah, according to the Utah Division of Professional Licensing. Yet according to the charges, she administered prescription medications, used sutures and employed a medical device known as a vacuum — which pulls a newborn from the birth canal — that should only be used by a licensed medical professional.

These methods were allegedly used during a high-risk delivery at a Moab mother's home, which investigators alleged is off-limits to even licensed midwives under Utah law. And El Halta knew the 41-year-old mother had three prior Caesarean-section births, which made conducting the impending delivery at the home a risk, according to the charges.

El Halta arrived at the Moab home on Aug. 17, 2012, when the mother was in labor. She allegedly gave the woman prescription pills, Cytotec, that "amped up her labor," according to the charges.

The labor continued into Aug. 18. And by evening, El Halta seemed to become anxious that the mother's labor wasn't progressing. She exclaimed "let's get this show on the road" and performed a vaginal exam that caused the mother substantial pain, according to the charges.

"[El Halta] explained that she was 'breaking scar tissue' and 'just moving things along.' The mother's membranes ruptured and she and her husband perceived that the defendant began rushing to get the delivery done," the charges read.

Evening turned to night, and the baby crowned as the mother pushed, but slipped back when the mother changed positions. El Halta left the room for a few minutes to give the parents some time alone, but when she returned she discovered that the newborn had no fetal heart tones, the charges add.

Investigators allege that El Halta panicked, grabbed a medical device known as a vacuum, which she had brought, attached it to the newborn's head and removed him from the mother with one pull.

The baby was blue, listless and not breathing, according to the charges.

El Halta attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation while 911 was called. The newborn was taken to Moab Regional Hospital. El Halta told the parents to "pray to whatever God they believed in," according to the charges.

Court documents describe how after the baby was taken to the hospital, El Halta gave the mother two injections of Pitocin, and a while later, the mother lost four cups of blood at the home. El Halta advised the husband to call 911 and tried to suture the mother, the charges add.

At the hospital, medical professionals allegedly found "profound trauma" as a result of the use of the vacuum, which would have killed the mother if there had been a delay in getting her to the hospital.

The newborn was later taken to Primary Children's Medical Center, where he died of oxygen deprivation to the brain on Aug. 25 after he was taken off life support.

The woman and baby were not identified by name in court documents.

El Halta admits in plea agreement documents to using a prescription drug on a person without prescriptive authority, and to using a vacuum extractor, which she did not have a license to use.

This was not the first birth El Halta has attended that ended in an infant's death.

Rebecca Malloy told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter recently that El Halta attended the 1993 birth of her twins in Dearborn, Mich.

After 27 hours of labor, the first baby, Lia Joy, was born, but was quickly "whisked away," and eventually was taken to a hospital. The infant died after three weeks on life support. Her twin thrived.

Malloy sued El Halta and said she received a $1 million default judgment, but attorneys deemed El Halta to be "uncollectable," Malloy said. Non-nurse midwives generally are not required to carry malpractice insurance.

Tribune correspondent Rudy Herndon contributed to this story.

jmiller@sltrib.comealberty@sltrib.com

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