Judge Samuel Chiara sat on the bench, his eyes cast downward. He was silent for a few moments after he announced his sentence for a foster mother.
“I hope that justice has been served,” he said finally. “It’s the best I can do, as a human being, in this case.”
Chiara had just sentenced Lisa Jo Vanderlinden to one year in jail and 14 years probation after two-year-old Lucas Call died while in her care in August 2018.
Vanderlinden had originally been charged with aggravated murder, but struck a plea deal with prosecutors and instead pleaded guilty to first-degree felony child abuse homicide.
She admitted in court papers that she was “reckless” when she did not take Lucas to a doctor, despite knowing something was wrong with him. Internet searches from her phone showed that she had searched for signs and treatment for “internal bleeding” on the night Lucas was throwing up and not acting normal, according to attorneys.
Prosecutors with the attorney general’s office alleged that Vanerlinden beat the young boy, pointing to an autopsy report that showed Lucas died from “blunt force injuries” and had abrasions all over his body.
But given what Vanderlinden admitted to, Chiara said Wednesday that his hands were tied — he couldn’t send her to prison. He called the plea deal “perplexing,” and said the initial evidence presented at a preliminary hearing was “fairly damning.”
He said this was the most difficult case he’s ever had to hand down a sentence on, and had hoped it would have gone to trial, so the facts could have been brought to light.
“We do not know the truth,” he said. “I don’t know the truth of this situation.”
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement Wednesday evening that Chiara’s sentence is “beyond disappointing,” saying a young child is the most vulnerable victim imaginable.
“It’s a travesty,” he said, “and undermines the confidence of the public in our justice system’s ability to protect kids from abuse and homicide. As prosecutors, we achieved in the plea deal just what we would have at trial, a first degree felony minus the cost of trial and without having to traumatize other children as witnesses. The plea deal in no way limited the court’s power to sentence in a way that would serve justice.”
Reyes added that probation for a first-degree felony is “almost unheard of,” and said prosecutors are “at a loss as to why the court ruled the way it did.”
Vanderlinden and her family were adamant at her sentencing hearing that she did nothing to harm the boy. The Duchesne County woman, who was a nurse and had helped care for about 40 foster children over several years, cried as she pleaded for leniency from the judge.
“I didn’t hurt Lucas,” she said. “I loved him very, very much and if I would have known there was something more going on with his vomiting that night, I would have taken him to the doctor.”
Vanderlinden’s husband, Cody, told the judge they had taken Lucas to doctors numerous times since he and his younger sister came into their home in April 2017. Her family said Lucas struggled to bond with Vanderlinden, but they were moving forward with plans to adopt the siblings.
“I loved him as if he were my own,” the woman said. “He was going to be mine. I lost my son that day, too.”
But prosecutors alleged in charging documents that the woman found Lucas to be “difficult and challenging, and while she wanted to keep and adopt the sister, she did not want to adopt him.”
They alleged that on Aug. 4, 2018, the boy “exhibited behavioral problems during dinner” and Vanderlinden — who told police she was “mad and frustrated” — removed him from the table. The boy vomited several times, and Vanderlinden cleaned him up in the bathroom.
Other children in the household told investigators Vanderlinden was “ornery” and “mad” and family members reported hearing a “loud bang” from the bathroom where Vanderlinden was cleaning the boy.
He wasn’t acting normal and wouldn’t walk afterward, prosecutors say. He died the following day.
“This little boy was beaten to death,” prosecutor Craig Peterson argued Wednesday. “She was the one who did it. And she didn’t seek the medical care that should have been sought.”
Lucas’ biological family had hoped that the judge would have sent Vanderlinden to prison. Shelby Call, the boy’s mother, said she felt Vanderlinden deserved to spend the rest of her life in prison. She recounted how she will miss Lucas’ birthdays, holidays with him and the way he smiled.
“I miss my son, Lucas, very much,” she said. “And I love my son, Lucas, very much.”
The day before Call stood in the Duchesne courtroom and asked for Vanderlinden to go to prison, the mother had taken another legal action: She and her husband sued the Utah Division of Child and Family Services and the Vanderlindens.
Call alleges in her lawsuit that child welfare officials had known of three prior occasions where parents accused Vanderlinden of abusing the children placed in her care. But DCFS officials continued to place children in her care, the lawsuit alleges. Prosecutors noted in charging records that were “multiple unsupported/unsubstantiated allegations of abuse.”
The lawsuit states that Call had regular visits with her son, and often noticed injuries on her son’s body, which she reported to DCFS.
“Specifically, Shelby observed major bruising to Lucas’s head, abdomen, and pelvis, scrapes and cuts on his head, and a broken arm in a location uncommon to normal broken arms in children,” the lawsuit alleges. “She also noticed that Lucas would not go near Lisa Vanderlinden, acted afraid of her, and had an overall appearance of deteriorating health.”
Call reported her concerns to DCFS employees, including child welfare officials in Vernal and in the main Salt Lake City office, according to the lawsuit. None of her reports were acted upon, and Call says that DCFS officials threatened to cut off her visits with her son if she continued to complain.
The lawsuit alleges that child welfare officials “turned a blind eye” to multiple complaints of abuse, and were negligent in his death. The Calls are seeking an unspecified amount in economic and non-economic damages.
Jacquelynn Carmichael, an attorney who represents the Calls in their civil suit, said Wednesday that the family were “devastated and deeply disappointed” in Vanderlinden’s punishment.
DCFS officials said in a Wednesday statement that they couldn’t comment on pending litigation, or about specific cases due to client confidentiality laws.
“Child safety is the reason we exist,” the statement reads, “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.”