PHOENIX — An Arizona woman in a vegetative state who had a baby after she was sexually assaulted at a long-term care facility is recovering at a hospital along with her child, authorities said Wednesday as they ramped up the search for a suspect in a case that’s made shockwaves.
Commenting for the first time on the investigation since the Dec. 29 birth came to light, Phoenix police said they have not ruled out anyone and are still gathering DNA from all the facility’s male employees.
“She was not in a position to give consent to any of this,” police spokesman Tommy Thompson said. “So if anyone can understand that, this was a helpless victim who was sexually assaulted.”
He didn’t release the conditions of the woman and her child, who will be taken in by his mother’s family.
The case has drawn outcry from the governor to the San Carlos Apache tribe in southeastern Arizona, of which the 29-year-old victim is an enrolled member, and put the spotlight on the safety of group homes and facilities that care for those who are incapacitated or severely disabled.
“Sadly, one of her caretakers was not to be trusted and took advantage of her. It is my hope that justice will be served,” tribal chairman Terry Rambler said.
Some criticized authorities for not speaking out earlier or calling the case a sexual assault.
Thompson said investigators initially didn’t want to say anything that could cause a suspect to “go underground or go into hiding.”
Hacienda HealthCare owns the care facility and said it welcomed DNA testing of its male workers. Authorities served a search warrant Tuesday, a day after the provider’s CEO resigned.
“We will continue to cooperate with Phoenix police and all other investigative agencies to uncover the facts in this deeply disturbing, but unprecedented situation,” the company said in a statement.
Thompson said police will get a court order if anyone declines to submit DNA.
Local news website Azfamily.com first reported that the woman who was in a vegetative state for more than 10 years after a near-drowning had given birth on Dec. 29.
Police were called that day on a report of a newborn in distress, Thompson said. It appears no staff knew about the pregnancy until the birth, he said, adding that anyone who knew but failed to report it could face charges.
A lawyer for the woman’s family said they were outraged at the “neglect of their daughter” and asked for privacy.
“The family would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for,” Phoenix attorney John Micheaels said in a statement.
The Hacienda facility serves infants, children and young adults who are “medically fragile” or have developmental disabilities, its website says. It has multiple complaints going back to 2013, most for emergency preparation or Medicaid eligibility, according to the state’s online complaint database for care facilities.
But one complaint from December 2013 alleges a staffer made inappropriate sexual comments about four patients two months earlier. Nobody relayed the incidents to an administrator. That employee was later fired.
After the birth emerged, the Arizona Department of Health Services said new safety measures have been implemented, including increased staff presence during any patient interaction, more monitoring of patient care areas and additional security measures involving visitors.
Advocates for people with disabilities say Arizona needs to find a way to monitor allegations of sexual abuse and sexual violence in group settings. They also say health care workers need better training on identifying and reporting sexual abuse.
Jon Meyers, executive director of The Arc of Arizona, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, called the situation “disturbing, to put it mildly.”
“I can’t believe someone receiving that level of constant care wasn’t recognized as being pregnant prior to the time she delivered,” Meyers said.