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Complex child abuse case drags on; family worries

CORRECTON: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sara Gladfelter had no criminal history before these charges.


More than a year after a Rio Rancho mother was charged with severely abusing her daughter, the case remains undecided and the girl’s father fears for her well-being.

The child spent a year and a half with her father’s parents, and is now in the custody of her mother’s parents. She spends about two days a week with her father’s family.

In April 2012, Rio Rancho Police began a child abuse investigation after Sara Gladfelter, then 23, brought her 5-year-old daughter to the University of New Mexico Hospital with a soft, swollen spot on her head. The girl’s scalp had separated from her skull, an injury doctors said was caused by violent hair-pulling.

She also had two black eyes and bruises on the back of her neck.

The child had pre-existing diagnoses of speech apraxia, a disorder in which the brain doesn’t correctly tell the mouth how to form words; cerebral palsy; and a too-small brain with developmental delays, although her father’s family says she has no mental handicap. She couldn’t articulate what caused her injuries.

After several months of therapy, the girl was given a safe house interview. When asked who pulled her hair, she grabbed the back of her head and said “Momma,” according to Rio Rancho Police reports.

A Sandoval County grand jury indicted Gladfelter on Jan. 31, 2013.

The court case isn’t resolved. Jury selection for a trial presided over by 13th Judicial District Court Judge George Eichwald is scheduled for September, according to the New Mexico Courts website.

On Feb. 21, Gladfelter told KOAT 7 news that an expert would testify the scalp injury was an allergic reaction, not abuse. She also told KOAT the state Children, Youth and Families Department had ruled out abuse as the cause of multiple past injuries.

The newscast showed the girl, now 7, smiling and holding her mother’s hand.

Gladfelter’s defense attorney, Marc G. Hufford, could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

Ernest Dalton Jr. poses with his daughter, who lives in Rio Rancho and is the center of a case alleging abuse. (COURTESY photo)

Ernest Dalton Jr. poses with his daughter, who lives in Rio Rancho and is the center of a case alleging abuse. (COURTESY photo)

Custody battle

In Bernalillo County family court, the child’s paternal grandparents — Vickie and Ernest Dalton Sr. of West Side Albuquerque — are trying to have custody given back to them.

The family court judge placed the girl with her maternal grandparents late last year on the recommendation of Albuquerque lawyer Kathryn Terry, who was appointed as a guardian ad litem, or attorney representing the child. CYFD approved the move, although Terry’s report indicates she never visited the maternal grandparents’ house.

“I have significant concerns with the Daltons continuing to have guardianship of Alyssa,” Terry wrote in her report. “I believe they believe they are acting in Alyssa’s best interests, and I understand that they believe Alyssa was being harmed prior to the UNMH visit and are concerned about her safety. However, during the course of my investigation in this case, I do not believe the Daltons were completely honest or forthcoming with information.”

The Daltons say the girl’s current living situation is dangerous and her behavior is deteriorating to the point that she’s violent with other children at school.

“We just fear for (the child), because something is going to happen to her,” Vickie Dalton said.

For some time before the hospitalization, father Ernest Dalton Jr. said, his daughter had injuries when she came to his house from her mother’s. It started with bruises, progressed to a badly bitten tongue and then a broken arm.

“None of it I could ever get any kind of answers about what happened that made sense,” he said.

The Daltons suspected Gladfelter’s new boyfriend or his children might have been abusing the girl, or at least, no one was supervising her properly. The girl’s maternal grandmother cared for her during the day at that time.

“I don’t know if they (the Gladfelters) have the resources and the skills available to help her with her special needs,” Leslie Dalton, the girl’s aunt, said.

Gladfelter’s parents are already raising multiple grandchildren, one of whom also has special needs, she said.

CYFD spokesman Henry Varela told the Observer the department could not, by law, discuss the case, but if the child was moved, there must have been a reason. He also said the final decision lies with the judge.

In her report, Terry wrote that when she observed the girl’s separate visits with each parent, the girl seemed close to and excited to see both, and both parented her well.

Two perspectives

The girl lived with her paternal grandparents for a year and a half.

“She was doing so good,” Vickie Dalton said.

She said the girl was a “wild child” at first, but with time, her behavior improved.

“She behaved, she listened, she understood,” Leslie Dalton said.

The Daltons potty-trained the girl and took her to see a speech therapist and a behavioral specialist, Vickie Dalton said.

When the child began attending Albuquerque Sign Language Academy while she lived with the Daltons, a teacher complimented her attentiveness and courtesy, Vickie Dalton said.

In December after her move to the Gladfelters’ home, she said, academy staff members started reporting behavior problems, including violent behavior against other children.

The child’s maternal grandmother blames the aggression on anti-seizure medication a neurologist recently prescribed for the girl, Vickie Dalton said. She said the medicine is highly addictive and the maternal grandmother wants to put the child on more medication to stop the behavior problems.

Vickie Dalton also believes the girl doesn’t have the structure and discipline she needs with her mother’s family.

In her report, Terry both complimented and criticized the Daltons’ care.

“The Daltons have taken very good care of (the girl) while she has been with them, but it is clear they have not approved of Mother’s parenting from the time (the girl) began showing signs of a disability,” Terry wrote.

She wrote that she was concerned that the Daltons hadn’t consistently taken the girl to the CYFD-approved therapist for sessions with her mother. Vickie Dalton said they’d missed three therapy appointments, and she had changed therapists to one she believed addressed her granddaughter’s needs more specifically.

During the time the girl lived with the Daltons, Vickie Dalton said, she attended Petroglyph Elementary in Albuquerque until the school discontinued her special education program. The Daltons moved the girl to Chamiza Elementary because it was the closest school with the necessary program.

Then, this school year, the Daltons enrolled the girl in the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy.

“I was searching for some school that would meet her needs,” Vickie Dalton said.

Leslie Dalton said the staff at the Academy understood her niece’s speech apraxia and she had learned to form more words there.

Terry said she was concerned that the girl hadn’t received the same set of assistance services with the Daltons but had instead changed schools.

In her report, Terry said the girl’s speech pathologist told her the Daltons had consistently taken the child to speech therapy and worked with her at home, and she was progressing well.

Abuse or not?

As for abuse, Terry wrote that the child’s behavioral therapist told her the girl indicated with gestures, pictures and words that her mother had hurt her face, head, stomach, arms, legs and bottom on two occasions.

However, Terry interviewed several doctors involved in the treatment of the girl’s disabilities and primary care. None had ever seen signs of abuse, according to the report.

Also, after watching a video of the safe house interview, Terry wrote that the child didn’t seem to understand the questions and had said several times that her mother didn’t hurt her before pulling her own hair and saying “Mama.”

The California doctor expected to testify on Gladfelter’s behalf told Terry that after examining the CT scans of the child’s scalp injury, he believed the damage was consistent with an allergic reaction appearing below the skin, not with the UNMH doctor’s diagnosis of abuse. Terry wrote that pictures of other people with such an allergic reaction showed bruising and swelling around the eyes, like the girl had.

The child has a medical history of severe allergic reactions, she said.

“Based on all of my communications with the people stated above and my full review of all of the above mentioned documents, I am convinced that what happened to Alyssa in April 2012 was an allergic reaction and not the non-accidental trauma that was diagnosed in April 2012,” Terry wrote.

The California doctor never examined the child, Ernest Dalton Sr. said.

Terry said she had concerns about the child spending significant, unsupervised time with her father. She said Ernest Dalton Jr. never had an angry outburst against his daughter, but records indicated multiple instances of domestic violence against adults.

Most recently, the New Mexico Courts website shows charges of second-degree felony kidnapping, fourth-degree felony attempt to injure a pregnant woman and three counts of misdemeanor battery on a household member filed in December 2012. Vickie Dalton said the situation dealt with her son’s girlfriend, not his daughter.

Terry’s report said Ernest Dalton Jr. acknowledged the charges but denied their validity.

Gladfelter had no criminal history before the child abuse charges.

“(The girl) clearly needs to spend more time with the Father, but that time should be supervised by the Daltons until Father’s criminal case is resolved and Father has more permanent housing,” Terry wrote.


Terry’s report quoted the Children, Youth and Families Department as saying the Daltons had always wanted the girl for themselves.

“All along we really just tried to do the right thing and care for our granddaughter, and we’ve been made out to be these crazy grandparents who are obsessed with their granddaughter when we were trying to care for her and provide for her when she needed it the most,” Ernest Dalton Sr. said.

The Daltons say they’re exhausted with the difficulty they’ve had in navigating the legal system in their granddaughter’s case, but they’re too concerned about the child’s safety to give up.

“It’s my life. It’s my little girl’s life,” Ernest Dalton Jr. said.