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Family fights to keep kids

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 2:42 PM

A jury trial for Steve Wagasky and his longtime partner, Sara Huizenga, began Wednesday afternoon in Ottawa County Family Court.

Hospital officials alerted the Michigan Department of Human Services to possible concerns when the couple’s 10-month-old daughter, Eliza, was hurt early this year.

Huizenga told officials she bundled up the child on Jan. 22 to go after her dog, but slipped and fell on icy steps. The infant suffered a broken leg and was later determined to have a skull fracture when she was examined at DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Questions on when the skull fracture actually occurred led DHS workers to file a petition to remove the infant and her two older half-siblings from the home.

Following a preliminary hearing, court officials ordered the infant and two older girls — ages 12 and 8 — removed from the home. The court later allowed them to return when Wagasky was at home.

The children have only been allowed supervised visitations with their mother.

During the preliminary hearing, Dr. Nancy Simms — a child abuse/neglect expert from DeVos Children’s Hospital — testified that the skull fracture could not have occurred from the fall, based on Huizenga’s description of what happened.

Defense attorney Michelle McClean said that two of the witnesses planned to appear in court on Thursday would refute Simm’s testimony. Bone expert Dr. Yousif Hamati will testify that the skull fracture likely happened at the time of the fall, McClean said.

Their star witness, bio-mechanical expert Blake Ashby, will “testify with reasonable scientific certainty that the skull fracture happened at the time of the fall,” McClean said. Ashby is also going to testify that the scenario imagined by Simms is the least likely of anything that might have happened, the defense attorney said.

McClean noted that it was inappropriate to schedule the trial on the anniversary of the child’s drowning. The family was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing at the time, McClean said.

“I feel the state went too far this time,” she added.

Prosecuting attorney Jay Tubergen set out to establish a pattern of improper supervision on Huizenga’s part when he called his witnesses to the stand Wednesday afternoon.

Physicians assistant Tracy McCullough testified to treating toddler Ari Wagasky for possible ingestion of some of his mother’s medication less than a month before the toddler drowned. Steve Wagasky took his son to the hospital because the boy was discovered with the open bottle of medication and some wet tablets. McCullough said the boy tested negative for the medication three hours later.

Detective Brian Tithof of the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety and DHS worker Shelly Park testified about being called to interview family members concerning Eliza’s injury in January. During the interviews, they said Huizenga kept referring to her son’s drowning, which occurred on June 24, 2013.

No criminal charges resulted from the drowning. Police ruled the boy’s death as accidental and the family was cleared after a DHS investigation.

The petition to remove the children from the home was “due to the unexplained skull fracture on Eliza and the improper supervision pattern,” Park said.

Emergency room physician Nancy Goran, who treated Eliza when her father brought her to North Ottawa Community Hospital in January, said she filed a referral to Child Protective Services because the infant could not generate the force on her own to break her leg. Goran testified that she found no evidence of bruising or abrasions on the child’s head.

Testimony was expected to continue in the trial this morning with the final prosecution witness, Dr. Simms, and up to seven defense witnesses, including Hamati and Ashby. McClean said she expects a verdict will be reached Friday.

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