NEW BEDFORD -- A Boston doctor who examined a 3-year-old girl whose upper lip was bitten off said yesterday that hospital staffers had to persuade the Department of Social Services not to send the child home, where her mother had allegedly failed to stop months of physical abuse by her boyfriend.
Five days after the girl was brought to Children's Hospital Boston with black scabs on her mutilated face, DSS proposed sending her home, according to testimony by Dr. Alice Newton during the couple's dangerousness hearing in New Bedford District Court yesterday.
The injuries were so severe, Newton testified, that the girl will never fully recover.
The DSS proposed on April 30 to return the child to her home four months after she first came to the attention of the agency's officials in January, when she was seen at a New Bedford hospital for treatment of a broken tooth and bruises that a physician there called suspicious.
DSS officials said last week that they did not take action in the case in the months following the January hospital visit because they did not find the girl at home on several occasions.
Anthony Clune, defense lawyer for the child's mother, tried to show at the hearing yesterday that the woman posed no danger and should be released. During cross-examination of Newton, he asked the doctor to confirm that DSS had recommended the child be released to her mother, Jessica Silveira, on the condition that "this child is not to be left unsupervised by the boyfriend."
Newton replied, "That's correct."
But hospital staff members adamantly insisted DSS change its plans, Newton said, because of the abuse the child suffered while living with her mother and the boyfriend, Bryan James of New Bedford.
"There was general concern about the gravity of the case," said Newton, who is medical director of the child protection team at the Boston hospital. "It was clearly a case of serious physical abuse from the outset."
In a telephone interview yesterday, DSS spokeswoman Denise Monteiro called the disagreement over the child's release a miscommunication that was quickly cleared up by a conference call that hospital staff requested with DSS. DSS officials had not authorized a plan to send the child home, she said.
Doctors, she said "thought the [DSS] worker was going to pick up the kid and take the kid home, and that was not what was going on," Monteiro said. "That was not the plan. There was no plan to take the child anywhere."
DSS ultimately went into court and, on May 3, obtained legal custody of the girl and her 5-year-old brother. The boy has not shown signs of physical abuse, officials said.
Last week, Angelo McClain, who was appointed DSS commissioner in late May, said he has launched an internal investigation to be sure agency workers went far enough in attempts to protect the child.
At the hearing yesterday, Silveira, 26, and James, 33, were ordered by District Court Judge David Turcotte to be held without bail. For their own safety, officials said, the two are being held in segregation at Bristol County Jail.
On the stand, Newton described the girl's injuries in detail. Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter said he was sickened by what he heard.
Newton said the girl's face is permanently disfigured. "Basically, the middle of her upper lip is completely missing," Newton said. "She will never have a normal- appearing lip. There has been too much destruction."
The girl's ears were battered so frequently and with such force that the child now has the "cauliflower ears" of a boxer or a wrestler, she said.
"There is no way to repair the damage to the ears," she said. "Both ears were completely missing the normal anatomical structure."
DSS workers first saw the girl Jan. 11 when a dentist and doctors at St. Luke's Hospital suspected she had been abused. But she was not seen again by DSS until April 25, when her grandmother brought her to a Waltham hospital, which transferred her to Children's Hospital Boston.
Newton testified that in January and in April the girl's body showed evidence of human bite marks, some of which appeared to have come from adults because of the size of the teeth impressions. Some of the biting injuries probably came from the girl's brother, she said. Newton did not see the girl until she arrived at the Boston hospital, but she reviewed photographs of her from January.
After being bitten on the face, Newton testified, the girl probably would have been screaming in pain and the blood flow would have been heavy.
When authorities investigated in January, Silveira blamed the child's various injuries on a fall in the bath tub, walking into doors, falling out of bed, or being bitten by a relative's cat, according to a police report and testimony yesterday by Detective Christopher A. Cotter of the New Bedford Police Department.
Both children identified "Daddy Bryan" as the person who bit the girl's face, Cotter said. The girl told investigators James was angry that she had wet her pants, Cotter said, and the boy told them he was in a bedroom when "Daddy Bryan walked in and bit my sister on the lip."
Silveira, who sat in the prisoner's dock in front of James, wept occasionally during the hearing, especially as Newton described the girl's injuries. She sobbed heavily as Cotter recounted the girl's reply to an investigator who asked what happened after she was bitten .
"She said she was upstairs crying, and 'my mommy was downstairs watching TV,' " Cotter testified. The couple is due back in court Aug. 8.