Family pictures of her with her two little girls are enough to tug at the heartstrings – an adoring mom and the children she fell so in love with on a mission to Africa that she had to adopt them and bring them home.
Many more people fell in love with Miah and Carmel too after Sophie Hartman used Facebook and YouTube to share her unique family’s story. She also detailed how their paths crossed in a book called Crowns of Beauty. The little girls were her whole life, the single mom from Renton, Washington, said.
Sophie (31) made it her priority to keep people up to date about six-year-old Carmel’s daily struggles with alternating hemiplegia of childhood (AHC), a rare neurological condition that causes bouts of weakness and paralysis. Carmel was put in leg braces to help her walk and had to go under the knife for surgeries to install a feeding tube as well as a tube to flush out her intestines.
Since the age of two she’d been in hospital a staggering 474 times, undergoing various procedures and treatments.
But earlier this year staff at the hospital began to suspect something was going on. They notified the department of children and youth in the city, saying they suspected foul play and Carmel was removed from her mother’s care while specialists conducted a 16-day observation and various tests on the child.
“Genetic testing could not identify a variant in the disease associated with the AHC disorder,” Dr Mark Wainwright of Seattle Children’s Hospital wrote in his report. It was also found that Carmel could walk without leg braces.
A case of assault and attempted assault has been opened against Sophie for “subjecting her six-year-old child to medically unnecessary surgical interventions and restraints”.
The situation was a clear case of medical child abuse, the report reads. “It is concerning this pattern has resulted in unnecessary medical testing, medication, procedures, surgeries and debility of this child.”
Police believe Sophie’s behaviour may be a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP), a condition where someone falsifies or fabricates an illness or injury in a person in their care, often a child or an elderly person. This is usually extreme attention-seeking behaviour and can be linked to the caregiver having a history of abuse, low self-esteem or even being a victim of MSBP themselves.
Most often cases come to doctors’ attention when conditions the caregiver describes don’t add up.
Sophie, a devout Christian, signed up to do mission work through her church and travelled to Zambia where she lost her heart to little Miah and Carmel.
“Adoption wasn’t on my radar at all until I met them,” Sophie said in a 2019 interview. She wanted the sisters – and on paper she ticked all the boxes.
First she fostered Miah (then 4) then Carmel, who was just three weeks old when she met her. Carmel, she says, was the child “no one was waiting in line for” as she’d had exposure to drugs and alcohol in the womb.
Sophie brought the girls home at the end of 2015 and described Carmel as being “different”. She had her examined by doctors who revealed the child had brain damage and diagnosed her with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. According to Sophie, her condition deteriorated steadily.
“There were times when she was totally paralysed. I’d go to her doctors and I’d be like, ‘I know she is walking right now but she was paralysed all day yesterday’. They would say, ‘No, that’s not possible’.”
She said she took the child for genetic testing, which found Carmel to have the ATP1A3 gene responsible for alternating hemiplegia of childhood.
“I recognised that wow, Lord, you took me up to the fullest extent on what I told you I was willing to do,” Sophie said. “You’ve given me a child who not only has exposures [to drugs and alcohol], not only has a trauma history, but also has this disorder she fights every day.”
After making her daughter’s condition public knowledge and documenting their lives via social platforms and in her book, Sophie started to receive donations.
Thanks to a GoFundMe page, she could buy a specialised wheelchair for her “paralysed” daughter. She also caught the attention of various sponsors who pledged over $30 000 (now about R400 000) to see to the child’s needs. Foundations such as Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington, which grant wishes to critically ill children, reached out to help make Carmel’s dream of riding a horse come true.
“I want to ride horseys in the mountains,” the child says in a video. But back at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, doctors and nurses were becoming more and more alarmed.
With every visit, Sophie would request increasingly invasive procedures and want seemingly unnecessary medical treatment for the child. After the investigation was launched into Carmel’s procedures, which date back to 2016, Sophie’s online history was also probed.
It was found she ran sinister searches on her mobile devices, including “cochlear implants black child”, “how to get paid to take care of a member of the family with a disability”, “making a pretend model of hearing aid” and “funeral songs”. Authorities also found a diary entry from Sophie that read, “When it comes to suffering, I am a compulsive liar/exaggerator.”
Police arrested Sophie after the investigation was completed. “This is not based off a quick investigation. This was months of investigation by police and several experts who weighed in,” the prosecuting attorney’s office said in a statement.
Court documents say Sophie told doctors about the symptoms her daughter was experiencing, which led to the little girl’s diagnosis and treatment for the genetic disorder AHC. However, Sophie’s lawyers, Adam Shapiro and Jessica Goldman, claim top specialists saw the child.
Dr Eli Newberger, who gave a statement in the child’s case at the request of Sophie’s attorneys, claims the evidence and findings of Carmel’s condition are true.
“The medical records show that Ms Hartman did not simply invent symptoms consistent with an AHC diagnosis,” Newberger said. “To the contrary, I see evidence of a parent faced with a myriad of challenging symptoms and issues, who was caught between medical practitioners with diverging views.”
The matter is now in the hands of the courts and Miah (now 10) has also been taken away from Sophie.
- By the time he was eight in 2017, Christopher Bowen from Dallas, Texas, had undergone 13 surgeries and been admitted to hospital 323 times at the insistence of his mother, Kaylene Bowen-Wright. She alternatively claimed her son had cancer and suffered from a rare degenerative disorder that affected his oxygen supply. She also tried to get him on the lung transplant list. Investigators found there was nothing wrong with the child. Kaylene was found guilty of causing injury to a child and sentenced to six years in jail.
- Kelly Renee Turner of Denver, Colorado, made headlines in 2019 after an investigation into the death of her daughter, Olivia Gant. Kelly was indicted on 13 counts, including murder in the first degree, child abuse, theft and charitable fraud. She claimed her seven-year-old had neurogastrointestinal encephalomyopathy, a terminal condition that affects the organs. Olivia’s body was exhumed and it was determined organ and intestinal failure was not the cause of her death. “The manner of her death was undetermined,” a coroner’s report said. Her case is ongoing.
SOURCES: DAILYMAIL.CO.UK, NYPOST.COM, Q13FOX.COM, PEOPLE.COM, KING5.COM, 9NEWS.COM