Family members of Harper Briar, a 6-month-old baby who died after being at a Rutland day care in January 2019, are suing the Vermont Department for Children and Families and some of its employees, arguing the state should have investigated allegations the day care’s owner had used medications, without parents’ knowledge, to manage some of the children.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Harper Briar and her parents, Marissa and Blake Briar, asks for unspecified damages for compensation and “exemplary damages in an amount sufficient to reduce the likelihood of the recurrence of the conduct of the defendants … and the resulting injury to other citizens.”
Felony charges are pending against the day care’s owner, Stacey Vaillancourt, 54, of Rutland, of manslaughter and cruelty to a child with death resulting. Vaillancourt pleaded not guilty to the charges in Rutland criminal court in March 2019.
The 13-page complaint, filed in Rutland civil court in March, alleges the Department for Children and Families (DCF) had gotten complaints from parents who believed their children had been given medication without the parents knowledge at the North Street day care, where police believe Harper Briar was given diphenhydramine, sold as Benadryl, in March 2019. However, the lawsuit alleges, the state agency and employees did not take action to stop the alleged practice or to warn parents.
The complaint said Harper Briar was born on July 24, 2018. She was described as a “happy, smiling baby” whose parents called her “Perfect Princess.”
Marissa Briar spent almost 3 months looking for a day care provider so she could complete her degree at Castleton University before choosing the North Street business.
According to the complaint, there were no warnings on the state’s “Bright Futures Child Care Information System” and the only information was that the business was certified by the state and had been compliant with state regulation as of the last site visit.
After Harper Briar’s death on Jan. 24, 2019, the Vermont Medical Examiner’s office found diphenhydramine in her blood, urine and stomach contents. Harper Briar’s death was determined to be a homicide caused by diphenhydramine intoxication.
The complaint describes diphenhydramine as an “over-the-counter antihistamine with a sedative effect” that can only be given to infants under a doctor’s order. The drug was not prescribed for Harper Briar nor did her parents give permission for her to be given Benadryl.
The complaint names two DCF employees, Heather Purinton and Bridget, along with other unknown DCF employees, who work in Rutland County.
“As far back as May 2003, (DCF) had received complaints of Ms. Vaillancourt administering medication without parental permission,” the complaint said.
A 4-year-old child told her mother in 2003 that Vaillancourt had given her “pink” cough medication, the complaint said. Vaillancourt allegedly admitted to giving the child Tylenol for a fever because, she said, she couldn’t reach the child’s parents.
The complaint said a DCF licensing specialist called the incident “unsubstantiated” despite Vaillancourt’s alleged statement.
The complaint alleges “multiple” reports to DCF about Vaillancourt giving sedative medication to children without their parents’ permission but said DCF “failed to document or investigate these concerns.”
Two families took their children to another day care run by Jessica deLancey Smith in 2017 because of these concerns, according to the complaint. Smith allegedly called Purinton to discuss those allegations but had to call again when the Purinton didn’t call back.
Smith called again and shared her concerns with Purinton but the complaint said there was no evidence the state followed up on the allegations Smith shared based on alleged concerns shared by parents whose children had attended Vaillancourt’s day care.
The complaint said Purinton would have reported those concerns to Sheldrick but said there seemed to be no written report issued by DCF.
The complaint alleges four counts, negligence, negligent undertaking, negligent performance of ministerial duties and gross negligence.
A response was submitted on June 7 by the office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, written by Jon Alexander, an assistant attorney general.
The response denied many of the allegations from the complaint, including that Smith brought a concern to Purinton, and demands a jury trial.
A scheduling order signed by Judge Helen Toor, of the Rutland civil court, on July 9 said the attorneys should be prepared for the case to go to trial by September 2022. The trial is estimated to last four days.
The lawsuit was submitted by attorney Andrew Delaney of the Barre law firm, Martin, Delaney and Ricci Law Group. On Tuesday, Delaney declined to comment on the suit.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Marissa and Blake Briar lived in Pittsford in 2019 but now live in North Carolina, according to the complaint.