A day care operator who spent much of her life tending babies now faces a charge that she shook one so violently that he'll never recover.
Cheryl Alston, 53, was arrested last week, more than two months after Chris Lear found his son limp in Alston's arms at her home day care on the outskirts of Chapel Hill.
Every moment since, 7-month-old Lucas has struggled to live, spending much of his first summer strapped to tubes and machines at the neonatal unit of UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. His brain had swelled so dramatically that doctors had to drill a hole in his skull to relieve pressure, said John McCabe, an attorney for the family.
The Lears have sued Alston, saying she put him in jeopardy and has now rendered him impaired for life.
Alston had earned the state's highest rating for an at-home day care. In the wake of Lucas' injuries, the state Division of Child Development stripped Alston of her license. On Monday, a judge in Orange County ordered her to stay away from children.
On Tuesday, plastic Easy-Bake ovens and baby dolls were scattered about her porch, dormant and warm in the summer's sun. Alston sobbed as a reporter asked her what happened. She declined to comment until she spoke with her attorney.
A screaming call to 911
According to a state investigation, Alston told a state official that she changed Lucas' diaper, then put him in a car seat so she could wash her hands. When she returned, the child was unresponsive.
Alston told state investigators that she shouted his name and snatched him out of the car seat. His head fell back as she tried to press him against her shoulder, she said.
Chris Lear, Lucas' father, walked into the house about this time, according to the state report and McCabe. He had arrived early to fetch his son, having finished his last class to complete his master's in business at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Lear spotted his son in the crook of Alston's arm, McCabe said. Alston was screaming, according to the report, as she talked with a 911 dispatcher. Suddenly, one of Lucas' legs and an arm shook, then his body stiffened, the report said.
Lucas spent the next five weeks at UNC Hospitals. He has struggled to see. He continues to take medicine for seizures. It's too soon to know whether Lucas will walk and talk like normal boys or whether he'll struggle in school.
The Lears are now planning to move back to New Jersey to be near family who will help take care of Lucas.
"Their whole life has been turned upside down," McCabe said.
Alston, too, told state investigators that she has been devastated by Lucas' injury. Closing the day care robbed Alston of her only income, according to the report.
Alston told investigators "that she would not hurt a child because that would not look right in the eyes of God."
This is not the first time social workers investigated whether Alston took proper care of children at her center, which had been licensed by the state since 2003.
In April 2008, state investigators questioned Alston about another child in her care who was injured. The child's guardian suspected that Alston had not been watching the child carefully enough and another child in her care might have fallen on him.
Investigators couldn't determine whether the child was hurt in Alston's care or at home. They closed the case.
No bad marks appeared on Alston's record by late 2008 when the Lears began shopping for a day care provider.