By Patty Nieberg, The Associated Press/Report for America
A Colorado mother who fatally abused her 7-year-old daughter and lied about her health to get handouts from charities worth at least $100,000 was sentenced Wednesday to 16 years in prison.
Judge Patricia Herron issued the sentence to Kelly Turner after she pleaded guilty last month to child abuse, charitable fraud and theft.
Authorities have said Turner lied to doctors about her daughter Olivia’s medical history while broadcasting her struggles to receive money and other favors from organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The girl had received unnecessary surgeries and medications up until her death in Denver hospice care in 2017.
That summer, Olivia Gant cheerfully sang Hakuna Matata from “The Lion King” as she was wheeled into hospice care in Denver wearing purple pajamas. “It means no worries for the rest of your days,” she sang. The girl died less than a month later.
The video put out by her mother Kelly Turner was one of many clips highlighting the little girl’s battle with disease and death, which authorities said was used by her mother to dupe doctors and call for favors and donations to help ease her daughter’s pain.
Authorities have said Turner spent years fabricating her daughter’s illness, gaining sympathy from television news stories and charitable foundations like Make-A-Wish, which even threw a “bat princess” costume party for Olivia at a hotel that cost $11,000.
The girl’s cause of death was first listed as intestinal failure, but an autopsy later found no evidence of that condition. Authorities have not said what killed her but, according to the indictment, doctors went along with Turner’s push to stop feeding her daughter.
Turner had pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death, charitable fraud and theft between $100,000 and $1 million, according to prosecutors.
Psychiatrists have said that Turner’s behavior seems consistent with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological disorder increasingly featured in movies and television in which parents or caregivers seek attention from the illness of their children or dependents and sometimes cause them injuries.
But experts said these types of cases are not easy to detect. She brought up the syndrome on her own during an interview with investigators and denied she had it.
Turner moved to Colorado from Texas with her three daughters and told doctors over the years, beginning in 2012, that Olivia was sick with numerous ailments and diseases, convincing medical professionals to perform surgeries and fill prescriptions for illnesses that she didn’t have.
Several doctors said that Turner was the primary source of information for Olivia’s medical history, according to the indictment. Investigators discovered blogs, a GoFundMe site and news stories in which Turner described Olivia’s various health conditions without medical proof — including claims that she suffered from a seizure disorder, a tumor and a buildup of fluid in the cavities deep within her brain.
At Olivia’s first emergency room visit, a doctor thought she appeared to be growing normally. But the next year, a surgeon at the same hospital removed part of her small intestine and inserted a feeding tube.
The actions prompted a $25 million claim against the hospital system by Olivia’s grandparents and father, arguing that the hospital failed to do their duties as mandatory reporters of child abuse. The case was resolved in August. A lawyer representing the grandparents said she could not comment further.
Before Olivia was admitted to hospice care where she died, doctors said she had only been receiving 30% of the required nutrition, according to the indictment.
Throughout Turner’s campaign to bring attention to her dying daughter, she sought donations to help fulfill Olivia’s dreams of catching a bad guy with police and being a firefighter.
A video put out by a suburban Denver municipal government shows Olivia riding on a truck, putting out a dumpster fire and telling firefighters to stand at attention — all of which are met with the little girl’s smiles and laughter despite several medical tubes poking out of her backpack.
While Turner’s behavior raised suspicions along the way, it was only after Olivia died in hospice care in 2017 and Turner brought her older daughter to the same hospital with bone pain that doctors decided to take a closer look.
Prosecutors declined to say if Turner still had custody of her other two children. The older daughter has not reported any additional medical problems or complaints of pain since October 2018.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.