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Charges Filed Against Birthing Clinic Staffers : Medicine: Prosecutors say midwifery was being practiced at the Gentle Birth Center without the proper state licenses. 'Excessive 911 calls' prompted the two-year investigation.

March 11, 1993|ROBIN GREENE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLENDALE — The director of a birthing center and four employees face charges of practicing medicine without a license after an investigation of "excessive 911 calls" found that one infant had died at the clinic and another suffered severe brain damage.

Deputy Los Angeles District Atty. Robert Dawson said the charges, filed Feb. 24, accuse the employees of the Gentle Birth Center in Glendale of practicing medicine without the proper licenses "under conditions that caused or created risk of great bodily harm and death."

The alternative birthing center was allowing five women to preside over the births of infants in its three birthing rooms without the necessary state certification as registered midwives, prosecutors allege. A registered midwife is a registered nurse with an additional year of certified training in birthing techniques.

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The five staffers face state felony charges that could result in a prison term of 16 months to three years, Dawson said, but no move is anticipated to close the clinic.

A lawyer for the clinic, William H. Ginsburg, denied the charges and said the investigation was politically motivated by a "male-dominated medical profession" that looked askance at alternative birthing options.

Ginsburg said the 9-year-old birthing center, at 116 S. Louise St., offers professional childbirth services for "a lot less money" and said its staff members were fully trained to perform birthing procedures.

But Dawson charged that all five employees performed those procedures without the proper licensing or certification. In addition, he alleged, they failed to maintain proper contact with a certified obstetrician during prenatal examinations and the birthing procedures.

Karen Hightower, a spokeswoman at the center, said the clinic was a licensed physician's office under the supervision of a board-certified obstetrician, Dr. William Hayling. Hayling could not be reached for comment.

"We are a very conservative group," Hightower said. "We don't take any chances. Even in situations that are not emergencies, we will transfer patients to the hospital."

The clinic always transfers patients by calling 911, she added, noting that hospitals are obligated to take emergency patients no matter what their ability to pay.

Those 911 calls, Dawson said, led to an investigation of the center.

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"On or about December, 1990, the Glendale police received information about excessive 911 calls from that location," Dawson said, but he had no information about how many calls were involved.

In January, 1991, the California Medical Board and the Glendale Police Department obtained a warrant to search the clinic.

The investigation took more than two years because several agencies were involved, Dawson said. Records led investigators to focus on the case of Ian Nicolau, who died during birth at the center in March, 1990, and Amanda Allard, who stopped breathing shortly after her birth in December, 1990, and later suffered severe brain damage. She died recently at age 2.

Those charged with conspiracy to practice medicine with the proper licenses are: Tonya Brooks, director of the center; Linda Bennett, director of perinatal services; Shannon Brooks, a labor coach; and two former employees, Diana Gearhart and Lisa Block. The women are scheduled to be arraigned next week.

Dawson said the parents of the children did not initiate the complaint against the birthing center, but he said they would most likely be called as witnesses in the case. The parents could not be reached for comment.

Ginsburg said the investigation took two years because it was politically motivated and prosecutors were pressured in filing charges. Spokesmen for the California Medical Board could not be reached for comment.

Ginsburg expressed surprise that the parents would be involved as witnesses and noted that "sometimes unpredictable things happen in childbirth. It's the same way in a crowded hospital.

"But, out of the many hundreds of babies delivered at the center, there have been two or three serious events," Ginsburg said. "This is in a large part an issue of a woman's right to choose--and a man's right to choose--how their baby is going to delivered."

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