Days before her second birthday, Malania Chevere suffered a brain injury at a Buffalo day care, requiring surgeons to remove a section of her skull.
Law enforcement initially were told another toddler shoved the child and Malania’s head struck the floor. But after eight months an ongoing police investigation has not yet determined the cause of the injury.
Brittany Elliott and Greg Chevere say they do not believe another toddler would have the strength to hurt their daughter so severely.
“How could a child the same age have that kind of power?” Elliott asked in the couple's first public interview since the July 23 incident.
After Malania was rushed to a hospital, New York State suspended Mozee's Ultimate Family Daycare's license, forcing it to close, and cited it for several violations. The state’s Office of Children and Family Services alleged the group family day care was understaffed, lacked a staff member certified in CPR and first aid, and failed to arrange for the transportation of a child in need of emergency medical attention.
But operator Desiree "Debbie" Mozee is now trying to reopen the business, located in her residence at 83 Glenwood Ave. An administrative law judge will determine whether the state reinstates or revokes Mozee's license.
Malania’s parents, who testified at the hearing, said they were told a decision is expected next month.
“The day care should not be allowed to reopen. They are not trustworthy,” said Chevere while holding his daughter, nicknamed "LaLa," in his lap as she drew squiggly lines on paper in their East Side home.
The couple sued Desiree Mozee and the day care in January, alleging her negligence caused the injury. Desiree Mozee declined to be interviewed.
Her mother, a former employee at the day care, insisted Malania must have been injured before she arrived there. Mary Mozee explained that she was not present at the day care July 23, but she talked with her son, who was the only adult working in the day care that day.
800,000 kids in day cares
Every workday, parents in New York State place as many as 800,000 children in the hands of 19,000 licensed day care providers, depending on them to keep their children safe.
In Erie and Niagara counties, there are 661 licensed facilities.
Since 2018, the state has suspended or revoked the licenses of 11 Erie County day cares, including Mozee's, according to the Office of Family and Children Services' online records. No day cares in Niagara County have had suspensions or revocations.
State law requires the Office of Children and Family Services conduct annual inspections of "at least 50 percent" of the licensed day cares. A spokeswoman for the agency, Monica Mahaffey, said all day cares are held to the same health and safety standards, regardless of their size.
Mahaffey declined to comment on a March 15 hearing on whether Mozee's day care can reopen.
The day it happened
Malania’s parents said they put her in the day care because of Elliott's employment and Chevere's disabilities. About four years ago, doctors amputated his lower right leg after a blood clot settled in the limb. Chevere said he also suffers from a heart condition.
The parents say they are certain that their daughter was healthy when Desiree Mozee picked her up at 6 a.m. July 23.
At 3 p.m., Elliott says she received a phone call from Desiree Mozee informing her Malania was not feeling well.
“Debbie told me that her brother James had told her LaLa had slept all day and wouldn't eat for him,” Elliott said, referring to Mozee’s brother James J. Mozee Jr.
Desiree Mozee was not at the day care. She was working at her full-time job as a counselor at Erie County Medical Center, according to child's parents. Under 2014 revisions of state day care laws, the license holder of a group family day care must be on the premises. Because Desiree Mozee received her license in 2012, she is exempted from that requirement.
Mary Mozee also confirmed that her daughter was working at ECMC that day.
Elliott said she telephoned James Mozee at the day care. “He told me Malania slept most of the day and wouldn’t eat.”
At about 3:30 p.m., Desiree Mozee called Elliott again, this time from the day care.
“She was screaming that Malania had ‘a big old bruise on her head.’ She said she had to call an ambulance,” Elliott said.
“James Mozee never said anything about the bruise on her head when I called him,” Elliott said. “Why wouldn’t he tell me that?”
When the parents arrived at the day care, they found Mozee and a police officer standing outside.
“I yelled from my truck, ‘What happened?’ Debbie said, ‘I don’t know,’ " Elliott recalled.
At Oishei Children’s Hospital, doctors informed them their daughter was in critical condition and immediate surgery was necessary.
To relieve pressure from the bleeding in the child’s brain, doctors cut away a section of her skull and placed it in her abdomen, Elliott said.
A hospital document described the nature of Malania's injury as "non-accidental." Another hospital record detailed it as "a right-sided subdural hemorrhage" that caused partial displacement of her brain.
Following the four-hour surgery, Malania remained in a medically induced coma for a week, her parents said.
On July 31, Malania turned 2 and her family celebrated with a birthday party in her hospital room, filling it with balloons and gifts. She remained in her crib paralyzed on her left side.
“I just prayed and prayed and prayed,” Elliott said.
Her prayers were soon answered.
Doctors reattached the child’s skull. Two days before Malania was discharged on Sept. 5, the toddler started walking.
Parents have suspicions
Elliott and Chevere say the only information they have received on how Malania was injured came days after the incident from a Buffalo police detective.
“The detective told us another child around Malania’s age had pushed her,” Chevere said.
Elliott said she discovered a black and blue mark on her daughter’s right leg at the hospital following the surgery. The mother said she believes that injury was also part of whatever happened to her daughter.
The case remains under investigation by Buffalo police, according to Lt. David Mann, who declined to say if police believe another toddler caused Malania's injury.
"These types of investigations often take months before there is a definitive resolution," Mann said.
On March 11, The Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Office of Children and Family Services for documents pertaining to the case. A state records access officer said the agency has made no decision on the request.
Attorney William Moore of the Buffalo law firm Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria says Malania's parents, whom he is representing, deserve to know the full story.
“Their beautiful healthy child gets picked up by the owner of the day care and the next phone call they receive is that their child is nonresponsive,” Moore said. “No parent should get that call.”
The parents' lawsuit against Desiree Mozee and the day care alleges the injury was the result of the day care owner's "negligence, careless, reckless and/or unlawful conduct." It also accuses Mozee of failing to "provide proper and adequate supervision."
Desiree Mozee, 54, is licensed to operate a group family day care in her two-story residence at Glenwood and Michigan avenues. Her license allows for up to 12 children, ranging from 6 weeks to 12 years of age, and two additional school-aged children.
The license information lists James Mozee, 61, as the day care's contact person.
Mary Mozee said her son was "between jobs" and working at the day care.
Like Malania's parents, Mary Mozee said the report of another child shoving Malania and causing her injury doesn't add up.
"My daughter brought her to the day care that day and carried her into the house. She was tired and sleepy," Mary Mozee said. "My son said she slept all day."
"There was another little kid there and the same height as the girl and would not have had the strength to cause that kind of injury," she said.
She also pointed out that the children in the day care are kept in a dining room area where the floor is carpeted and there is no furniture to bump into.
Dr. Gregory J. Castiglia, a clinical assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences who is not involved in Malania's treatment, said it would not take an extreme amount of force to cause a brain injury in a young child.
Speaking generally, Castiglia said that when a child's head rapidly accelerates and then abruptly stops the force inside the skull can cause veins to break.
"It doesn't take much to generate a force significant enough to cause the injury," Castiglia said.
Still, the state found fault with Mozee's day care in inspections immediately after Malania was hurt.
Mozee's was cited for failing to have two caregivers when more than six children not old enough to attend school were present. Mozee's also failed to have at least one caregiver for every two children less than 2 years old.
Mozee's did not provide "competent supervision" and an “awareness and responsibility for the ongoing activity of each child" and, if needed, redirect the activities of a child, the state alleged.
This was not the first time the day care had been cited. Earlier in 2018 and in 2017, it had been cited for similar staffing violations. State records show that those infractions were corrected.
Elliott and Chevere said they had been led to believe by the Mozees that there were always two caregivers staffing the day care.
“I never knew there was only one person working there until after LaLa was injured,” Elliott said.
A long recovery
Back home with her parents and two older sisters, 11 and 14, Malania continues to recover.
She visits the hospital once a week for physical therapy and a teacher comes to the home once a week to work with her on words and other cognitive skills.
Her words are sometimes garbled, but that does not stop her asking for paper to draw on or talking with visitors. Malania also boisterously dances about the living room of the family's apartment near William Street.
“Her left side is still weak,” Chevere said as he watches over her. “You can see the fingers on her left hand curl in.”
There are other reminders of what Malania has been through: On the right side of her head behind her ear is a massive scar where the section of skull was removed.
Elliott and Chevere said Desiree Mozee and James Mozee expressed no remorse for what happened to their daughter at the March 15 hearing on the day care license suspension.
“They didn’t look at us and they did not offer an apology,” Chevere said.
Chevere said he now refuses to send Malania back to any day care.
“I watch her. I won’t even let her go with family,” he said. “I’m just too nervous she’ll get hurt again.”