Last summer, Sophie Hartman was fixated on her 6-year-old adopted daughter Carmel possibly showing signs of early puberty.
The 31-year-old single mom from Renton, Washington, scheduled an appointment at Seattle Children’s Hospital with a pediatric endocrinologist, a doctor specializing in glands and the hormones they produce, according to a Renton Police probable-cause affidavit.
Hartman, a white, Jesus-loving former missionary, strapped Carmel—a little Black girl born in Zambia—into a wheelchair and rolled her into a medical room, where they met with the endocrinologist. Carmel was “a very handicapped child” who was showing “cyclical symptoms” such as a “discharge” in her underwear, Hartman told the doctor. The symptoms were occurring for four straight days around the same time every month, she added.
Carmel went through a battery of medical exams, including blood work and X-ray imaging. The doctor found “modest clinical findings of early puberty,” but not enough to confirm Carmel was indeed accelerating into womanhood.
During a follow-up appointment at Seattle Children’s in October, another endocrinologist ran more tests on Carmel. The doctor found no signs of active puberty in the child, but informed Hartman about two treatments used to suppress pubescence. One involved giving Carmel injections; the other option was more drastic, requiring “surgically lacerating” Carmel’s skin with a scalpel to insert an implant used to suppress early puberty.
The doctor warned Hartman that the implant would be difficult to remove after it was inserted into the skin. Yet she was “emphatic” about getting the implant for Carmel even though it wasn’t medically necessary, the physician later told Renton Police Detective Adele O’Rourke.
On March 17, O’Rourke met with Hartman in her home. During a recorded interview, police say, Hartman admitted she wanted the surgery for Carmel. “Even though doing an implant is more invasive, it really isn’t that big of a deal,” Hartman told O’Rourke, according to the probable-cause affidavit. “I think that would be better.”
After doctors ruled out ovarian cysts as the cause for her daughter’s alleged symptoms, Hartman said she wanted to proceed with the implant. “I was like great,” Hartman allegedly said to the detective, recalling her last conversation with the endocrinologist. “Let’s get this on the schedule.”
Authorities didn’t give Hartman the chance.
The same day, Washington’s Department of Child, Youth, and Families placed Carmel and her older sister, Miah, whom Hartman also adopted, into protective custody. Hartman’s quest to stifle Carmel’s alleged early puberty is just one of several bizarre episodes documented in a probable-cause affidavit that led King County prosecutors to charge Hartman last month with two second-degree felony counts: assault on a child and attempted assault on a child.
According to the charging documents, Hartman subjected Carmel to “unnecessary surgical interventions and restraints” and also attempted to “substantially escalate” her daughter’s medical treatment by requesting “increasingly invasive and unnecessary medical procedures.”
The charges, which Hartman denies and to which she has pleaded not guilty, landed with a thud in the sometimes tight-knit world of white, American Evangelicals who adopt children from abroad. But the case also brought attention to the obscure crime of medical child abuse, in which a primary caregiver forces a child to undergo unnecessary treatment.
“What I am reading in the arrest report doesn’t sound at all like my friend,” Shannon Dingle, a single mom from Raleigh, North Carolina, who also has adopted African children and met Hartman in 2016 at an adoption conference in Seattle, told The Daily Beast.
Dingle said she and Hartman became friends and have remained in constant contact via text messaging and online chatting the past five years, as well as meeting in person during Hartman’s trips to Raleigh.
She still believes in Hartman’s innocence.
“How we got to the point that Sophie is being blamed for being abusive by having medical procedures that medical teams had to approve is something I don’t understand,” Dingle said. “It feels like a lot of responsibility is being put on Sophie that were team decisions.”
In addition to Dingle, Hartman has at least one well-renowned medical child abuse expert in her corner. Dr. Eli Newberger, a former Harvard medical school pediatrics professor who founded the child protection program at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote to prosecutors on May 17 in an attempt to discourage them from filing charges against Hartman. However, legal experts believe there’s a strong case against the Washington mother.
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University national health-law professor, told The Daily Beast that he reviewed the allegations in Hartman’s case and found authorities acted appropriately in removing her daughters from her care and investigating her for medical child abuse.
“The first thing you have to do in a case like this is ensure the safety and the well-being of the child,” Gostin told The Daily Beast. “Putting children under medical procedures that are unnecessary is just as harmful, and maybe more so, than physically abusing a child.”
Efforts to reach Hartman for this story were unsuccessful. Her attorneys Robert Flennaugh II, Jessica Goldman, and Adam Shapiro did not respond to phone messages and emails containing detailed questions. But in a previous joint statement released when she was charged, Hartman’s lawyers insisted prosecutors did not have a case against their client.
“These charges are based on false statements and misrepresentations of the medical record by a doctor at Seattle Children’s Hospital who has never seen the child or spoken with Ms. Hartman,” the statement said. “Ms. Hartman is innocent of these charges.”
Dr. Rebecca Wiester, medical director of Seattle Children’s Protection Program, is the doctor Hartman’s lawyers referenced in their statement. She penned a Feb. 21 letter to Washington child protection services that was co-signed by Carmel’s primary physicians. The three-page memo outlined their concerns about the danger Hartman was putting her daughter in. “It is not necessary to know the motivation of the caregiver, only the outcome of the behavior,” Wiester wrote. “The risk to [Carmel] is profound in this situation.”
Wiester declined an interview through Seattle Children’s spokeswoman Kathryn Mueller, who noted Washington health-care providers are required by law to report suspected cases of child abuse. “The health and safety of our patients is Seattle Children’s highest priority,” Mueller said. “Out of respect for privacy, we will not comment about specific cases.”
Based on a referral from child-welfare investigators, Detective O’Rourke led a four-month criminal investigation into Hartman. That included poring over hundreds of pages of medical records and interviewing dozens of medical professionals, physical therapists, and teachers who interacted with Hartman and Carmel on a regular basis, according to the 21-page probable-cause affidavit.
Renton Police Department Investigations Commander David Leibman and King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthney declined comment for this story. “We’re going to let the court documents speak for themselves,” McNerthney said.
But their findings painted a disturbing picture of a woman who constantly sought medical treatment for her daughter even as she burnished her public profile.
Between 2017 and 2018, they concluded, Hartman convinced physicians at two hospitals, including Seattle Children’s, to surgically insert tubes into Carmel’s digestive organs to help nourish her and expel bowel movements. This, they say, was solely based on the mom’s account that her daughter had trouble swallowing, had chronic vomiting episodes, had excessive diarrhea, and had debilitating bouts of constipation.
Since being removed from Hartman’s care, they added, Carmel—who is identified by her initials in the affidavit and charging document since she is a minor—was eating food like a normal person, and the tubes were set to be removed.
Hartman also forced Carmel to wear orthotics, gait trainers, and ankle and leg braces since she was 2 years old, police say, adding that the mother also regularly strapped the girl to a wheelchair for long periods. The mom ignored directives that Carmel needed normal activities to develop appropriate muscle strength and physical development, according to doctors who were interviewed by investigators.
Meanwhile, teachers told detectives that Carmel had no problem walking, running, and performing normal childhood activities at school when she wasn’t under Hartman’s supervision.
Finally, Hartman claimed Carmel was diagnosed with alternating hemiplegia of childhood, or AHC, a rare neurological disease that causes repeated, prolonged episodes of paralysis, by leading neurologists at the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences. In a recorded statement, Dr. Mohamed Mikati, Duke’s chief of pediatric neurology, told O’Rourke that Carmel does not have the genetic mutation that causes AHC and that he relied on Hartman’s descriptions of Carmel’s symptoms to make his diagnosis. Spokespeople for Mikati and Duke Health did not respond to emails requesting comment.
If there were any doubt behind the scenes about the nature or extent of Carmel’s illnesses, her mother’s public posture suggested otherwise.
Throughout Carmel’s ordeal, Hartman invited donations and routinely garnered publicity, the probable-cause affidavit states. She wrote a book about her experience traveling to Zambia for missionary work and returning with her two girls, and was a featured author at a Barnes and Noble meet and greet in 2016. Local media outlets published and produced human interest stories about Carmel, as Hartman promoted a social media presence for her daughter by creating an Instagram account and a private Facebook group so people could follow the little girl’s daily activities, according to the probable-cause affidavit.
In 2018, the Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for Carmel, her mom, and her sister to travel to a ranch in Oregon to ride horses, per the affidavit. Police allege the trip was paid from donations to the nonprofit. Hartman also gave a speech about Carmel at a Make-A-Wish fundraiser. A friend and Hartman’s congregation at Pursuit NW Church in Snohomish, Washington, raised $15,661 and $30,583, respectively, so that Carmel’s mom could purchase a handicapped accessible SUV.
Press accounts burnished an image of Hartman as a single mom struggling to care for a severely sick kid. But police say her own words suggested she may be someone who is prone to making things up.
As a result of a search warrant for her house, Renton Police investigators took Hartman’s personal journals and found pages in which she described lying in the past about injuries and illnesses she sustained as a teen, the probable-cause affidavit states. In one passage about her freshman year of high school, Hartman wrote that she “used a pen to bruise my hand and faked a broken hand,” as well as not telling the truth that she had “mono and meningitis.” On another page, Hartman allegedly indicated that she was “angry” and “abusive” with her children.
“Oh Lord, what have I become,” she wrote in the journal, according to the affidavit. “Who is this bad soul? It’s me.” She also allegedly wrote on a loose piece of paper: “When it comes to suffering, I am a compulsive liar/exaggerator.”
As law-enforcement authorities built their case against Hartman between March and May, her lawyers brought in Newberger, the Boston-based child-abuse expert, to bolster her defense—and debunk the findings of Wiester and the other Seattle Children’s pediatricians.
Newberger claimed he reviewed the medical records and witness statements mentioned in the probable-cause affidavit, according to a May 17 letter he wrote to King County deputy prosecuting attorney Celia Lee.
“Duke medical staff, third party witnesses, and videos of Carmel corroborate significant symptoms that were documented with assiduous care and accuracy by Ms. Hartman,” Newberger wrote. “The medical records show that Ms. Hartman did not simply invent symptoms.”
In a brief phone call, Newberger told The Daily Beast he could not comment about his findings because he expected to be called as a defense witness. He said he was referred to Hartman’s lawyers by a prominent legal scholar who has written about medical child abuse. “I reviewed the information and made an informed decision within my ethical threshold,” Newberger said.
Legal experts, on the other hand, argue King County prosecutors have documented enough evidence of medical child abuse to present a strong case against Hartman.
“The criminal procedure against the mom is drastic,” Gostin, the Georgetown professor, said. “But if the facts are as alleged, it is a legitimate prosecution.” Taking Hartman’s daughters into protective custody was also justified, he added.
Despite having her kids taken away and being criminally charged for child abuse, Hartman hasn’t spent a day in jail. She participated in her June 3 arraignment hearing via Zoom from her home; King County Judge Tanya Thorp set her bail at $100,000.
On June 10, Hartman was administratively booked after posting her bond, a process that allows a person to show up to the King County jail to be fingerprinted and photographed and be immediately released upon payment of bail. In addition, she was allowed to have supervised visits with her daughters in April and May, and Thorp granted her continued visitations while her case is pending. According to the probable-cause affidavit, doctors kept Carmel under observation for 16 days after removing her from Hartman; during that time, the girl walked and ate food normally without any medical issues.
Meanwhile, fellow Evangelicals, neighbors, and friends are either distancing themselves from Hartman or else refusing to believe that she could be so cruel to her adopted daughter.
Russell Johnson, Pursuit NW Church’s head pastor, told The Daily Beast that he and other church leaders have not seen or heard from her in the last year. “As were so many others, the leadership of the Pursuit NW was horrified to read the charges against Sophie Hartman,” he said in an email statement. “The Pursuit NW has a zero-tolerance policy for child abuse. We pray for these precious children and that justice be done.”
Matt Dimeo, who lives in the house next-door to Hartman, was more equivocal. He described her as a “good gal” and a “very nice person,” ultimately declining to opine on the accusations against her.
“Whether I am surprised or not, it doesn’t make a difference,” Dimeo said. “We are going to trust the system, and hopefully it is a positive situation for the children.”