A Thibodaux woman will serve 20 years in prison for violently shaking and injuring her infant, a judge ruled today.
Tiffany Ellinger, 22, pleaded guilty in January to second-degree cruelty to a juvenile after waiving her right to a jury trial. She was arrested on Feb. 9, 2017, after her 2-month-old baby was hospitalized with multiple injuries.
The infant showed signs of abuse and had stopped breathing at one point, police said. Doctors later discovered bleeding on the baby’s brain.
Ellinger later told a detective she had shaken the baby on more than one occasion, prosecutors said.
Before imposing the sentence tonight following a seven-hour hearing, District Judge John LeBlanc said he didn’t make his decision lightly.
“We have evidence and statements that this child experienced brain bleeding on more than one occasion as a result of the actions of Tiffany Ellinger,” LeBlanc said. “It’s obvious to me in light of the testimony that Tiffany Ellinger knew it was wrong but continued to do it.”
The victim, Maya, was present in the courtroom Wednesday as the judge heard testimony from experts and family members.
Jeremy Toler, a neurologist at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, said the child’s brain injuries inhibited her ability to breathe on her own during the time of the incident. The girl now suffers from cerebral palsy and frequent seizures.
The toddler will most likely never talk or walk and will always have severe intellectual disabilities as a result of her injuries, Toler said.
Due to the side effects of some of the medications the victim is taking, she is already experiencing the puberty of an adolescent, Toler said.
Sheila Pitre, a Thibodaux pediatrician who currently treats Maya, said the toddler will most likely never crawl, turn over or talk. Because the child can’t swallow food, she is fed through a tube.
“She’s going to have to be monitored for the rest of her life,” Pitre said during her testimony. “She’s a very complex patient that requires lots of care. Not just anyone can care for her.”
The toddler is now in the custody of her father, Derek Hebert. He said much of his time is spent taking care of her.
Angie Hebert, Derek Hebert’s mother, said she also provides around-the-clock care for the toddler, which is no easy task.
“I’m on call 24/7,” Angie Hebert said. “My whole life is planned around taking care of her. My worst fear is that we’ll die before her. Who would take care of her then? Who? I think (Ellinger) should serve 40 years. She deserves it because we all have been given a life sentence. I believe all people who hurt children should pay for it.”
Ellinger’s attorney, Paul Barker, requested a five- to 10-year sentence because his client has no criminal record and had been suffering from severe postpartum depression during the time of the offense.
“She never wanted a daughter to be in this condition or to be in this position,” Barker said. “She acted irrationally as a result of several factors.”
Barker said his client requires further mental health treatment, which would not be available if she were behind bars.
Pineville psychologist John Simoneaux, who conducted a mental evaluation on the defendant, said he believed she had been suffering from postpartum depression, which affected her judgment.
“She wasn’t prepared to have this baby,” Simoneaux said. “She wasn’t experienced to have a child.”
Although Simoneaux said Ellinger is not a “hardened criminal,” he believes she had the potential to harm another child due to her unstable psychological condition.
Before announcing the sentence, LeBlanc praised the toddler’s father and grandmother for taking care of her and warned families on both sides his decision would not please everyone.
“The information I received today was very important,” the judge said. “When I make these kinds of decisions I don’t always make everyone happy. But I have to give the sentence that I feel is appropriate. This is a very, very serious crime.”
Ellinger’s father, William Ellinger, pleaded for a lighter sentence because his daughter deserved a second chance.
“This situation is bad all the way around,” he said. “It should have never happened. Tiffany is not a bad person and has never been a bad person. The Tiffany that did this is not the Tiffany sitting here today.”
After LeBlanc announced the 20-year sentence, a voice shouted “Oh, my God!” from the audience as the defendant sobbed.
Although District Attorney Kristine Russell wanted more jail time, she said she respected the judge’s decision.
“We felt the maximum sentence of 40 years was appropriate because Maya was handed a life sentence by her abuser,” Russell said. “Cases like this are extremely tough. I firmly believe that the combined effort and hard work of Assistant District Attorney Jason Chatagnier, his team and the Thibodaux Police Department has secured this 20-year sentence.”
After the sentence was handed down, deputies took Tiffany Ellinger into custody.
“Our mission was justice for Maya,” said Chatagnier, who prosecuted the case. “No amount of sentencing will return what was stolen from her. Thankfully, Maya will spend her days with her father who is loving and devoted to her.”