Blinding of toddler nets Scott County mom prison sentence

Rain Smith • Jan 15, 2019 at 3:30 PM

GATE CITY — A reportedly unrepentant Scott County woman will serve nine years in prison for the severe abuse of her 22-month-old son, which prosecutors say has caused permanent blindness for the boy and "life-long hardship."

Ashley Marie Cowan was sentenced Friday on convictions for felony child abuse causing serious injury and felony child neglect. In November, she pleaded no contest to the charges, which were spurred by an investigation launched in April of last year.

As previously reported by the Times News, Cowan’s son was being treated for bilateral retinal hemorrhages at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City. Additional medical exams revealed what appeared to be numerous non-accidental subdural bilateral hematomas, or brain bleeds, resulting in blindness.

According to a release from Scott County Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Johnson, Cowan initially told Niswonger's staff that she witnessed her son fall out of a Johnny Jumper, causing the injuries. Later, she reportedly told medical personnel, social workers and law enforcement that she did not witness her son’s fall — then admitted to making up the entire story.

When questioned at the hospital by social workers, Cowan reportedly attacked them. She was subsequently convicted for those assaults and later indicted for abuse of her son.

Meanwhile, the child was flown by helicopter to Carillion Medical Center, in Roanoke, Va., which specializes in pediatric neurology. Once there, he was diagnosed and treated for more than 100 non-accidental subdural and retinal hemorrhages. The trauma left the child permanently blind.

On Friday, Cowan was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The court suspended six years of that sentence and ordered that she be placed on probation for a period of four years upon her release. As a condition of that probation, Cowan is prohibited from having unsupervised contact with any minor children.

“The court heard over eight hours of emotional testimony from witnesses, including treatment providers, social workers and law enforcement," Johnson said. "These witnesses detailed the trauma this child experienced in the days and months following his arrival to Niswonger and the profound impact it had on their personal and professional lives.”

The court added that had Cowan acted appropriately to her child's injuries, they might have been mitigated. Johnson said Cowan expressed no remorse or regret.

Additionally, guidelines recommended for Cowan’s charges called for a sentence between one and two years, according to Johnson. However, the court did not believe those guidelines accurately reflected the severity of the injuries to the victim or the life-long hardship he will endure, thus Cowan's sentence was increased to an effective nine years.

"Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Boyer did a remarkable job presenting this case," said Johnson. "He gave this child a voice before the court and it was compelling.”

Numerous agencies assisted the Scott County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in their investigation of the case: the Scott County Sheriff's Office, the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office, the Scott County and Tennessee Departments of Social and Child Services and Child Protective Services, Holston Medical Group, Niswonger Children’s Hospital, Carillion Medical Center, and the Southwest Virginia and Sullivan County Children’s Advocacy Centers.

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