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Father of Moorhead infant left in van faces manslaughter charged

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By Emily Welker / The Forum

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Prosecutors here filed a manslaughter charge Tuesday against the father of a 5-month-old girl who died when he left her in a hot van for hours last week – a death that came after police had visited the home three times in the last three years on reports of child neglect or endangerment.

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The felony charge alleges Andrew Sandstrom, 24, was neglectful in causing the death of Christiana Sandstrom, who will be buried in a funeral today.

“We’re not talking about intent here,” Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said Tuesday. “This is clearly a tragic event that happened … (but) it’s tragic events that were caused by his actions, his failure to provide adequate supervision.”

The father told police he was at times napping and “awake or dazed” during the estimated four hours he left the infant in the family’s van while watching his and his wife’s six children.

In the complaint filed in Clay County District Court, police describe putrid conditions in the family’s apartment, including a refrigerator with rotten food leaking out of the door and a bathroom with such an overwhelming odor of human waste that a police detective gagged and felt his eyes stinging as he photographed the room.

The other five children of Andrew and Shayna Sandstrom -- three boys ages 6, 5, and 1½ along with two girls ages 7 and 3 -- are in foster care after being taken into custody by Clay County Social Services the night of the baby girl’s death.

A warrant was issued for Andrew Sandstrom’s arrest, but Melton said police will give the father time to turn himself in after he attends the funeral today, which is out of the area.

Melton and police said they do not consider him a flight risk, and Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said his department is in contact with Sandstrom.

The county’s top prosecutor could not recall another instance in which his office charged a parent in the death of a child left in a vehicle on a hot day. Statistics collected by a nonprofit advocacy group show such deaths have increased since the 1990s, but there are less than 40 per year in the U.S., on average.

“It’s a rare occurrence, a tragic occurrence,” Melton said. “In this case, we saw the elements that showed clear neglect.”

Upon conviction, the second-degree manslaughter charge filed Tuesday carries a four-year prison term under state sentencing guidelines, assuming the offender has no criminal history. Sandstrom has no known criminal history.

‘That’s when I forgot’

Court documents filed in the case allege Sandstrom spoke with a Moorhead police officer who responded to a dispatch call at 8:22 p.m. June 11 of an unconscious baby at Sandstrom’s apartment, telling the officer that he forgot the child in the car.

That afternoon, temperatures reached the low 80s.

Sandstrom told police he and the children dropped their mother off at about 2 p.m., then went to the park near the pool by Ellen Hopkins Elementary. The children didn’t go in the pool, and Sandstrom sat with Christiana on the bench while the other children played. He told officers he was sweating while they were there, and that the family left the park when it got hot.

When they returned to the apartment, court documents state, three of the children left to play with friends, while Sandstrom took two of the children inside.

“That’s when I forgot (Christiana),” the father is quoted in the complaint as telling police.

Sandstrom told police he turned on the television for the other two children, and lay down for a while at about 4 p.m., feeling tired and dizzy. Sandstrom said he got up and watched Netflix with his children, and that the other three came home within a half-hour. He described himself as being “awake but dazed” and later said he napped during that time, police say in the complaint.

The 24-year-old told police he recalled his wife calling once over the four-plus hours, though Shayna Sandstrom told officers she called twice to ask how the children were doing and was told both times they were OK. He also called his insurance company and checked a voice mail from his landlord during the time period, police say.

Sandstrom said that when he awoke, he began to think about his wife asking how the children were doing and realized he had left the baby in the van.

He told police that when he got to the van, which was locked and not running, he grabbed the baby “as fast as he could” and ran upstairs, where he began pushing on her chest while calling 911.

Police say in the complaint that when they arrived at the home, the baby appeared to be stiff and her skin felt hot to the touch. She wore a pink onesie and a diaper that appeared to have feces showing through it, police state in the report.

The girl was pronounced dead at the scene at 8:40 p.m., the complaint states.

Court documents claim the Sandstroms’ apartment had a strong musky odor of decaying or moldy food as well as human waste.

Police say there was rotting food ground into the couch and carpet, and the toilet in the sole bathroom in the three-bedroom apartment was “covered in human waste” and wouldn’t flush. The trash can in the bathroom was overflowing with soiled diapers and used toilet paper that had feces on it.

Surfaces were filthy with food, dirt and garbage, with plastic bags, clothes, shoes, trash and broken toys were strewn throughout the home. The girls’ beds were covered in so many items they could not be used for sleeping, police claim in the complaint.

Three prior reports

It wasn’t the first time police had been called to the home of the Sandstroms, who are the biological parents of all six of the children. Court documents detail three prior times police had visited the home on a report of child neglect since fall of 2010.

In the earliest report, on Sept. 6, 2010, a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old were outside without supervision, in the rain, with no jackets on.

The person who called police said the children were trying to get back into their locked apartment building, and that when Andrew Sandstrom was finally located, he admitted he had fallen asleep.

Court documents say officers who contacted Sandstrom saw that an infant in its crib in the apartment was sleeping face-down, and they told Sandstrom he could not leave a baby face-down unattended. The home smelled of feces, with dirty diapers and other debris on the floor, police said in the complaint.

However, officers determined the children were not in immediate danger and did not require immediate placement, according to the complaint.

On Jan. 12 2011, a teacher reported three of the Sandstrom children hadn’t been to school for a week. The teacher also reported the home had no working electricity or food.

Officers who went to the apartment saw clothes and toys scattered throughout the home, so much that the floor couldn’t be seen. There was days-old spilled milk on the kitchen floor with paper towels still sitting in the spilled milk, police say in the complaint.

Andrew Sandstrom told officers the children had been sick and just got home from the doctor, according to the complaint.

Police told Sandstrom that they would file a report with Clay County Social Services, and the home needed to be cleaned up for the sake of the children.

But officers determined again that since the children were in good health and not in immediate danger, there was no need to remove them, according to the criminal complaint.

The third report was on Nov. 14, 2012, when a person walking across the street from their apartment saw an unsupervised child run near the street, climb into a van and shut the door. The person asked the child to go get her father, but Sandstrom did not come out of the apartment.

After that report, court documents say, Clay County Social Services contacted the Sandstroms “regarding appropriate supervision for their children.”

A Clay County judge ruled Friday the remaining five siblings of Christiana Sandstrom should remain in foster care following a petition in which authorities cited the conditions at the home and alleged the children “were without proper parental care because of the emotional, mental or physical disability” of the parents.

In their petition, county social workers did not seek to terminate the parental rights of the Sandstroms. Instead, they must complete a case plan to regain the custody of their children.

Details of the case plan weren’t disclosed at the hearing on Friday.

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