Although there were troubling clues, 4-year-old Summer Phelps’ severe abuse remained invisible to the nurses who visited her family and went unreported by the residents of the Spokane apartment building where she lived.
That’s according to testimony Tuesday in the Spokane County Superior Court trial of Jonathan Lytle, Summer’s father, who is charged with homicide by abuse.
Nobody caught enough of the danger signs to save Summer.
Sandra Gormon-Brown, a First Steps social worker, said she first visited the family in July 2006, shortly after the birth of Johnny Lytle, the son of Lytle and his wife, Adriana Lytle. The family warranted postpartum visits because Child Protective Services had reported that Adriana Lytle had a “semi-untreated mental health history,” Gorman-Brown said.
She noted several “red flags”: their cramped studio apartment on North Monroe, their $1,900-a-month income, with $500 going to Summer’s mother, Elizabeth Phelps, for court-ordered child support, and the fact they were isolated in Spokane with no friends or family.
Gormon-Brown met Summer on a Sept. 15, 2006, visit, after the Lytles had driven to Poulsbo to pick up the child from her mother for what was supposed to be a monthlong visit. The visit stretched into 2007 – until Summer’s death.
She described Summer as a “darling little girl” whose speech was delayed. She also noted in her reports that Adriana was “too harsh” with Summer. And she reported Jonathan Lytle’s anger that a First Steps nurse had interacted with Summer on another visit in September instead of focusing solely on the couple’s baby.
In October 2006, Gormon-Brown said Adriana Lytle acknowledged she’d had past mental health problems and said she was feeling “irritable,” but refused a mental health referral. On her final visit in November, the social worker noted the family “was not accepting any of the referrals we made.”
The Lytles’ case was transferred to First Steps nurse Susan Harms in December 2006.
Adriana Lytle canceled a second visit on Jan. 10, 2007, and during her February visit, Harms said Adriana Lytle didn’t let her see Summer, saying the child was asleep in the bathroom and shouldn’t be disturbed.
Harms was the last nurse to visit the Lytle family. She arrived the morning of March 10, 2007 – the day Summer died.
That day, Jonathan Lytle took Summer on a drive to Cheney. He later told police investigators he removed Summer so the visiting nurse wouldn’t see the deep bruises that covered her body.
“Did you ask where Summer was?” Spokane County chief criminal deputy prosecutor Jack Driscoll asked Harms.
“I got a one-word answer – ‘out’ or ‘gone,’ ” Harms said. “I went to my car and made a note in my computer that Adriana was guarded.”
Linda Davis, who was staying at the Dresden Apartments where the Lytles lived, told the jury she heard “lots of crying and screaming” in the Lytle apartment, with “mentally abusive” words used against Summer by her stepmother. After Christmas, she saw a collar around Summer’s neck that later proved to be a dog shock collar. Bryon J. Rogers, a painter who lives at the Dresden, said he worried about the safety of the Lytles’ baby because he’d heard Adriana Lytle scream at him.
Rogers said that on the day Summer died, he pressed a glass to the wall of the Lytles’ bathroom, which shared a wall with his bathroom on the third floor of the apartment building.
Summer “was doing a sing-song for hours. It didn’t sound happy,” he said. The song continued late into the evening. Summer drowned in the bathtub sometime that evening while being forced to wash urine-soaked clothes, court documents say.
Jerry Belcher, another Dryden Apartments resident, said he saw Jonathan Lytle smack Summer in the head in the hallway.
“She was walking slow. I saw her father smack her in the back of the head … All I could remember is the look on her face.” Belcher said.