Valerie El Halta’s days as an unlicensed Utah midwife are over.
The 71-year-old Eagle Mountain woman pleaded no contest on Sept. 24 to misdemeanor charges stemming from the 2012 death of a Moab newborn. Under the terms of her sentence, El Halta cannot continue her decades-old practice.
Seventh District Judge Lyle Anderson placed El Halta on probation for six years and ordered her to pay more than $78,701 in restitution, plus a $950 fine. He also imposed and then suspended two one-year jail sentences for unlawful conduct and reckless endangerment – both class A misdemeanors.
The case against El Halta goes back to Aug. 17, 2012, when she arrived at a Moab family’s home to help a then-31-year-old woman give birth.
Prosecutors said the defendant knew that the woman previously gave birth to three children via cesarean section, which increased the risks involved with a home delivery.
Yet a state investigator found that El Halta lacked the proper licensure, qualifications or training to perform a high-risk delivery, and determined that her actions nearly killed the baby’s mother, as well.
If the case had gone to trial and a jury convicted El Halta of the original third-degree felony count of unlawful conduct, she could have faced up to five years in state prison.
In exchange for her plea, however, the Utah Attorney General’s office agreed to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor. Prosecutors also dismissed a third charge of negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor.
El Halta declined to address the court at length during the Sept. 24 hearing.
“What can I say?” she asked the judge.
After a brief pause, she appeared to mouth something to the court, but the judge cut her off.
“You either need to say it or not say it,” he said. “To mouth it doesn’t have any effect on the court.”
As Judge Anderson prepared to make his decision, he said he had to take serious competing factors into consideration.
On the one hand, he found that El Halta acted outside the bounds of the law. As a result, the baby’s mother had no access to the kind of medical care that is available to millions of other women across the country, he said.
Yet that doesn’t change the fact that the defendant has helped many other women over the years, he said.
In this case, however, he said the baby’s mother gave the court a persuasive written argument that El Halta fell into a situation beyond her area of expertise.
“That description causes me a great deal of concern,” Anderson said.
The baby’s mother did not speak directly to the court. But her father – the baby’s grandfather – said El Halta tried to cover up the problems that emerged during the baby’s delivery instead of calling for help.
“Valerie, you disregarded the law and played God,” he said.
The family believes that El Halta gives a bad name to the overall community of midwives, he said.
In fact, El Halta has never been licensed as a midwife in Utah, and the North American Registry of Midwives revoked her Certified Professional Midwife credential years before the incident occurred.
However, even if El Halta had been licensed at the time, state law would have limited her practice to normal, low-risk pregnancies.
Yet El Halta presented herself as an expert in vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) deliveries and assured the mother in this case that she was qualified to perform an at-home delivery, according to a state investigator’s report on the incident.
She gave the woman prescription medication that can rupture the uterus or cause other complications when administered to induce labor, a Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing investigator found.
The woman’s labor increased each time El Halta administered the medicine, but the defendant seemed to grow anxious as time went on, according to court documents.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” she said at one point as she examined the woman’s vaginal area.
The exam ruptured a membrane and caused the woman substantial pain, but El Halta claimed she was breaking scar tissue and “just moving things along,” court documents state
By about 9 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2012 – more than 24 hours after El Halta arrived – the woman’s labor intensified. Within half an hour or so, she became physically ill. El Halta, meanwhile, grew agitated and snapped at the woman and the woman’s husband, according to court documents.
She ordered the mother to push, and at one point, the baby appeared to be crowning. But he slipped back up the birth canal.
El Halta left the room for a few minutes to give the family some time alone. When she returned, she couldn’t detect any fetal heart tones.
At that point, she panicked and grabbed a medical vacuum, which she was not licensed to use, according to court documents. With one pull of the vacuum, she removed the baby from his mother. The newborn’s umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around his body, and he was not breathing.
While someone else called 911, El Halta tried to perform CPR on the baby. As emergency responders transported the child to Moab Regional Hospital, El Halta told the parents to “pray to whatever God they believed in,” according to the state investigator’s report.
However, the child’s condition was so serious that he was transferred to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where he died on Aug. 25, 2012 as a result of oxygen deprivation.
The mother, meanwhile, began to hemorrhage. Once again, El Halta tried to perform medical treatment that she was not licensed to administer. According to prosecutors, the bleeding was so severe that the woman would have died if there had been further delays in transporting her to the hospital.
The family subsequently incurred medical bills of more than $157,000. But the baby’s grandfather testified that he was able to negotiate the final amount down to just under $79,000.
Despite that outcome, Assistant Utah Attorney General Dave Carlson sought the maximum amount of restitution.
“I think she needs to learn a lesson about this – about what the consequences of acting out of the scope of her ability (will be),” he said.
Carlson said he believes the plea deal is appropriate, given El Halta’s age and the absence of a prior criminal history.
The agreement will ensure that El Halta stops practicing as a midwife, thereby protecting other people from harm, he said. It will also provide restitution for the victims in this case – a second key objective that prosecutors sought.
“We feel, as part of this agreement, we’ve achieved those goals,” Carlson said.
During a brief interview with The Times-Independent, defense attorney James J. Lee said his client shares the family’s grief.
He said El Halta has been devoted to helping women have healthy births, and he called the incident a profound tragedy.
“We’re glad to have it behind us, even though it doesn’t take away from the sadness or bring the baby back,” Lee said.
The prosecution achieved its goal of stopping her practice, and that’s punishment enough, he said earlier in court.
“It’s really kind of a jail sentence for her,” he said. “Her not being able to do that is her prison.”
Under the terms of her sentence, El Halta may apply for early termination of her probation, as long as she complies with the court’s terms and conditions for the next three years.
But Judge Anderson made it clear that she must give up her practice and refrain from mentoring or training other midwives.
He saved his final words for the woman and her family members, telling them that he felt sad for all of them.
“I wish there was something that I could do that was more meaningful to ease your pain,” he said.