July 14, 2016 - Atlanta - Dinah Paige Whited has been nearly three months on life support at Children’s Heathcare at Egleston. FAMILY PHOTO

The struggles of Baby Dinah

UPDATE: The parents of Dinah Paige Whited were both charged with murder less than 24 hours after the 5-month-old baby girl was taken off of a ventilator and pronounced dead.

The baby girl, having endured so much in her short life, lies motionless in the hospital crib. Tubes and wires connect her little body to the medical machines keeping her alive. Several lines are kept in place by a big piece of tape above her pale pink mouth.

There’s the sound of breathing, but it comes from the ventilator beside her bed. Not from her.

For almost three months, little Dinah Paige Whited has lived on life support in the pediatric intensive care unit of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. That represents more than half of her life, a period during which she has hardly moved, save for slight actions that doctors attribute to reflexes. Around her, though, has swirled a storm of medical, criminal and ethical controversy.

Dinah’s parents are both in jail. Her father, Justin Whited, has been charged with beating her so badly that the girl suffered bleeding on the brain, two broken collar bones and breaks in every rib but three. Police don’t believe her mother inflicted the beatings, but they’ve charged Jamie Cason Whited with child cruelty, asserting she failed to protect her child.

Both parents have said they never abused their daughter, authorities say.

Georgia’s child protection agency investigates about 77,000 reports annually of child abuse and neglect, according to agency records. A small percentage of those children are hurt so badly that they end up on life support. The case of the little girl that people are calling Baby Dinah is even more rare, perhaps even precedent-setting.

That is due to the bizarre fact that the final decision on whether to remove Dinah from life support, rests largely with her father, the man police say put her in this state. He’s declined to sign the papers taking her off the machines. If his child dies, his charges could elevate to murder.

All that seems to matter less on this particular day, Wednesday of this past week. The doctors at Egleston have taken action. Moments ago, they completed the first of several tests to determine whether the girl is brain dead. They turned off the ventilator, and Dinah failed to take a breath. They waited some 10 minutes before placing her back on life support. The plan is for more tests the next day, and if she fails again, doctors can legally declare she has passed away.

Paige Cason-Barrett, the girl’s maternal grandmother, is planning her last goodbyes. She sits in a chair across from the miniature hospital bed. Her head is down in her hands; she’s sobbing.

Cason-Barrett raises herself up and walks over to the bed, past the teddy bear with the pink hat resting at the child’s feet, and the photographs of Dinah taped to the wall. She ducks in among the wires and tubes.

She cradles the baby, without lifting her from the bed. She cups her left hand around Dinah’s head and rests the other arm gently across her body. She leans down, touching the girl cheek to cheek.

Raising her head, Cason-Barrett clears her thoughts.

“She’s not here,” the grandmother says. “She’s not even in there anymore.”

April 23, about two months prior

Some neighbors around the Whited family’s yellow home in Monroe saw them as happy. Justin pushed his 2-year-old son around in a little orange cart, and the family roasted marshmallows around their little fire pit.

“They seemed like good people,” said Mary Strong, who’s lived for about five months in this low-income neighborhood of old homes, bald front yards and tall trees. It’s about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. “I didn’t see them fight or argue.”

Jamie’s mother, Paige Cason-Barrett, saw deeper troubles brewing. The young couple had been together since they were in their teens. Now, after the birth of Dinah in late February, they were both abusing drugs, mostly prescription pain killers, she said.

Both had troubles before with drugs. Jamie was on probation for possession of methamphetamine. The drugs worsened Justin’s desire to control his wife. He didn’t let her talk to strangers, and he became jealous at the drop of a hat, Cason-Barrett said.

“I didn’t know how abusive he was to my daughter,” she said.

Inside the Whited home, there’s a poster on a wall. Cason-Barrett said she’s learned that it hides a hole from the time Justin pushed his wife hard against the wall, while she was pregnant.

Justin’s mother, Kimberlee Page, disagrees with those negative characterizations of her son. She said Justin is a good and loving husband and father. The young couple had their rocky moments but no more than any other husband and wife, she said.

“I never saw Justin get physical with them,” Page said. “Justin was very good to them. He loved his children. He took them to the park all the time.”

She added, “I don’t think Justin would have pushed his wife while she was pregnant. He wanted another baby. He wanted a family.”

Then came April 23. The Monroe police responded to the Whited home at about 9 a.m. Justin told authorities that he woke up to find the child crying, crying so hard she could hardly catch her breath. He called 911 when she began gasping and her lips turned blue, according to a law enforcement documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A police officer made a curious observation in the police report: “As I was talking with Justin and Jamie Whited, I was a little puzzled that they weren’t showing any emotions. Mr. Whited appeared to be calm and collected and Ms. Whited had been standing in the doorway, emotionless.”

Joe Gordon, 60, who lives across the street, saw the paramedics carry out the child.

“It looked lifeless,” he said.

After the ambulance pulled away, Mary Strong, who lives two doors down, saw Justin break down and cry on his porch. Jaime started packing up things to take to the hospital.

The next day, when Jamie was interviewed by police, she said that she had been taking Lortab, which contains the opioid hydrocodone, the day the baby was taken to the hospital, according to court records.

She also said she had previously seen bruises on the child’s face, blackened eyes and a bruise on her forehead. While she was concerned for the child, she told police that she was afraid that if she took the child to the doctor, the state child protection agency might get involved, the court records indicated.

Within days, she and her husband were both in jail.

This past week

There’s tension between the two sets of Dinah’s grandparents. They are battling in court for custody of Dinah and her brother. They take pains not to visit Dinah at the same time.

Still, on Wednesday they came together. They had to.

That night, shortly after 10 p.m., the doctors led the grandparents into Dinah’s room for the critical breathing test.

The test was 10 minutes of hell, said Page, the paternal grandmother. She said she could feel the emotional pain inside Cason-Barrett. Still, few words were passed.

(The AJC visited Dinah with the permission of Cason-Barrett, but the reporter was not permitted in the room for the test. The AJC depended on accounts of those moments from the grandmothers.)

Down the hall, a handful of Dinah’s relatives, on her mother’s side, sat nervously in the waiting room of the pediatric intensive care unit. Late at night, the waiting room becomes a largely barren, strangely silent place. Few families remain this late after visiting hours. They sit and drink coffee and try to contain their bored and hyperactive kids.

Family members wore T-shirts from a recent fundraiser for Dinah, which say “Loving Dinah Paige.” The rally at the legion hall in Monroe featured a few bands and raised about $3,000.

They talked about Jamie, the girl’s mother. In jail, she recently got in trouble after a fight with her “bunky,” the woman who shares her jail cell. The woman apparently made some comments about what had happened to Dinah. Now Jaime spends virtually all her hours in her cell, according to Kimberly Pass, who has known Jamie since they were kids.

They talked about Dinah. Pass said, “I think she’s already dancing with angels.”

As the family had expected, Dinah did not breathe during the test that night. But other tests must be performed the next day to make the final determination.

Still, at this moment, both sets of grandparents saw an end in sight. It’s an ending filled with complicated, and sometimes contradictory emotions. They said they were sad over the prospect of losing their granddaughter, but believe removing Dinah from life support is the best thing for the child.

Cason-Barrett said she fears that as the baby’s functions shut down, she could suffer. The girl’s fate will not be decided by the court battle, or by the state child welfare agency or even by her parents. Dinah herself will determine it, she said.

“Dinah is tired,” said Cason-Barrett. “She is tired of fighting.”

No final ending

The followup tests on Thursday shock everyone. In one of them, doctors find some blood flow in the girl’s brain. That’s enough to halt plans to remove her from life support, at least for the moment.

The grandparents go home that night stunned, suffering a kind of emotional whiplash.

Page said this development puts the decision back in the hands of Dinah’s parents.

It’s a long ride back to Monroe for Cason-Barrett and her husband, Johnny. They can’t help but take the news as something positive. They really don’t know what it means.

“We’re taking it as a blessing,” Johnny Barrett says. He added, “We believe Dinah isn’t ready to go because she’s waiting on her mom to get out of jail, so she can say goodbye.”

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