A former Arizona nurse was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Thursday for sexually assaulting an incapacitated woman at a long-term care facility where she later gave birth.
Nathan Sutherland received the maximum punishment called for under his agreement to plead guilty to sexual assault. He also received lifetime probation for a conviction for abuse of a vulnerable adult stemming from his treatment of the woman.
“It’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable adult than the victim in this case,” said Superior Court Judge Margaret LaBianca, adding that Sutherland exploited his position of trust as a caregiver to sexually abuse the victim.
The pregnancy was discovered in December 2018 when an employee at the Hacienda Healthcare facility in Phoenix was changing the garments of the then-29-year-old victim and noticed the patient was in the process of delivering a child. Employees told police that they had no idea the woman was pregnant.
Police have said Sutherland’s DNA matched a sample taken from the woman’s son. The victim’s mother is the boy’s guardian.
Before the punishment was handed down, Sutherland told the judge about the problems in his life that resulted from being put up for adoption as a child. He also offered apologies to the victim and her family and said he understands the situation isn’t fair to the child, either.
“To the victim, I am sorry,” Sutherland said. “You didn’t deserve to be hurt no matter what was going on in my personal life and the demons I was fighting. I had no right to put you through that.”
The surprise birth triggered reviews by state agencies, highlighted safety concerns for patients who are severely disabled or incapacitated and prompted the resignations of Hacienda’s chief executive and one of the victim’s doctors.
It led to a lawsuit from the victim’s parents that alleged Sutherland had cared for their daughter on hundreds of occasions from 2012 through 2018, despite promises from the state — which contracts with companies like Hacienda to provide services to people with developmental disabilities — that only women would tend to her. An expert on behalf of her family has said many of Sutherland’s encounters with the patient occurred overnight, when fewer staff members and visitors were around.
The family’s lawyers said Hacienda missed signs that the woman was carrying a baby, pointing out that she had gained weight, had a swollen stomach and missed menstrual periods in the months before the child was born. They said the victim, who has a feeding tube and whose nutrition was reduced in response to her weight gain during the pregnancy, delivered the boy while severely dehydrated and without pain medications.
The victim lived at Hacienda for 26 years, until the child’s birth. Her medical conditions stem from a brain disorder that caused motor and cognitive impairments and vision loss. She was also left with no functional use of her limbs.
Sutherland, a licensed practical nurse, was fired by Hacienda after his arrest and has since given up his nursing license.
A judge has approved a $15 million settlement against a doctor who cared for the woman for 26 years while she lived at Hacienda Healthcare. The doctor’s insurer has argued it has no obligation to pay that amount.
The state of Arizona settled last summer for $7.5 million.
Perry Petrilli, the current chief executive for Hacienda Healthcare, issued a statement saying employees cooperated with law enforcement authorities, have kept the victim and her family in their thoughts and that “we are relieved that he will never again torment another innocent human being.”