TRAVERSE CITY — Melissa Ullom tried to speak at her sentencing Wednesday, but she could only manage seven words before breaking down.
"I'm very sorry that Jack was injured," Ullom said through a shaky voice before her attorney took over for her.
Ullom broke down again after 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power handed down a sentence that could see the 42-year-old former childcare provider spend 20 years in prison. A jury convicted Ullom of first-degree child abuse in April after testimony showing an 8-month-old boy in her care suffered serious head and other bodily injuries that have had long-term and incapacitating effects.
Lisa Satawa, Ullom's attorney, asked Power to depart from the guidelines and sentence Ullom to one year in prison. The guidelines call for a minimum sentence of 37-45 months.
"This is aberrant," Satawa said. "This is not who she is or what she is."
Power ultimately sentenced Ullom to at least 3.5 years in prison but no more than 20.
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said the boy, who turned 3 years old in March, still receives daily physical and occupational therapy, wears braces on his legs to help him walk, has trouble seeing out of his left eye and has shown signs of developmental difficulties.
"It's a very serious set of injuries to a boy who's going to grow up wondering what he could have been," Power said.
Prosecutors charged Ullom last October after emergency responders rushed to the aid of an unresponsive baby boy at her East Bay Township home on Dec. 21, 2016. She operated Little Squirts Daycare from the house at the time and had been a daycare provider for 12 years.
Ullom claimed she was running with the baby in her arms to a neighbor’s home for help — the last thing she remembered was screaming from a porch and blacking out, finding the baby on the sidewalk. Power said the expert medical testimony offered in the trial contradicted Ullom's version of events.
Medical staff at DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids determined the boy suffered severe head trauma. Dr. Angela May examined the boy at DeVos after the incident and noted respiratory failure, bleeding and swelling in and around the brain, soft tissue swelling around the cervical spine and other injuries.
"She had quite a reaction to him and ended up basically thrashing him," Power said.
Power did mention some older injuries that were discovered which did not result from this incident but "did raise some questions about how that came about."
Satawa indicated her intent to appeal the conviction during the sentencing and said Ullom's previous counsel did not have the appropriate information to bring the child's pre-existing conditions to the court's attention.
"Mrs. Ullom has dedicated her life to caring for children, raising children, teaching children," Satawa said. "She's astounded that someone could have caused these injuries. She talks about over and over how she could have saved him that day."
Moeggenberg said what Ullom put the boy's parents through has been "unthinkable."
"They almost lost their 8-month-old baby," Moeggenberg said. "She let her attorney point the finger at these parents and what bad parents they are. She was always putting the blame on the parents in this case to distract from herself."
Satawa also requested Ullom be released from Grand Traverse County jail for 14 days to have surgery to take care of a ruptured breast implant that happened before the trial began. Satawa said Ullom lives in chronic pain and has not received adequate care at the jail.
Power denied the request, citing the quality of medical care Ullom can receive through the Michigan Department of Corrections.