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State law required father, a teacher, to report any suspicion of abuse of girl nearly blinded by bleach

A Washington state school district official says he has no reason to believe a high school math teacher knew that injuries to his daughter’s eyes were the result of child abuse allegedly committed by his estranged wife.

As a teacher, Cody Mothershead would be required by Washington state law to report any suspicion of child abuse – even if it was of his own daughter. Mothershead teaches math at White River High School in Buckley, Wash.

Mothershead's estranged wife, Jennifer Lynn Mothershead of Buckley, Wash., is accused of inflicting severe eye damage in their then-14-month-old daughter by giving her eyedrops containing bleach rather than antibiotics, according to court documents. She also is accused of causing a head injury to the girl in May 2011 that required her to be airlifted to a hospital.

But it wasn't until after a medical journal reported on the case that the 29-year-old mother was arrested Friday. She pleaded not guilty to first-degree assault of a child on Monday and was being held in the Pierce County jail in lieu of $150,000 bail.

Many states have laws requiring not only teachers, but physicians, social workers and child care providers to report concerns of child abuse and neglect.

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A 29-year-old Washington state woman was charged Monday with first-degree child abuse after doctors said she nearly blinded her toddler daughter by replacing the child's antibiotic eyedrops with household bleach.

Mothershead told school officials he had been estranged from his wife since May and had been given limited access to his child during the separation.

“He made us aware of the issue,” said Tom Lockyer, superintendent of the White River School District in Buckley, Wash., a town of 4,500 in western Washington state. "When the girl was taken to the hospital, it was Cody’s first experience with what caused her to be placed in the hospital. Pierce County officials were informed, the case was discussed. Cody was cleared of involvement. The child is now in his custody, and he is working with investigators."

Cody Mothershead told investigators his estranged wife wouldn’t allow him to administer the eye drops and used the child’s medical condition to deny visits with their daughter, whom he saw for a few hours every week to 10 days. The mother had said the child had been prescribed antibiotics for an injury she sustained while playing in a barn.

Mom charged with putting bleach in her toddler's eyes

Court records revealed that Jennifer Mothershead said the child’s eyes had been swollen shut for four weeks and that the girl slept up to 22 hours a day because of the discomfort. Doctors treated her off and on for weeks at Seattle Children's Hospital.

Then, authorities say, the child was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle in May 2011 with a head injury.

The mother appeared “unperturbed about the situation and said she had no idea what caused K.M.’s head injury,” the records show. Doctors confiscated the eyedrops and found bleach in the bottle.

The injuries have caused permanent vision loss in the toddler’s right eye, doctors say.

Her injuries were recounted last week in the Journal of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. In the article, doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital revealed they treated the child for nearly two months before the head injury occurred and may have missed signs of abuse.

The Washington State Medical Commission is reviewing the case to see if it warrants filing a complaint against the Seattle Children’s Hospital doctors who treated the girl, according to Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health.

Lockyer described Cody Mothershead as a dedicated teacher who has been with the White River High School for five years, instructing students in calculus, statistics and advanced placement math. “He is a highly recognized math teacher and probably one of our most engaging teachers."

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Education officials in Washington state would not comment on the Mothershead investigation, but said two Washington state laws apply to this case. According to an email from Nathan Olson, spokesman at the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Wash., the following laws apply: 

The first, Revised Code of Washington 26.44.030  requires a number of groups of people, including “professional school personnel,” to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect “to the proper law enforcement agency.” This must be done, according to state law, within 48 hours.

This law also applies to licensed or certified child care providers and their employees, so if the child were in a day care situation, her care providers would have been required to report suspected abuse/neglect.

Another state law, RCW 28A.400.317, requires all certificated and classified school employees (basically, all school employees) to notify “abuse or misconduct to the appropriate school administrator.” That administrator, then, must investigate and can make a report to law enforcement if he or she reasonably believes that “misconduct or abuse has occurred.”

Msnbc.com health writer and editor JoNel Aleccia contributed to this report.

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