Time after time, doctors and nurses told Christine Ruth Nelson that her disabled son needed to be hospitalized to be properly treated for a severe burn on his foot, court documents said.

Each time, Nelson, 61, of St. Paul, refused, saying at least once that he "doesn't like the hospital," the documents said.

In late October, more than three months after the initial injury, doctors were forced to amputate Nelson's son's leg, according to a criminal complaint charging Nelson with neglect of a vulnerable adult, a gross-misdemeanor.

"This is a case where the charges are unbelievably serious," said St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing. "Unfortunately in Minnesota, neglect of a vulnerable adult is just a gross misdemeanor. It's something we're working on for this legislative session."

The complaint, filed Friday and made public Tuesday, tells this story:

The victim, identified as E.J.N., is a 35-year-old autistic and developmentally delayed man. He can't speak but can communicate a little by pointing to letters and making some sounds. His parents were his conservators and had power to make his medical decisions.

On July 2, he was walking barefoot outside with his mother when he stepped on something and severely burned the bottom of his right foot. Nelson took him to Family Health Services for the first time on July 29, where a doctor noted "deep tissue loss" and recommended he be admitted to the burn unit at Regions Hospital. Nelson refused, the complaint said.

Nelson took her son to medical clinics and hospital emergency rooms five more times between Aug. 5 and Oct. 11. Each time, the wound got worse, and each time she was told E.J.N. needed to be hospitalized. She repeatedly refused.

A home health care nurse visited the Nelson home nine times between Aug. 21 and Sept. 16. The nurse, too, told Nelson her son should be in the hospital.

When Nelson took E.J.N. to the emergency room at St. John's Hospital on Oct. 26, the wound had turned gangrenous, the complaint said.

"E.J.N. was malnourished, dehydrated and was moaning in apparent distress," it said. "Defendant admitted that 11 days earlier, E.J.N. had developed a high fever, the wound had become swollen and black and had a foul odor."

E.J.N. underwent emergency surgery to amputate his right leg up to the knee, the complaint said. He was hospitalized for several weeks and then transferred to an adult care facility. He has a new guardian, the complaint said.

Nelson was flustered when reached by phone Tuesday and said she didn't know anything about the charges. She is to appear in court Feb. 17.

"I'm sorry. I'm so worried about my son. I can't talk to you right now," she said.

Grewing said state law calls for mandatory reporting of neglect of a vulnerable adult. But St. Paul police spokesman Andy Skoogman said police were not called until Nov. 12.

Grewing said she was uncertain if there would be fallout for the nurses and doctors who neglected to notify authorities. "We are not at that point yet, but certainly the law allows for consequences in these situations," she said.

"This is a perfect example of why we need tougher laws," Skoogman said. "We need more serious consequences for people who make these type of terrible and tragic decisions."

Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992