Federal authorities are seeking to extradite a Minneapolis day-care provider accused of murdering an infant boy in her care and then fleeing to Poland, where her case has also drawn scrutiny from the Central European country’s government.
Sylwia Pawlak-Reynolds, 43, who maintains her innocence, faces two felony counts of second-degree murder in connection with the death of an 11-month-old boy who was found unresponsive with a severe brain injury at her home day care in July 2017.
The mother of three children left the United States for her native Poland in November 2017, and she has consistently refused to return to the U.S. to face questioning, citing a fear of being imprisoned and separated from her infant son, who remains under her care in Poland.
The complicated case took an unusual turn early this month when Pawlak-Reynolds was briefly apprehended by police near the north-central Polish city of Bydgoszcz. She was released but remains under supervision by local police and is not allowed to leave the country, according to the family and Polish media reports.
Hennepin County prosecutors have turned the criminal case over to the U.S. Justice Department, which declined to comment.
Her removal is by no means certain. Courts in Poland have broad discretion over whether to approve extradition requests, based in part on whether judges believe the accused will get a fair trial in the United States. Polish authorities have already expressed concern that county prosecutors violated Pawlak-Reynolds’ due process rights when they moved to terminate her parental rights without a trial on the murder charges while she was still outside the country. Her husband and two older children remain at the family home in south Minneapolis.
In an interview, Piotr Janicki, consul general of the Republic of Poland in Chicago, said a decision to extradite Pawlak-Reynolds “would not be automatic” given the concerns over the mother’s civil rights.
The Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Poland would make the decision based on the recommendation of the courts, he said.
“Ultimately, the court [in Poland] will have to make sure that she will be treated fairly, and I have full confidence in the Polish judicial system to do the right thing,” Janicki said.
In 2016, the Polish Supreme Court rejected a request to extradite the Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, whom American authorities have sought for decades. Polanski pleaded guilty in 1977 to raping a 13-year-old girl but then fled to Europe on the eve of his sentencing. A Supreme Court judge in Krakow, Poland, ruled that turning over Polanski would be a deprivation of liberty and that the state of California was unlikely to provide humane confinement for the Oscar-winning filmmaker.
Unlike Polanski, however, Pawlak-Reynolds has not been convicted of a crime. The charges against her are largely based on the opinion of two pediatric specialists who examined the deceased infant, Gabriel Cooper. One of the doctors, Dr. Nancy Harper, a pediatrician and medical director at the University of Minnesota’s center on child abuse, concluded that the bleeding in Cooper’s brain was “consistent with shaking.” An autopsy said the boy died of cardiac arrest due to severe brain swelling.
Attorneys for Pawlak-Reynolds and her husband maintain that Cooper appeared to have suffered a head injury before arriving at the day care. The deceased child’s family told investigators that, one week before his death, he had fallen off a couch at the family’s home. Pawlak-Reynolds maintains that Cooper had a visible head wound on his forehead when he showed up at her home day care and did not eat or rest well while under her care, according to court documents.
On the morning of July 12, 2017, the boy’s third day in her care, the child continued to cry and was difficult to console. In response, Pawlak-Reynolds placed the child in a highchair and offered him pieces of a Rice Krispies bar and milk. Then she went outside to check on the other children playing. Upon returning to the kitchen, she found the boy limp, his eyes partly closed and his tongue sticking out. Pawlak-Reynolds immediately called 911 and then carried the boy to a table outside and performed CPR until medical professionals arrived, according to court filings by her attorneys.
Weeks later, Hennepin County petitioned to terminate Pawlak-Reynolds’ parental rights, and she was ordered to move out of the family home out of concern for her children’s safety.
The case has been complicated by the fact that Pawlak-Reynolds left the U.S. for her native Poland in November 2017, three months before she was criminally charged, and has refused to return. She has since given birth to the couple’s third child, Artur, who turns 1 next month, and says she cannot return to the U.S. because she does not want to risk being incarcerated and separated from him.
“I would have to be a coldhearted mother to abandon a newborn like a piece of luggage,” Pawlak-Reynolds said in a Skype interview from Poland in March. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t abandon him.”
Despite her fugitive status, Pawlak-Reynolds remains active in her case. Several times a day, she communicates via Skype with her husband and two children, ages 10 and 8, whom she has not seen in person for nearly two years.
While Pawlak-Reynolds remains in Poland, however, a civil proceeding to terminate her parental rights has continued. Citing her repeated failure to appear in court, Hennepin County District Judge Juan Hoyos has allowed the case to proceed to default hearings, in which only evidence in support of the county’s petition to terminate her parental rights is allowed. At one of those hearings last month, attorneys for Pawlak-Reynolds, her husband and the children were not allowed to cross-examine the county’s witness or call witnesses of their own.
Yet legal scholars, as well as Poland’s consul general in Chicago, have argued that proceeding by default is an extreme measure and is a violation of Pawlak-Reynolds’ due process rights. The Hennepin courts have denied requests by Pawlak-Reynolds to participate in court hearings remotely from Poland via interactive video technology.
“It’s an eye-opening case,” said Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “Even if [Pawlak-Reynolds] is not there physically, she should not be deprived of her opportunity to have her day in court.”
Janicki, the Polish consul general, said the court’s refusal to permit Pawlak-Reynolds and her attorneys to question the county’s witnesses violates “ancient Roman principles” of justice. “I’ve never seen one party being able to question a witness, and the other side being forced to remain silent,” he said.