COLUMBUS — A Hardin woman who admitted to a charge of negligent homicide for the death of a 3-year-old foster child was sentenced Friday.
Lavonna Bird, 51, was ordered to serve 20 years at Montana Women's Prison, with five years suspended, for the Aug. 17, 2011, death of Jaren Wayne Blacksmith, who died after he was left for several hours inside a locked car.
Authorities said the Blacksmith child, who was one of several children placed in Bird's foster care, died of hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature.
Prosecutors said outside temperatures reached 93 degrees on the day the boy died.
Bird initially told authorities that she left the boy in the car parked outside her house in Hardin because he was sleeping and he was a fussy child when he woke up. Prosecutors said Bird gave different accounts of how long the boy was left alone in the locked car.
Bird also said that she left the windows of the car down, but investigators determined the windows were up while the child was inside. There was also evidence that the boy tried unsuccessfully to escape.
The sentencing before Judge Blair Jones was held in Columbus, where Jones has his main office.
The judge rejected a request from Bird's court-appointed attorney for a 20-year suspended sentence. He described the boy's death as "unthinkable."
"We all know that you don't leave children in a car on a hot day," the judge said. "Is there anybody that doesn't understand that?"
Bird spoke briefly to apologize before she was sentenced.
"I'm really sorry for what happened to Jaren," she said. "I loved him very much and wanted to adopt him."
Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Streano called probation officer Darren Zent to testify at the hearing. Zent made the same recommendation of 20 years in prison, with five years suspended, as Chief Deputy County Attorney David Sibley.
Zent agreed with Streano when she said Bird has no prior criminal history, but the probation officer said he noted "significant allegations of child abuse" in Bird's past that were reviewed by state authorities but did not result in charges.
Bird previously operated a day care out of her home. She had two other foster children at the time of the Blacksmith child's death.
Streano also said that evidence showed that there was a gas leak inside Bird's residence that may have caused her to get ill. Bird left the child in the car with the intent to return shortly, but became ill inside and fell asleep, she said.
Jones called the child's death a "tragedy of unspeakable proportions" that "should never have happened."
The judge said he imposed the lengthy sentence hoping that it would send a message to society about the need to protect its most vulnerable members.
"The challenge for all of us is to be more protective of those who can't protect themselves," he said.