Philadelphia care home resident died with paper jammed in windpipe, lawsuit says

Cheryl Yewdall spent most of her life at a Philadelphia care home for people with developmental disabilities. It was there, on Jan. 26, that the 50-year-old was found face down on the floor, in a pool of urine, suffocating on a large wad of paper that had been stuffed down her throat.

She died five days later.

No one in authority has said how a 6- or 7-inch paper towel or disinfecting wipe wound up in the trachea of a woman with cerebral palsy and profound intellectual disabilities. The medical examiner’s office said it could not determine the manner of Yewdall’s death, and a police investigation has yielded no arrests.

But an attorney for Yewdall's mother, in a new wrongful death lawsuit, casts suspicion on an unidentified staff member at Merakey Woodhaven — and suggests that Yewdall herself left a disturbing clue about what how she was treated at the place she called home for four decades.

"She was just so sweet and innocent and helpless, and she depended on them to care for her and love her and be safe," Yewdall's mother, Christine Civatte, said in a phone interview. "I just thought they would protect her."

In a written statement to The Associated Press, Merakey said it "denies any responsibility" for Yewdall's death, which it called "a serious and tragic incident." The organization said it has cooperated with state and local investigations.

"She was a valued member of the Merakey community, and we were honored to have had her in our care for more than 40 years," said Merakey, a provider of developmental, behavioral health and education services with nearly 700 locations nationwide.

Born three months premature, Cheryl Yewdall went to live at Woodhaven as a child. She loved nursery rhymes, doo-wop music and especially Buddy Holly’s "Peggy Sue" — whenever her mother put it on, Yewdall would smile, clap her hands and rock back and forth in her wheelchair.

Christine Civatte said she thought everything was fine.

But in January 2021, a year before her death, Cheryl suffered a broken leg that went undiagnosed, the lawsuit said. Then, after an X-ray confirmed the fracture, staff failed to place an immobilizer on her leg as required, telling a visiting physician weeks later they didn't know how, the lawsuit said.

And in a separate incident, from September 2021, Yewdall was reported to have a black eye and swollen cheek, which Woodhaven attributed to a fall, the lawsuit said.

Yewdall, who had limited verbal skills, often repeated words and phrases she heard other people say, a condition called echolalia. One day, her sister asked her to say, "Hi Daddy."

Yewdall's response, recorded by her sister on an iPhone, was chilling.

"Listen to me, a———. Settle down baby. I’m going to kill you if you don’t settle down," said Yewdall. "I’m going to kill you, a———."

The clear implication, according to James Pepper, the lawyer for Yewdall's mother, was that she was merely repeating what she'd heard at Woodhaven.

"Cheryl's recounting of what she heard previously, and the undisputed facts of what occurred to her during that yearlong period (before her death), match up," said Pepper, who included a transcript of Yewdall's statements to her sister in the lawsuit.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health threatened to terminate Woodhaven's license after Yewdall's death. In their review, regulators also found the care home denied prompt emergency treatment to another resident who fractured his hip, and failed to safeguard two residents with pica, an eating disorder in which someone consumes things that are not food, according to a state report.

The report showed that "Merakey had no effective policies in place to prevent its residents from engaging in pica behavior," Civatte's lawsuit said.

Though other Woodhaven residents struggled with pica, Pepper said, he doesn't believe Yewdall inserted a large disinfectant wipe in her own windpipe. She had a normal gag reflex and no history of pica, according to Woodhaven records reviewed by the Health Department.

"No one with a gag reflex within normal limits could have put a cleaning wipe ... into their trachea," Pepper said.

The lawsuit, instead, pins blame on someone at Woodhaven.

"Cheryl Yewdall’s lack of any history of engaging in pica behavior indicates that a staff member at Merakey Woodhaven placed the cleaning wipe in Cheryl Yewdall’s trachea," the lawsuit said.

Philadelphia police did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The state attorney general's office, which has jurisdiction on criminal neglect at nursing homes, declined comment.

The state Health Department returned to Woodhaven on Sept. 6 and lifted the care home's termination notice, concluding it had made "significant progress" in correcting problems.

Woodhaven sent condolences to Civatte after her daughter's death, but offered no information about how and why it happened, Civatte said. Staff invited her to pick up Cheryl’s belongings: six tubs of clothes, toys, dolls.

Civatte said she's still looking for answers.

"I need to know everything that happened. Every single moment," Civatte said. "I need to find out who found her. I need to know who did this."