Amanda Montagu thought she was doing everything necessary to keep her 2-year-old girl healthy and happy.
Because her daughter was born with a defect that stunted the growth of her feet, Montagu figured that future health complications were possible.
At the hint of a cold, the 25-year-old mother of three would take her middle child to the doctor.
Montagu rushed Ginny Rose Hughes to the emergency room once in late June because she was running a high fever. She was treated for a urinary-tract infection, then sent back to her North Charleston home.
And Montagu thought she was doing right by Ginny by earning money as a waitress and studying at college in hopes of getting a better job.
Montagu never suspected that the baby sitter she hired would harm her disabled child, a crime that 18-year-old Alicia Stepp is now accused of. This spring, after questions of possible abuse were raised, Montagu dismissed them as health problems that doctors couldn’t quite figure out.
After Ginny died, Montagu still regarded accusations that her daughter was suffocated as nonsense.
The revelation that her initial impressions might have been wrong, she said, arose only when Stepp testified last week in a coroner’s inquest.
Stepp’s calm demeanor during a 911 call and hesitancy to perform CPR on the dying child perplexed Montagu and, for the first time, opened her mind to the possibility that abuse led to Ginny’s death.
When Stepp was arrested at the end of the inquest Friday night, Montagu left the courtroom and sat on the nearest bench. She cried.
“If I had a suspected anything, she wouldn’t have been in my house,” Montagu said. “But my kids liked her. They never said anything was wrong.”
As Coroner Rae Wooten’s procedures in calling the inquest came under fire by Stepp’s attorney, Montagu and a man who raised Ginny as his own said the proceeding served its purpose — to ferret out the events leading to the curly-haired girl’s death.
They called for a collaborative investigation involving the coroner, the North Charleston Police Department and prosecutors in further determining whether Stepp is guilty of homicide by child abuse.
Attorney David Aylor of Charleston said this week that Stepp wasn’t properly informed of her constitutional right to deflect questioning during the inquest.
Wooten cited laws that allow her to conduct the fact-finding mission without reading witnesses their rights. Much of the proceedings, she acknowledged, wouldn’t be admissible in a criminal trial, but the evidence clearly showed that Ginny died at the hands of another, she said.
“The ultimate decision,” Wooten said, “is a determination to be made in a court of law.”
Stepp, who remains jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail, declined The Post and Courier’s request for an interview.
Though she suffered a genetic defect that deprived her of feet, Ginny lived a normal life. She was aware that she was different, but it didn’t hold her back.
When her sister was enduring potty training, Ginny would sit on the toilet beside her. She longed to be a big girl too.
She volunteered to help her mother change her baby brother’s diaper.
She ran through the house on her knees and scurried across the grass when she went outside to play.
Ginny endured surgery last year that allowed her legs to be fitted with prosthetics. She started to get accustomed to them a month before her death.
Kenneth Treadway, 37, thought he was Ginny’s father until her hospitalization this year and the subsequent inquest raised doubts about the child’s paternity. But Treadway said he has no regrets in helping to raise the child at his North Charleston home until he was jailed late last year for failure to pay child support to another woman.
“I told everyone that Ginny was my little warrior,” Treadway said. “She was just as fast and active as any other kid.”
Treadway was still incarcerated in May, when Ginny was hospitalized for more than two weeks with seizures and a stroke. During a Department of Social Services hearing he attended because of the incident, doctors voiced concerns that Ginny had been physically abused, Treadway said.
But the problem, he said, was that no particular person was blamed. He did not suspect Montagu, knowing her as a loving mom who had never raised a hand against her children. But he had no reason to blame the live-in baby sitter either.
The children were returned to the care of Stepp and Montagu after an investigation found no solid evidence.
“I do wish that something else could have been done that put her in a safer place,” Treadway said. “Then maybe this would have turned out different.”
Montagu got to know Stepp this year after Stepp’s mother introduced the two. Stepp offered her services as a baby sitter at Montagu’s Brossy Circle mobile home as Montagu worked at a Waffle House and attended Trident Technical College.
But Montagu had no intimate knowledge of Stepp’s ability to care for children.
Stepp started helping out when Montagu gave birth to her third child, a son, in March.
Montagu never considered caring for Ginny to be draining — she was rarely fussy — so she didn’t expect that a baby sitter would find Ginny to be a hassle either.
After the springtime hospitalization, Ginny recovered. She took anti-seizure medicine daily and seemed happy again.
Conflict arose with her 4-year-old sister, who once picked up a Guitar Hero videogame controller and struck Ginny over the head.
In addition to the facial injuries that the plastic guitar inflicted, Montagu was aware of bruises that Ginny suffered when she fell.
But she didn’t know about bruising on Ginny’s back and head until the inquest, she said. Experts testified that no fall would have caused it.
Montagu also was perplexed by Stepp’s calm voice, which Montagu perceived to be a lack of concern, as Stepp called 911 on July 2 to tell dispatchers that she had found Ginny unresponsive.
After Ginny died two days later, Montagu quit her job, and she lost her home on the day of Ginny’s memorial service.
Under a DSS agreement, Montagu’s two remaining children now live with their grandfather. Montagu has missed her daughter’s fourth birthday and her infant son’s first attempts to crawl.
Montagu went back to school in August to get her mind off things. But the inquest, which answered some questions but raised others, brought it all back.
“It drives me crazy wondering if I could have done something,” she said. “I don’t want them to drop the case because I still don’t really know what happened.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.