This past spring, a SWAT team raided the home where Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh were sleeping with their four young children, releasing a “flash-bang” grenade that critically injured their toddler. Now, the family says they’re facing about $1 million in medical bills that they aren’t able to pay.
The Georgia SWAT team was trying to locate Bounkham Phonesavanh’s 30-year-old nephew, who was suspected of selling methamphetamine. After being tipped off by a confidential informant, drug agents got a “no-knock” search warrant, a controversial police tactic that allows officers to burst into private homes unannounced. After struggling to beat down the door of the home with a battering ram, they threw in a grenade; it landed in the 19-month-old toddler’s playpen.
The child, nicknamed “Bou Bou,” suffered serious burns and slipped into a medically induced coma after the grenade exploded. He was in a coma for five weeks, and had extensive surgeries to repair his face and torso. Doctors are still trying to assess whether he will have lasting brain damage.
And while Bou Bou was fighting for his life, his family was accumulating significant medical debt from his intensive treatment. The Phonesavanhs have set up a online fund to solicit donations to help pay the bills, which they say are approaching the $1 million mark.
“Before this we didn’t owe anybody anything,” Alecia Phonesavanh told ABC News this week. “And now after all this, they have completely financially crippled us.”
Officials in the Georgia country where the raid occurred maintains have refused to pay the Phonesavanhs’ bills, saying they are legally prohibited from doing so. A section of the state constitution stipulates that local government cannot “grant any donation or gratuity or to forgive any debt or obligation owing to the public.”
The Phonesavanh family’s ordeal has sparked a national conversation about the over-militarization of the police and the lasting health consequences of the tactics that officers use during what are supposed to be non-lethal operations. It’s not uncommon for SWAT teams to inflict injury on innocent bystanders when they raid homes looking for drugs. According to the ACLU, the vast majority of SWAT raids are conducted on search warrants for drugs, even as the War on Drugs has increasingly lost support among political leaders and the American public.
Flash grenades in particular have a track record of harming children. In 2012, a 12-year-old girl in Montana suffered first degree burns after police detonated a flash grenade next to her bed. In 2010, a 7-year-old girl was killed in Detroit during a SWAT raid; her family says she was burned with a grenade before she was accidentally shot by the police.
“They made the mistake,” Alecia Phonesavanh told ABC News; there were no drugs or weapons found inside the home after the SWAT raid. “And we got the backlash of everything.”