Girl With Cancer Reunites With Family as State Gives Up Custody
Published: November 4, 2005
HOUSTON, Nov. 3 - Promising to seek the best cancer treatment possible for their 13-year-old daughter, Katie, her parents, Edward and Michele Wernecke, reclaimed her from a hospital here on Thursday, reuniting a family separated by a judge's order five months ago.
"We're grateful Katie's going to be home with us," Mr. Wernecke, a rancher from Corpus Christi, said outside the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
He deplored their depiction by the Texas authorities as negligent parents simply because they objected to the radiation treatment that doctors said their daughter needed for Hodgkin's disease.
"We will do our best to get the finest treatment in the world to get her cured and back to normal again," Mr. Wernecke said.
In addition to continuing chemotherapy for Katie, he said, they are taking her to a nutritional clinic in Kansas next week for evaluation and possible vitamin C treatments.
Katie had little to say. Life away from her family, she said, has been boring. Asked how her pets were doing, she said, "I haven't been home lately, so I don't know."
On Monday, a second judge overturned the ruling in June that placed Katie with a foster family and enforced a course of chemotherapy. Child protection authorities had accused her parents of thwarting her treatment by hiding her on a relative's property. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services won a court order to place Katie with a foster family and also removed the couple's three sons for a time.
With the girl's prognosis worsening and the Werneckes arguing that their parental rights to decide what was best for her had been grossly violated, the state's supervisory role was ended and Katie was returned to her parents on the completion of her latest round of chemotherapy at M. D. Anderson.
Coming on the heels of the Terri Schiavo right-to-die furor, this case raised questions of parental rights and responsibilities in their children's medical care. Peter Johnston, president of the Texas Center for Family Rights in Rosenberg, said the Bureau of Child Protective Services had "intervened way too often in way too many families."
But Darrell Azar, communications manager for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which includes the child protective bureau, said there were "clearly documented reasons" that the state had been given custody of Katie.
But now that the state had been removed, Mr. Azar said, "we're hopeful the family will continue to do what is best for Katie."
Mr. Wernecke said Katie's recovery chances during her treatment "went from 80 percent to 90 percent down to 20."
He declined to discuss her prognosis further, saying: "We're not talking about that today. Today is a happy day."
Among the options the family is exploring, he said, are intravenous vitamin C treatments at the Center for the Improvement of Human Functioning in Wichita, Kan., where they have an appointment on Monday.
Dr. Ron Hunninghake, chief medical officer of the center, said in a telephone interview that the outpatient center, established 30 years ago, did not offer alternative medical treatments but rather integrated nutritional therapies into traditional medicine. He cited a recent study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found that vitamin C administered intravenously rather than orally can kill some cancer cells.
Mrs. Wernecke said that Katie first began feeling ill in the summer of 2004 and that last winter she had trouble breathing and developed a fast-growing lump on her neck that led to the diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease, which originates in lymphatic tissue. She was given chemotherapy, but when doctors urgently prescribed radiation, the Werneckes balked. Mr. Wernecke said then he was concerned about the harmful effects on her growth and development and sought other opinions.
At Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Dr. Nejemie Alter, a specialist in pediatric oncology-hematology, said that there were no other options for Katie and that the situation was life threatening.
When Mrs. Wernecke hid Katie on a relative's property, Dr. Alter complained to the family services agency, which obtained an order from Judge Carl Lewis removing her from her home. He placed her with a foster family in Houston, where her chemotherapy treatments could be enforced and monitored. She was also assigned a guardian and a lawyer.
Dr. Alter's office said he was no longer involved with the case and had no comment.
After Katie's removal, social workers, saying the family's ranch house was unfit, also obtained an order removing the three sons, 14, 5 and 2, to a children's home. They were returned under Judge Lewis's order less than two weeks later.
Judge Lewis was replaced on the case by Judge Jack Hunter, who was more receptive to complaints by the Werneckes' lawyer, James A. Pikl, that their rights had been violated and that there was no practical way of enforcing any course of treatment that Katie, as well as her parents, vehemently opposed.
Judge Hunter, in his ruling that returned Katie to the family, declined to vacate Judge Lewis's rulings faulting the Werneckes for medical neglect. Mr. Wernecke said the family would apply to the State Supreme Court for that relief.
He was in the lobby of the cancer center when his cellphone trilled with a call from a son at home. "Yeah," he said, "we're going to bring Katie."