Ariz. mother claims state took son after disagreement over cancer treatment

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- A Florida infant was taken away from his mother for five months because he was underweight and she only wanted to feed him soy formula. A Connecticut girl was taken from her parents for one year after a disputed diagnosis.

Some parents and their advocates say the same thing is happening here in Arizona. They claim aggressive doctors and case workers are pushing parents out of the picture after the parents disagree with a diagnosis.
 
3TV started asking questions about a completely different case in October after it was widely publicized on social media websites. But the judge issued a gag order and no one from the state, even legislators, will discuss it publicly.
 
The confidentiality is designed to protect children and families, but it also hides these cases from public scrutiny.
 
Parents describe a system where they have to prove they are innocent.
 
One last prayer in a circle of supporters and Tonya walked into the juvenile court building to try and get custody of her son. The night before, Tonya flipped through a photo album showing herself and a beaming little boy. 3TV is not revealing his identity because he is in Arizona custody. She told us the story of adopting him from Guatemala.
 
"He just has a really miraculous story," she said. "He was 4 pounds when he was born and dropped to 3 pounds and there is no NICU and he was an orphan."
 
She uses the word “miracle” in the literal sense. A self-described Christian, Tonya believes God guided her to this boy, cured him of a brain injury and most recently, kept him alive during cancer treatments.
 
"And I'm just open about my faith," she said. "I don't know how not to be."
 
Tonya said her son was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia at Phoenix Children's Hospital in September 2011 and the doctor said the cure was a bone marrow transplant.
 
"I just didn't want him to have a bone marrow transplant because it is very invasive," she said. "It's very invasive, oftentimes fatal. I'll say 'invasive, oftentimes fatal.' They will say 'life-saving cure.'"
 
Tonya admits the doctor said this was a life or death situation but she didn't go back. The hospital called Child Protective Services, but she never connected with the case worker. She prayed, put her son on a strict organic diet and they went about life for 18 months.
 
In May 2013, a new case worker followed up and her son's leukemia symptoms had returned. She took him to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and agreed to restart chemotherapy.
 
"I was scared," she said. "And I'm like, 'I'll do anything, just don't take him.'"
 
But she continued to question the bone marrow transplant and by the end of June, her son was in state custody.
 
"I've been in this hospital 20 days," she recounted. "You told me you weren't taking my son. You lied to me. I agreed to the treatment. You said you weren't going to take my son and he said, 'I have all authority. Don't make this harder on yourself than it already is. Pack your stuff and leave.'"
 
Tonya says she hasn't seen her son since January.
 
Phoenix Children's Hospital can't address specific cases but sent 3TV a lengthy statement saying in part, "When physicians and other medical experts believe that the legally authorized representative's decision would endanger the child, we must balance the wishes of the LAR with what action is in the best medical interest of the child."
 
For the past 18 months, Tonya's been in a system of case workers, foster care and courts. As a part of the case, she says a state psychologist diagnosed her with a delusional disorder. She thinks it is because she believes in miracles.
 
"The public defenders have changed, the judges have changed, the CPS caseworkers change," she said.
 
She had seven different case workers. When asked if that is normal practice, Charles Flanagan, the director of the newly created Department of Child Safety, immediately said no.
 
Flanagan also cannot address specific cases but said they have reviewed recent claims that hospitals are pushing DCS to remove certain children. He said he's seen no evidence that is what happened and pointed out case investigators have to have evidence of abuse or neglect no matter who is reporting it.
 
"Yes, I do believe that parents have the right to refuse treatment when it is not going to harm the child," Flanagan said. "The problem is that only one side of these stories is told and, quite frankly, I haven't seen a lot of accuracy in those sides."
 
Attorney Lynda Vescio is not representing Tonya but handles cases in juvenile court where parents fight to get their children back.
 
"The problem is because we don't have the access to people who will second guess PCH, we don't have the ability to come in and challenge the 'findings of abuse,'" Vescio said.
 
Vescio believes too many cases end up in court, wasting time and money. And the parents are in a system where they have to prove their innocence.
 
"I've had multiple cases where the person who the department tasks with overseeing this family and making recommendations says this case should be dismissed, this family is safe and their supervisor who's never even met the family overrides them," she said.
 
Flanagan agrees that too many children are being removed from homes.
 
Even before the 6,500 uninvestigated cases discovered last year, Arizona had the third highest removal rate in the country.
 
"I do believe that we have to completely overhaul our system and our practices from the past," Flanagan said.
 
Which brings us back to Tonya's case.
 
"Everyone works for CPS," Tonya said. "The psychologist, the parent aides, the people who transport your kids."
 
She feels trapped with only her prayers that the court will let her son come home and she has second thoughts about the choices she made as she tried to save him.
 
If she had to do it over again, would she have completed the chemo and done the bone marrow transplant?
 
"Yeah, if I would have known that [he] was going to get taken from me, I would have never taken him off," she responded. "We've got to have a right to choose. How can you take that choice away from me? As his parent, when did that happen?"
 
Tonya said her son survived the transplant and is thriving. Her court proceedings are closed, but she simply told me there has been no resolution.