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Eye On Boise

9th Circuit to hear case in Boise Tuesday

The case of a five-week-old Boise baby with a slight fever who was brought to a local emergency room and then removed forcibly from her family's custody after the mom refused to consent to a spinal tap and antibiotics goes before 9th Circuit judges on appeal Tuesday in Boise; a three-judge panel of the appellate court will hold a special sitting in Boise for the first time since 2003. It turned out the infant just had a cold. The parents sued St. Luke's hospital and the city, whose police officers removed the child from her mother, but a jury sided with the hospital and the city. Now the parents have appealed. Click below for a full report on the case from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Appellate court in ID set for parent rights case
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is in Boise to hear arguments in a lawsuit that pits parents against doctors and police for the right to determine a child's medical care.

Arguments in the case brought by Corissa and Eric Mueller against the city of Boise and St. Luke's Regional Medical Center are set for Tuesday in federal court.

The case began in 2002, when Corissa Mueller took her 5-week-old daughter to the emergency room because the child was running a slight fever. She believed little Taige had a cold — the rest of the family had just gotten over a virus — but doctors feared the baby might have spinal meningitis, a potentially deadly infection of the spine and brain.

The lawsuit says doctors insisted on giving the baby an invasive and painful spinal tap and immediately starting antibiotics, but Mueller refused. Soon police were called, the baby was whisked away, and Mueller was kept in a room alone, away from her baby and a phone, for more than an hour.

Spinal taps have risks, including the possibility of paralysis, infection and severe headaches. Spinal meningitis has risks as well, and if left untreated in an infant it can quickly lead to brain damage or death.

Taige made it through the spinal tap fine, and the test results showed she would have been just as fine without it: She really did have just a cold.

Still, the repercussions of that contentious night linger, leaving all involved with a chronic legal headache.

The Muellers sued in 2004, contending that police, doctors and other officials violated their constitutional rights by interfering with the medical decisions involving Taige.

They won a partial victory in 2007, when U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found parents — not the state of Idaho — must make the decision between taking a chance on the course of a disease or administering a risky medical treatment for a child.

"A difficult choice — a choice that poses risks either way — should never trigger intervention by the state," Winmill wrote in the ruling. "It is now the grim duty of the parents to make the call."

Winmill left several issues for a jury to decide, including whether police and state child protection officials reasonably believed that the girl was in imminent danger and whether the doctor exaggerated the risks of foregoing treatment to get the police to seize custody.

A jury heard the remaining issues in the case in 2010 and spent almost a week in deliberations before siding with doctors, police and social workers. The jury found that the defendants didn't violate the Muellers' constitutional rights, and that they weren't liable for interfering with the mother's custodial relationship with her daughter.

At the time, J. Walter Sinclair, the attorney representing the hospital, said the ruling was a vindication for the hospital, doctor and police department, and he noted that everyone involved was just trying to do the right thing for Taige.

Several issues are up on appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court, including whether Winmill honored his own decision affirming parental control over a child's medical care in subsequent rulings on the case.

"Although the court below wrote a number of decisions, some quite long, it left huge gaps in its analysis. Time and again, it would set forth a legal standard and then simply refuse to apply it," the Muellers wrote in their appeal to the 9th Circuit.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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