CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A judge ruled Thursday that the state will retain custody of a 13-year-old girl who was taken from her parents after they refused to continue her cancer treatments and the cancer, which appeared to have been eliminated, returned.
Katie Wernecke, who has Hodgkin’s disease, will remain with Child Protective Services pending another hearing late next month, juvenile court Judge Carl Lewis ruled. Katie was scheduled to see doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston on Thursday.
Katie’s parents tried to convince Lewis during a custody hearing that they would not resist efforts to resume her treatment. But he refused to return the girl to their care, noting that Katie’s mother had previously fled with Katie and her father had rejected several doctors’ findings.
“I really don’t have a parent that I can say I can return the child to without putting that child in danger of her health,” Lewis said.
The girl was diagnosed in January after she was taken to an emergency room with what her parents thought was pneumonia. She received chemotherapy, and doctors recommended it be followed with radiation.
Fears of treatment
Her parents refused though. Edward Wernecke said he feared the radiation would put Katie at a heightened risk for breast cancer, stunt her growth and cause learning problems.
Earlier this month, Child Protective Services officials took custody of Katie after doctors said the Werneckes were risking their daughter’s life by refusing the radiation therapy. A scan last week revealed the cancer had returned, and Katie’s former doctor testified he thought its return was linked to the family’s refusal to go forward with the radiation.
Attorneys for the Werneckes said it was never the family’s intention to deny necessary medical treatment. Michele Wernecke testified she was willing to follow doctors’ recommendations, and her husband testified that Katie needed to be with her family.
The case has drawn national attention as a battle between parental rights and the state’s charge to protect children from abuse or neglect.
“This is a disappointing ruling,” said Daniel Horne, a family attorney. “The parents love their child. This is just a situation where the parents weren’t neglecting the child — maybe they were doing too much.”
Edward Wernecke said he had been “hoping that the judge would return her to our care.” But, he said, “I am glad that they did allow her to go to M.D. Anderson and to get a full evaluation.”
Edward Wernecke had said the dispute was simply a misunderstanding. He said Dr. Nejemie Alter, who diagnosed Katie’s illness and testified at the hearing, had led him to believe four rounds of chemotherapy were enough.
“After we finished with the four chemos, we thought that’s all there was,” he said.
Darrell Azar, a spokesman for CPS, said Katie would remain with a foster family and that the goal was to eventually reunite her with her family.
“The department is very pleased with the ruling primarily because it’s a win for Katie,” Azar said. “We have to do the prudent thing and make sure we see through this treatment.”
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