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Parent's Fate Tied to Life-or-Death Decision for Son

Ethics: Father who could face homicide charge won't let doctors turn off baby's life support.

April 16, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His eyes wide open but empty, baby Christopher lies in a stainless-steel crib, plastic tubes twisting from bedside machines into holes in his throat and belly.

On some days, his body twitches slightly. But for the most part, ever since being rushed to the hospital one week before Christmas, Christopher has lain motionless under rows of fluorescent lights, relying on machines to feed him and fill his tiny lungs with oxygen.

Doctors say the 7 1/2-month-old has suffered a devastating brain injury and will not recover. His mother wants to turn off the machines that keep Christopher alive and end what she considers his torture.

But Christopher's father has withheld his approval for almost four months. He's voicing his objections from a cell at the Orange County Jail, where he stands accused of felony child abuse for allegedly shaking Christopher and throwing him into his crib.

The father's attorney said he's hoping for a "miracle." But both Christopher's mother and authorities note that if Christopher dies, his father's charges would be upgraded from assault to homicide.

Now it's up to the system to determine Christopher's fate, balancing a parent's right to keep his child alive with the self-interest that might motivate that decision.

Orange County social workers have taken temporary custody of the baby, arguing that neither parent is fit to care for him.

Watching out for the baby's interests falls to an attorney appointed by a judge to represent him in family court. Harold LaFlamme struggles with the question. Each outcome, he says, is fraught with problems.

"If some third party makes a decision to turn off the juice, then are you giving the defendant parent a defense, 'I didn't kill the kid, the child's attorney did,' " he said. "As a general proposition, the juvenile courts prefer to let the parents make the decision. But that doesn't seem to be happening here."

Christopher was an underdog from the beginning, the son of a young, impoverished couple. His mother, Tamara Sepulveda, suffered a childhood brain injury that has slowed her speech and thought process, according to a report prepared by the county's Social Services Agency in the wake of Christopher's injury.

His father, Moises Ibarra, has a temper, the report states, that led him to shake the child out of frustration many times before Christopher suffered the paralyzing injury.

Ibarra and Sepulveda, both 23, met a few years ago while living on boats in a gritty marina beneath the Terminal Island Freeway near the Port of Los Angeles. The young couple had a volatile relationship, breaking up after loud arguments only to get back together, again and again.

Christopher was born Sept. 2 as Sepulveda sat on a toilet in the couple's apartment, according to the Social Services report. The new addition to the family caused the couple's arguments to intensify. Often, the subject of their squabbling was the rough way Sepulveda thought Ibarra was treating their son, she said.

On Dec. 17, their roommate heard another argument from behind the couple's closed bedroom door. There was screaming, then a loud thud, said the roommate, Michael Martinez.

Ibarra emerged from the bedroom of their Cypress apartment with a look of panic on his face, their roommate recalled.

"Help!" he said. "My baby's not breathing."

Christopher lay limp in Ibarra's arms. His skin had turned purple.

The parents gave conflicting accounts about what happened to their baby, according to the report by social workers. At first, Sepulveda told authorities that she went to change Christopher's diaper that night and found he was not breathing. Later, she changed her story, insisting that she watched her boyfriend shake the baby and then throw his body into the crib, causing his head to snap back.

Paramedics rushed the infant to La Palma Inter-Community Hospital in critical condition. A few days later, after the baby was moved to Children's Hospital of Orange County, a social worker and doctor called Sepulveda and her mother, Susan, into a small conference room for a meeting.

Christopher will need to be on a life-support system for the rest of his life, Sepulveda recalls the doctor telling her. He'll never hug you, never speak to you, the doctor told her.

The Social Services Agency report later described the baby as "neurologically devastated," unable to breathe on his own or respond to pain. The report quoted a doctor as saying: "The only thing he is doing is gasping, otherwise we would have pronounced him brain dead."

After hearing the grim prognosis, Sepulveda didn't take long to make her decision.

"I want him to go to heaven," she said.

The social worker said she'd need Ibarra's permission. But by this time, Cypress police had already taken the father to the Orange County Jail. A few days later, the social worker called to say that Ibarra wouldn't allow them to disconnect the machines.

And without the father's approval, the child would stay on life support.

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