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Dispute Over His Life Ends in a Quiet Wait for Death

In April, a court said a Cypress boy could be taken off life support. He's still in a coma.

May 10, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A cloak of silence has dropped over the controversial case of 20-month-old baby Christopher, a comatose Cypress boy whose mother wants him disconnected from life support.

What had been a very public case -- the presiding judge took the unusual step of opening a Juvenile Court hearing -- has suddenly become very private as it draws to a close with the end of appeals.

Lawyers involved, some of whom openly discussed the case in its early stages, are no longer available for comment. Though Superior Court Judge Richard E. Behn has asked lawyers to draw up an order that will effectively end Christopher's life, no one will say if he has signed it.

The brief and sad life of the comatose child connected to a ventilator and feeding tube has attracted national attention, largely because his death could result in murder charges against father Moises Ibarra, who is awaiting trial on charges of child abuse in the case. He fought an unsuccessful legal battle to keep the baby on life support.

Behn's order, if it comes, will mark one of the rare cases in California in which a juvenile dependency court judge responsible for a child's well-being has taken action to end that child's life.

"Thank goodness it doesn't happen often," said Janet Weinstein, who teaches child abuse and neglect law at California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"There's not one positive right answer in a case like this. The attorneys have to do the best they can without any firm legal ground. If there is firm ground here, it's that everything has to be done in the best interest of the child."

The case was heard in Juvenile Court, a setting in which most legal wrangling is done behind closed doors to protect the privacy of minors. But in the Christopher case, Behn opened the hearing on whether the boy could be disconnected and allowed to die.

Behn granted the mother's request in October but postponed signing an order until Ibarra appealed to the state 4th District Court of Appeal, which ruled in February that Christopher be removed from life support and wished him "peace and serenity."

The state Supreme Court declined last month to intervene in the case, and Ibarra -- for unknown reasons -- decided not to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing.

The case has been an emotional challenge for all involved. Born in September 2001, Christopher suffered brain injuries three months later after he was allegedly shaken and thrown into his crib by Ibarra in the couple's Cypress apartment.

Doctors said he had no chance of recovering from a vegetative state and could remain alive only by artificial means.

His bones have become brittle, and even in a coma Christopher feels pain when his diaper is changed, doctors have said.

His mother, Tamara Sepulveda, asked the hospital to disconnect life support so Christopher could "go to heaven," but the father objected.

The case landed in family court, where Behn took custody away from the parents, finding that the father was probably responsible for the baby's injuries and that the mother had not done enough to prevent them.

The judge also ruled that Sepulveda was incapable of deciding alone whether her son should live or die and assigned attorneys to look after Christopher's interests.

It is unclear when doctors at HealthBridge Children's Rehabilitation Hospital in Orange, where Christopher is receiving care, will act on Behn's order.

Coroner's officials -- who would handle the case as a possible homicide -- said Friday they have not been notified of a death.

Deborah Kroner, spokeswoman for the county's Social Services Agency, said hospital officials will convene an ethics committee that will include a clergy member, social worker, nurse, hospital administrator and medical director to review Christopher's medical file.

The group will submit a report that will then be reviewed by an independent physician who will recommend whether Christopher should be taken off life support, said Kroner.

"If the doctor makes the recommendation [to end life support], it will be discussed with Christopher's family. If they want to be present when it happens, the family and the hospital will agree on a time," Kroner said.

Chirco said Sepulveda wants to be present when her son's life is ended.

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Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.

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