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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

A Painful Judicial Decision

May 18, 2003

Despite the absence of any hope for Christopher Ibarra's future, his father wanted him alive.

Christopher was 20 months old. He had spent most of his life in a vegetative coma. His mother, Tamara Sepulveda, had instructed doctors to cut off her son's ventilator and feeding tube. Her son's bones had grown so brittle during all those bedridden months that they had broken during diaper changes. Christopher was comatose, doctors said, but could still feel pain. And he would never get better.

Even so, his father, Moises Ibarra, had a reason for fighting the mother's wishes in court. Ibarra is accused of causing Christopher's injuries by shaking and beating him and throwing him into his crib when the baby was 3 months old. Christopher's death triggered murder charges Friday.

The Solomonic decision came before Superior Court Judge Richard E. Behn. Parents generally get to decide on their children's medical treatment, but in such a case as this, which parent should have the final word?

There were no good choices. Christopher was born not in a clean, quiet hospital, but as his mother sat on a toilet in the family's Cypress apartment, a Social Services report said. Their home was a place of tumultuous arguments that Sepulveda said frequently revolved around her belief that Ibarra mistreated his son.

Behn wisely decided: Neither parent would choose Christopher's fate. There was plenty of evidence that Ibarra had abused Christopher, he said, but also evidence that Sepulveda, who is developmentally disabled, had not adequately sheltered the newborn from that abuse. Christopher lacked parents who could responsibly make this decision in the baby's best interests, Behn said.

The judge took custody from them, assigned attorneys to look after Christopher's interests and courageously took on himself the kind of task that no one wants. Doctors should remove the life support, he said, and let Christopher die.

Because of this painful judicial decision, Christopher was finally accorded dignity in death. His ventilator and feeding tube were unhooked during the quiet early hours of a weekend morning, in a bright rehabilitation hospital for children.

The sad story of his short life grieved people nationwide who had heard about the case but never met him, including the justices of the 4th District Court of Appeal, who agreed with Behn about the baby's fate and wished Christopher "peace and serenity."

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