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Doctors Made Mom Flee, Dad Says

Tina Carlsen hid her ailing son in a diaper bag and left the hospital rather than see him have surgery. She had been `pushed,' his father says.

July 08, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

TACOMA, Wash. — Standing just outside Pierce County Juvenile Court the other day, Todd Rogers conceded that it was probably wrong of Tina Marie Carlsen to have taken the couple's 9-month-old son, Riley, two weeks ago from a Seattle hospital, as the child awaited what doctors said would be lifesaving kidney surgery.

But maybe not, he said.

"It was all so confusing, I was 50-50 on whether we should do the operation," explained Rogers, 38, a construction worker.

"But Tina was really opposed to it, and I kept thinking, well, maybe she knows something the rest of us don't know. It was like a mother's intuition thing. It was something she just really felt in her soul. And a lot of the time, you know, that mother's intuition is straight-on correct."

Authorities say Carlsen, 34, was deeply in the wrong -- both to take her son from the hospital June 22, hiding him in a diaper bag and prompting a nationwide Amber Alert, and to oppose the surgery, which she said should be a last resort after naturopathic alternative measures were tried.

Riley Rogers was found two days later with Carlsen, quickly returned to the hospital and operated on last week. And Thursday, in a temporary resolution to part of the tangled case, a juvenile court judge here awarded custody to Rogers.

Carlsen, while awaiting prosecution in the kidnapping case, will be allowed several state-supervised visits a week with Riley, whom she is breast-feeding. Her lawyer said that Carlsen would pump her milk when she was apart from Riley, and that he was working to increase the frequency of her visits.

With a parent staunchly opposing doctor-ordered surgery, the case of Baby Riley has overtones of previous cases in which the opposition arose from religious convictions.

But in this case, religious issues aren't involved -- unless one believes that Carlsen and her many vocal supporters have a religious belief in the power of homeopathic medicine.

Those supporters say the decision to operate on Riley was a classic case of medical-establishment arrogance, and that doctors and law-enforcement officials have wrongly depicted Carlsen as a fanatic.

"This mother's rights were annihilated in this case," said Kelly Meinig, president of Citizens for Safe Birth, a nonprofit Seattle group that advocates alternative approaches to childbirth and child-care issues. "We had doctors saying, 'You have to do this. You have to do what we say or we will put you in jail.' "

Carlsen's supporters have established the website www.helpbabyriley.com.

For Rogers, the father, who said he was on friendly terms with Carlsen but is neither married to nor living with her, Carlsen's desperate decision to take her baby was the unfortunate result of doctors' continued unwillingness to listen to her concerns.

"Any mother in the world would have responded the way Tina did if they were pushed to that point," said Rogers, a tall, balding man with an intense gaze. "She was pushed into it, is what happened."

To cite one example, Rogers said, doctors and hospital officials were dismissive of Carlsen's request that their baby be given an ionic foot bath, a process in which he said electrodes are used to remove toxins from the body.

"We were both scared stiff of surgery, so we wanted to explore this first," recalled Rogers. "And we said to the doctors, 'OK, if it's smoke and mirrors, prove it's smoke and mirrors, and then we can move forward.' "

Rogers said the conflict could have been handled as "sort of an East-meets-West situation," and had unnecessarily turned into a debacle.

"It needed to flow like water, not like bricks," he said.

The baby was born with ill-functioning kidneys, doctors said. In the June 30 operation at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, doctors surgically inserted a catheter in him "in preparation for future dialysis treatments," according to a hospital statement.

Speaking to reporters just after the baby was taken, Children's medical director, Dr. Richard Molteni, said it was critical that he be returned for treatment.

"You wouldn't be able to spot him as an ill child, but his serious disease has been slowly progressing to a point where now there is a pressing need for more definitive medical care," Molteni said. "A minor change in his health -- dehydration or even a cold -- could quickly become a life-threatening situation for Riley."

Added Molteni: "We are committed to involving families in the healthcare decisions for their children. As with all patients, we met frequently with Riley's mom and dad to discuss his health and decide on a course for his care. We heard their wishes to include alternative-care treatments, and we provided them alternative therapies in the hospital, including an offer to bring a naturopathic physician into Children's to complement the traditional medical care."

Courts have given broad latitude to state authorities to determine a child's best interests when there is a severe conflict between doctors and parents over a life-threatening condition. In one commonly cited Wisconsin case in 1972, the court said the state may overrule a parent's decision that would "jeopardize the health or safety of the child."

Carlsen, who was released on $500,000 bail in her kidnapping case, mainly nodded and said "yes" in court Thursday, as Judge John McCarthy asked her if she understood the terms of the visitation agreement, reached by lawyers for her, for Rogers and for the state.

Carlsen deferred to her lawyer, Michael Shipley, for comment.

"Let me assure you," Shipley told the courtroom, "this mother has nothing but her child's best interests at heart."

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