Do-not-resuscitate case heard by court

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BANGOR (AP) – Maine’s supreme court is considering a case that asks if the state has the right to make an end-of-life decision for a child in foster care, or whether that right remains with the child’s parents.

The Department of Health and Human Services last fall was granted a do-not-rescusitate order for a brain-damaged baby who was allegedly injured by his father. The boy’s parents, however, say they should make that decision, not the state.

Attorneys on Monday presented their arguments before the Supreme Judicial Court. Nationwide, only a handful of courts have addressed the issue.

The case revolves around an 8-month-old boy referred to in court documents as Matthew W., who suffered irreversible brain damage when he was 6 weeks old. His father, 22-year-old Matthew L. Williams of Bangor, has been charged with aggravated assault for causing his son’s injuries.

If convicted, Williams faced up to 10 years in prison. If the child did not survive, Williams could be charged with manslaughter.

Four days after the baby was injured in late September, District Court Judge Jessie Gunther granted a do-not-resuscitate order to the Department of Health and Human Services when she gave custody of Matthew W. to the agency.

The child’s father objected to the DNR order and brought the issue to the state supreme court. The child’s mother also has filed documents objecting to the state’s making end-of-life decisions for her child.

Janice Stuver, an attorney for DHHS, told the court that the DNR order was requested because resuscitating Matthew would be “painful and inhumane.” The parents’ refusal to consent to the order was “contrary to the welfare of the child,” she argued.

Doctors at Eastern Maine Medical Center, who have said the boy suffers from “shaken baby syndrome,” believe it is impossible for him to recover and “be alert, interactive or playful,” according to court documents.

Due to the child’s injuries, his brain does not grow normally, according to court documents. Because of the lack of brain growth, there is a space between Matthew’s brain and his skull.

Carolyn Adams, a Bangor lawyer representing the baby’s father, told justices that a DNR order has the potential to end all other parental rights.

Therefore, she said, a separate hearing should be held to determine why the department rather than the parents should make such a decision.

Adams said the court should set standards for lower courts to determine when the right to make end-of-life decisions should be taken away from parents when a child is in state custody.

She suggested that some of those situations might include when the act of keeping the child alive is abusive, when the parents don’t agree on the child’s medical care, when the child has been abandoned by both parents, or when the parents are also minors in state custody.

“Your position is that a parent should be able to (keep a DNR order from going into effect) even if that parent is trying to avoid a homicide charge?” Justice Donald G. Alexander asked Adams, referring to the criminal charges against Matthew’s father.

“Yes,” she replied.

There is no timetable for the court to make a decision, but it is considering the case on an expedited schedule.

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