Florida Teen Dies After Disabled Mom Loses Custody

PHOTO: Doris Freyre feeds her daughter Marie, before the 14-year-old was taken to a nursing home and died in state custody.
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The last time Doris Freyre saw her 14-year-old daughter, Marie, alive was around 1 p.m. on April 26. She watched helplessly as the disabled girl was strapped to a stretcher and sent by ambulance to a nursing home in Miami -- five hours away from their home in Tampa, Fla.

Florida child welfare authorities had deemed Freyre, a 59-year-old single mother with six herniated discs and carpal tunnel syndrome in both her wrists, unable to take care of Marie, who had cerebral palsy and suffered from life-threatening seizures.

Marie, who was in state custody despite pleas from her mother that she could better care for her daughter at home, died alone just 12 hours later on April 27 -- dehydrated and not properly medicated -- of cardiac arrest, according to a Miami Herald investigation.

Neither a nurse nor a social worker accompanied the screaming girl en route to the institution. And her mother was not allowed to ride with the girl, who could not talk and had a rigid medication routine.

"I started crying because I knew it would be too much for my daughter on that trip," Freyre, heaving with sobs, told ABCNews.com. "There was no doctor there to receive her, only nurses. They didn't send a report on how to give her food or meds. They didn't give her food or water until late hours of the night. My family has been destroyed."

An estimated 4.1 million parents have disabilities in the United States -- roughly 6.2 percent of all parents with children under 18, according to a report released in September by the National Council on Disability, "Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children."

They are the only parents who as a group must struggle to retain custody of their children solely because of their disabilities, according to council attorney Robyn Powell.

Removal rates where parents have a psychiatric disability can be as high as 70 to 80 percent; for an intellectual disability, 40 to 80 percent; and with physical disability, 13 percent, according to the report.

Parents who are blind or deaf also have extremely high rates of child removal and loss of their parental rights.

"We also find it interesting that two-thirds of the states' child welfare laws list disability in and of itself as ground for termination of parents' rights," said Powell. "They don't have to come in and say a parent even did anything bad."

The federal Americans With Disabilities Act mandates states to support these parents by providing "reasonable accommodations."

Freyre had received support through Medicaid for her daughter's care, but needed some additional help at night. An aide, who was later discredited, made a report to child welfare authorities that triggered the child's removal from the home.

Marie's case was bungled by bureaucracy, according to the lengthy investigation by the Miami Herald, which first reported the story.

A Tampa judge ordered Marie returned to her mother, but with 24/7 in-home nursing care.

"You are to be congratulated for caring for your daughter alone for 14 years. This is something that has to have been very, very difficult for you as a mother," Hillsborough Circuit Judge Vivian Corvo said at a hearing on the case March 30, 2011. "I was moved by how hard you've worked to take care of your daughter."

But state health care officials refused to pay for the in-home care, even though it cost less than institutionalizing Marie. Other agencies and health care officials either didn't communicate with one another or ignored the court, according to the Herald.

The girl lingered in Tampa General Hospital for 29 days before she was loaded on an ambulance stretcher screaming. Freyre was not allowed to go with her daughter to help with feeding and to keep her stable.

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