June 14, 2010 -- An Idaho couple's lawsuit pitting them against a Boise hospital that ordered spinal tap on their newborn against their wishes could lead to a revised look at parents' federal right to govern their child's medical care.
Eric and Corissa Mueller have waited six years to get their say in court and allege that their constitutional rights as parents were violated simply because they preferred not to let a doctor stick a needle in their 5-week-old daughter's spine without more information.
But in Idaho, as in many other states, the state can seize a child in a hospital setting if authorities believe the child is being neglected or abused. In the Mueller's case, child protection services was called on a medical neglect accusation when Corissa Mueller declined the spinal tap on baby Taige against their doctor's recommendation.
"She thought she had an understanding with the doctor. That's the particularly frustrating thing," said Terrence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which has represented the Muellers in their lengthy court battle. "The next thing she knows there's two policemen holding her on each arm."
If the Muellers win their case, now in the early days of what is expected to be a 4-week trial, it could force states to develop more stringent standards for seizing a child in a hospital setting.
"This has to do not with the reporting of abuse and not the grounds for possible abuse," Pell said. "It just has to do with what the state has to do before it assumes custody."
The spinal tap was recommended to test for meningitis by Dr. Richard MacDonald after 5-week-old Taige had been rushed to St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in 2002 with a fever of 100.8.
After agreeing to a battery of tests and treatments, including fluids, x-rays and blood work, Corissa Mueller declined the spinal tap, according to the original court complaint, preferring to wait until the initial test results came back before consenting to a procedure that carries a series of health risks. MacDonald had told her, court documents say, that there was only a 5 percent chance Taige had meningitis based on her symptoms.
"She thought that it would be painful for the child and along with the lumbar puncture they have to give steroids to reduce brain swelling," Pell said. "She just thought that was possibly not necessary."
When the baby's fever eventually dropped a short time later and she appeared to be improving, Corissa Mueller began asking about taking her home, according to court documents.
But the hospital, the Mueller's allege, had immediately contacted child protection services, alleging neglect. As two police officers detained Mueller at the hospital, CPS ordered the spinal tap for baby Taige. It came back negative.
MacDonald's attorney, Richard Hall, declined to comment on the specifics of the case or the trial, but said that his client "was doing what he could do in the best interest of Taige Mueller."
Mueller Lawsuit Will Not Challenge Abuse Laws in Religious Cases
The legal battle over Taige's spinal tap began six years ago when the Mueller's filed suit against MacDonald, St. Luke's, the city of Boise and and others. It has since gone through a round of summary judgments and appeals.
One of the Mueller's chief complaints was that the hospital's magistrate was not involved, Pell said, and Eric Mueller, at home with the couple's older sons, was never called for consent.
MacDonald, according to the complaint, also gave the baby steroids and antibiotics against Mueller's wishes.
MacDonad's legal team said in a legal brief that the doctor had "no choice but to advocate for this defenseless newborn patient."
"Dr. MacDonald did not have the luxury to play Mrs. Mueller's game of chance and roll the dice with Taige's life and well-being," the brief stated.
Once detained by police, Corissa Mueller was also not allowed to make any phone calls, Pell said, until after the spinal tap had been performed. Given a phone, she immediately called her husband. She was allowed to see her child for 2 1/2 hours to nurse Taige, but the state retained custody.
The Muellers were given custody of Taige within a week and the neglect case was dismissed.
Several sets of parents have made headlines in recent years for refusing basic medical services for their children, including chemotherapy and antibiotics, citing religious reasons.
In 2009, Minnesota mother Colleen Hauser set off a national manhunt after she fled with her cancer-stricken teenage son to avoid the boy's court-ordered chemotherapy.
Once back in Minnesota, Hauser agreed to traditional medical treatment to retain custody of her son and was not charged for fleeing.
But Pell said the Muellers' case does not aim to change state's abilities to go after parents who deny their children life-saving care. Taige's life was not in danger and Corissa Mueller simply wanted to wait for more information before proceeding.
"We have set up this case so it leaves all of that law unaffected," he said. "These people are not claiming any religious exemption."
Pell said that even if they win their case, the Center for Individual Rights isn't expecting policies to change overnight. But he is hoping a win would at least set a precedent that would make lawmakers and medical experts take notice.
"Once the legal principle is in play," he said, "it will start to get attention."
Now 8 years old, Taige is a healthy little girl who doesn't fully understand how her start in life has kicked off what could become a national debate.
"They're doing great," Pell said of the family. "The mother, I think, was traumatized by this, but the child came through it just fine."