Teen Stays on Life Support ... for Now

The life of a comatose 16-year-old girl hangs in the balance after a court gave guardianship of her to her mother, who has said that she does not want the teen to be kept alive in her current condition.

The tragic saga of a comatose teenager whose parents are feuding over her fate continues despite a recent court decision in the case.

Javona Peters suffered irreparable brain damage three months ago during what doctors describe as a routine operation at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, leaving her in a permanent vegetative state.

Although she can breathe on her own, she is hooked up to feeding tubes, while her parents, who are estranged, debate over whether to keep her alive. The case bears similarities to that of Terri Schiavo, a politically charged drama that dragged on for seven years before Florida courts allowed her husband to have her life support removed.

On January 14, her mother, Janet Joseph, who has indicated a desire to cut off life support, was named the teen's guardian by a judge in Bronx Supreme Court.

That decision allows Joseph to pursue a medical malpractice suit against the hospital, but what it means for Peters' life is not clear.

In December, after learning about her daughter's condition Joseph told the New York Daily News: "I lost my only daughter. She was my life and now she's gone and I want her to go in peace." This week, however, Joseph's lawyers would not comment on whether she still favors cutting off life support for her daughter.

Javona Peters' father, Leonard Peters, does not want his daughter taken off life support, but his lawyer indicated this week that, for now at least, that is not an issue.

"She's living on feeding tubes and the question of about removal of life support has not arisen. It was early on but not at this present time," said Lucille M. Barbato.

A spokesman for Montefiore declined to comment.

Although Justice Stanley Green emphasized that his decision "has nothing to do with the continuation or discontinuation of life support," legal experts said they believe it may affect future decisions in the case.

"Preference for decision making might be given to the one who has custody," said David Leven, the executive director of Compassion & Choices of New York, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand choice at the end of life.

Sylvia Law, a professor of law, medicine and psychiatry at NYU Law School, said Monday's decision "might set the stage for the future," but she emphasized that it would be very difficult to remove life support under New York state law.

"My hunch is that under New York law, whatever the mom wants, they're not going to allow the discontinuation of life support," she said. "In other states, if the mother had custody, the mother would be allowed to make a decision."

But New York is one of the few states that requires a written directive explicitly stating the person's desire in a situation where they're on life support. In addition, the state makes it almost impossible for parents to pull the plug on a child.

"In almost every other state, parents can make decisions regarding health treatment, including removal of life support," Leven said. "In New York, they have not allowed those decisions to be made."

Since the parents are in disagreement, it's even less likely that Javona would be taken off life support.

"If the father was in agreement, if he was in complete agreement, then it would be much easier done," Leven said.

One of the few cases in which parents in New York succeeded in having their child removed life support involved a 3-year-old who was in a persistent vegetative state and couldn't breathe or eat on her own. The parents' lawyer, Elizabeth Benjamin, was able to obtain a court order allowing the removal.

"That was an extraordinary case," Benjamin said. "The kid was so medically futile and the parents and medical providers were all on the same side. There was no miracle at the end of the story."

Benjamin agreed that it would be much more difficult to obtain a court order in Peters' case.

"In this circumstance, where you have division in the family, it's very unlikely that a judge would go for that," she said.

Leven said that the case bears definite similarities to the Schiavo case. "It involves someone in a persistent vegetative state and there was a dispute between family members," he said.

Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, said he is praying for Javona.

"My heart goes out [for] the family," he said. "My whole idea is what's the rush? She's only 16 years old. There's hope. I hate to see them make such a quick decision on the end of life."

But he is convinced that she won't experience the same fate as his sister.

"New York has strong laws," he says. "If [Terri Schiavo] had lived there, she would still be alive."