March 20, 2008 -- For very sick little girls, sometimes a father can be the best medicine there is.
But the heartbroken family of a 10-year-old Nebraska girl diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, who is not expected to live through the end of the month, say the Federal Bureau of Prisons has denied the child's dying wish: that her incarcerated father be furloughed to be by his child's bedside when she dies.
Jason Charles Yaeger is serving the final year of a five-year sentence for a drug conviction in a minimum security prison camp in South Dakota, three and a half hours from his daughter, Jayci.
He has pleaded repeatedly with prison officials to honor the bureau's apparent policy of allowing furloughs and transfers under "extraordinary'' circumstances, but has been rebuffed time and again, he told ABC News in a telephone interview from prison today. He is scheduled to be transferred in August to a halfway house just an hour from his daughter's bedside, but prison officials have refused to transfer him early, he said.
Linda Asher, a spokeswoman for the bureau's Yankton, S.D., prison camp, declined to comment on Yaeger's situation, saying officials there wanted to make sure to protect Yaeger's privacy rights as an inmate.
But in a letter to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska — dated Feb. 20 and obtained by ABC News — a regional director from the Department of Justice wrote that "although Mr. Yaeger believes his daughter's severe medical condition constitutes 'extraordinary justification,' a review of his case reveals this specific request was … reviewed … and denied … because his circumstances were not deemed to rise to the level of extraordinary." The congressman had requested information about the denials of the furlough or transfer.
Late Thursday, after abcnews.com published this story, the Bureau of Prisons released a statement saying that officials there "have reviewed inmate Yaeger's request for a compassionate release and have determined his situation does not meet the criteria..."
'I Am Sorry'
The irony of Yaeger's dilemma is not lost on him — he's in a race against time, trapped in a place where he's got nothing but time. He said he fears he'll never see his daughter alive again, and he said he knows he bears the blame for that.
"I am sorry for what I have done,'' he said. "I'm not asking to get out of my sentence — just to go from one place of imprisonment to another so I can be with my family.''
"Jayci is sitting in a hospice fighting for her life and [her mother] thinks she is holding on for me to get there,'' an emotional Jason Yaeger said.
"She wants me and needs me and I want to be there with her on her last day."
Yaeger said he's grateful for one saving grace — that he gets to talk to Jayci daily.
"She can't talk back, but I talk to her every day just so she can hear my voice,'' he said. "She's my heart. She's my world. I tell her she's the strongest person I know … Yes, I've made some mistakes, but I've been a good father and my children have always been really close to me."
He said he's equally concerned about Jayci's sister, Shelby.
"Shelby needs both her mom and her dad while she watches her sister, her best friend, fight for her life," he said. "Shelby is going to need a lot of emotional support. I'm not asking the warden to do anything more than allow me to go to the state work-release center. They allow you to have a job there and support your family and spend time with them."
But Yaeger said it's up to the warden to decide whether an inmate has "extraordinary justification'' to alter the terms of his sentence.
"I don't know how he cannot see this as an extraordinary situation."
Vonda Yaeger was at her daughter's hospice bedside on Thursday and was not available for comment. But her sister-in-law Lori Yaeger told ABC News that Jason would do just about anything to be by his daughter's side, and that the strain of the father-daughter separation is agonizing.
"The time he has left to serve? The 11 months? He's offered to serve double that if they'll only let him be with his daughter when she dies,'' Lori said, her voice cracking.
Jayci, named for her father's initials, has been fighting for her life since she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 3, seven years ago. But in the past six months, she has taken a severe turn downward.
Doctors declared her condition terminal in October. Last month, they found they couldn't transfer her to a children's hospital closer to her Lincoln, Neb., home because they said she wouldn't survive the trip, Lori Yaeger said.
Jason Yaeger has been allowed three brief supervised visits since the terminal diagnosis last fall, and the visits have prompted remarkable, if short-lived revivals in Jayci's condition, she added.
"When he came home in February, Jayci was not expected to live through the night," Lori Yaeger said. "She improved throughout that whole week. Jason was allowed to accompany her to get a CAT scan. He was able to pick her up and put her on the [examining] table,'' she said, growing emotional.
"And this little girl who could barely lift an arm wrapped her arms around him and held on."
As Jayci's health has see-sawed from stable to the brink-of-death time and again in the past few months, her parents have been filing request after request for either a temporary furlough or at least a transfer to the halfway house facility an hour from the child's beside.
Jason Yaeger is currently serving time at South Dakota's most minimum security federal prison, a former college campus in the middle of town in Yankton. There is a two-foot fence surrounding the facility, and inmates move freely around the facility, he said.
For now, the Yaeger family uses the telephone as a lifeline, with Jason coaxing and soothing his daughter through the twilight of her young life.
"Jayci has maybe spoken ten works in the last three months,'' Lori Yaeger said. "She opens her eyes and when she looks at you it's as if she's looking through you.
"When Jason called last Friday, they put the phone to her ear. I don't know what the particular conversation they had that day was, but this little body that was so lifeless? This body that couldn't move? Tears started rolling down her face,'' Lori said. "She's still in there."
ABC News Omaha, Nebraska affiliate KETV and reporter Andrew Ozaki contributed to this report.