Judge says parents can't treat injured wrestler at home

Posted: February 08, 2011

A judge on Monday refused to let the parents of a hospitalized Chichester High School wrestler treat his spinal injuries at home with alternative medicine but left unresolved the battle between his family and doctors over his care.

After a two-hour closed-door hearing, Delaware County child-welfare officials retained their temporary custody of Mazeratti Mitchell, 16, county Solicitor John McBlain said.

Judge Mary Alice Brennan could rule on the boy's treatment at any time, McBlain said. But doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital are likely to wait until Thursday before proceeding with surgery or medication so his parents can seek more medical advice, McBlain said.

The Boothwyn teenager has been hospitalized since he collided with another wrestler and was briefly paralyzed during a practice last week.

Vermell Mitchell, who previously described the injury to her son as a "bruised spine," said Monday that he can now sit up with assistance. She said last week that the doctors wanted to use rods, screws, and plates to stabilize his neck, worrying that any slip or fall might further damage his spine.

Hospital officials would not verify that or discuss his condition.

The county won temporary custody after Vermell Mitchell and her husband, Jack, rejected doctors' recommendations for their son, instead seeking to treat him at home with natural remedies, including herbal and physical therapies.

After receiving national attention in recent days, the couple left the courthouse in silence following Monday's hearing.

"We're trying to do what's best for Maz," said Michael Nix, the family's lawyer.

The case underscores the long-standing clash between medical professionals and parents who eschew, for religious or other reasons, mainstream medical treatment. Some experts say the new flood of information - and misinformation - from the Internet only heightens the debate.

"The advance of technology has really changed this conversation," said Shawn F. Peters, a religious-studies professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law. "I think people are educating themselves, and that's often a good thing, but they're also being exposed to crackpots."

Nearly every state has laws respecting parents' rights to determine medical care for their children - until the child's life is at stake.

"It's been pretty consistently in favor of the state in extreme cases," said James Dwyer, a professor of law at William and Mary Law School who has written extensively on the topic.

Pennsylvania's statute, for instance, says parents in such situations cannot be prosecuted for abuse, but it permits a county agency to "seek court-ordered medical intervention when the lack of medical or surgical care threatens the child's life or long-term health."

Vermell Mitchell says she is acting as she does not for religious reasons, but rather out of her long-standing aversion to conventional medicine. She said she holds a degree in naturopathy from the Trinity School of Natural Healing, a nondenominational Christian school in Indiana that allows students to earn degrees by mail.

Mitchell calls herself "Dr. Vermell" and maintains a Facebook page under the name "Apostle Vermell Mitchell." In recent years, she has launched two entrepreneurial ventures, Christians in Action and Christian Business Administration, from the same Folcroft address, state incorporations records show.

The address is also home to Mitchell Enterprises, a business where, according to its website, clients can get their taxes prepared, have documents printed, take classes in conflict resolution and vegetarian cooking, and buy handbags, electronics, and jewelry.

The Mitchells said they received a letter last week from the county's Office of Children and Youth Services after they had rejected doctors' recommendations. The letter said the county was seeking custody because "the well-being of the child was at risk."

The case was not the family's first interaction with the court system. Court records show Vermell Mitchell was arrested in 2000 on child-endangerment charges, although the details of the accusations were unclear. The charges were eventually dropped. The couple also filed for bankruptcy in 2002, records show.

Vermell Mitchell has said she wanted to use chlorophyll and other herbal compounds to help heal her son's spine.

Steve Novella, a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, said using just chlorophyll or other herbs to treat possible neck trauma could be devastating.

"What she's proposing is just blatant malpractice," said Novell, editor of the online journal Science-Based Medicine. "There is no herb that has the powerful anti-inflammatory effect that steroids do."

Stanley Plotkin said he went through similar battles with parents over care when he was chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"The idea that parents know the best for their children is an idea that to me is worth examining," he said. "I'm not sure that's always true."

Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4474 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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