Twice this summer, children who needed critical blood transfusions at South Florida hospitals were helped not only by doctors, but also by fast-acting prosecutors and judges.
The doctors sought emergency state intervention after parents balked at the transfusions on religious grounds. As in most of these cases, the parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, whose tenets forbid blood transfusions, even when lives are at stake.
"I honestly don't understand it, but I don't question other people's religious beliefs," said Broward assistant state attorney Jim McLane, who handled the most recent case. "Somebody has to protect the best interests of the child."
State Attorney's Offices – which usually prosecute crime – have intervened for minors in these cases since 1993, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled it was a conflict for hospitals to directly petition judges.
"The way I look at it, at least it creates a forum for the issues to be heard," said Maureen Hackett, a prosecutor who handles these cases for the Palm Beach County state attorney's office
The legal threshold for a child's court-ordered transfusion over parental objection: "Reasonable medical certainty of imminent death."
On Aug. 10, Broward Circuit Judge Michael Kaplan ordered a transfusion for a 4-year-old girl undergoing brain tumor surgery at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood.
On June 24, a 3-year-old boy with pneumonia and a blood-clogged spleen triggered by sickle-cell disease at Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale had a transfusion ordered by Circuit Judge Susan Aramony.
"My son's doing fine – that's over with," the boy's father, Rock Sanozier of Plantation, told me last week. "I really don't have anything more I want to say about it."
I haven't been able to reach the girl's parents for comment, so I don't think it's fair to identify them. Her older sister said the girl was back home in North Miami Beach and doing well after the benign tumor was removed, and that she didn't get the transfusion.
McLane said it was his understanding that the transfusion was performed. The hospital wouldn't give me any details or updates, citing federal privacy laws.
Hackett said the last court-ordered transfusion in Palm Beach County was in December, a teen with anemia who needed it for dangerously low hemoglobin levels.
McLane said the most recent case featured a typical dynamic: "The parents told doctors they would object to the transfusion, but wouldn't object to a court order compelling it." The parents didn't testify or try to disuade the judge from acting.
That split approach, which strikes me as shrewd, allows parents to ultimately get their children proper medical care, but also follow the rules of their faith.
"They want the state to get involved to save their kid, so they don't have to answer to their congregation," said Broward prosecutor Scott Raft, who has handled roughly a dozen of these cases over the last three years.
Hackett said one former Palm Beach County judge used to tell conflicted parents, "This is on my conscience now, not yours."
In the Sanozier case, the father actively fought the proceedings.
Rock Sanozier declined my request for a videotaped interview to explain his religious beliefs – and how he could almost lose his son for them. Testifying telephonically before Judge Aramony in June, he expressed concerns that the transfusion would alter his son's personality.
"Jehovah's Witnesses have a sincerely-held belief that this procedure does something to your soul," said Raft. "But I can't wrap my head around the situation – that you could let your own child die."
As the parent of a 5-year-old girl, I can't wrap my head around it either.
I tried getting in touch with several local Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Halls for further comment, to no avail. The Jehovah's Witnesses website, http://www.watchtower.org, cites a New Testament command to "abstain from blood" (Acts 15:28, 29) on its page about transfusions.
The page also warns: "Though many people view them as lifesaving, blood transfusions are fraught with risks. Each year thousands die as a result of transfusions, multitudes more get very sick."
I'm usually not a big fan of government intervention on personal/family matters. I'm pro-choice on abortion and hated when the Florida Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush interfered in the forced feeding of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo.
But these situations are different. While I respect the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses to follow their faith and raise their children as they see fit, it's also the state's obligation to protect minors.
These cases involve children without fully formed brains, who haven't consciously made their own grown-up choices about religion. Their parents' beliefs are being imposed on them, even with death as a potential consequence.
I know the Bible says to honor thy mother and father.
But in these cases, I'm thankful a judge has the power to butt in and give kids a reprieve on life.