Christine Maggiore and Robin Scovill, the HIV skeptics whose 3-year-old daughter died of AIDS after they decided against having her tested for the virus, apparently will retain custody of their 8-year-old son, Charlie.
After reviewing recent test results from three labs showing that the boy is HIV-negative, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is expecting to close its child endangerment investigation, officials said Wednesday.
“We don’t have any specific reason to suspect that they are being negligent in caring for their son,” the agency’s medical director, Dr. Charles Sophy, said of the Van Nuys couple. “At this point, we are going to let these people get back to their lives.”
Maggiore, a high-profile leader in a small but outspoken movement that challenges the basic medical and scientific consensus about AIDS, has indicated in numerous media interviews that she does not believe the human immunodeficiency virus causes the deadly disease.
Although she learned she was HIV-positive in 1992, she has said that she did not, even while pregnant, take AIDS medications and that she never gave the children such medications. She has also said she never tested Eliza Jane for the virus and only did so for Charlie after her daughter’s death in May. She also breast-fed both children.
On a radio broadcast seven weeks before Eliza Jane’s death, Maggiore boasted of her children’s good health.
The girl died three weeks after coming down with apparent symptoms of an ear infection. The cause of death, according to a Sept. 15 report by the county coroner, was AIDS-related pneumonia.
The parents have said they are concerned about the finding and are sending the report to an outside reviewer. Maggiore has also said she has no regrets about her medical decisions and acted with “the best of intentions with all my heart.”
Studies have shown that one-fourth of pregnant HIV-positive women pass the virus to their babies when they do not take the drug AZT. Separate research has shown that the risk can be lowered to less than 2% if mothers receive prenatal care, take a combination of antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy and labor, and allow their infants to be given AZT in their first six weeks. Doctors believe that breastfeeding increases the chance of HIV transmission by up to 15%.
Sophy said the couple and their son met Wednesday afternoon with department officials at an office in North Hollywood. County officials wanted to see Charlie in person and discuss the accuracy of the HIV tests that Maggiore and Scovill’s lawyer submitted to the department earlier in the week, Sophy said. He added that the department called the three labs to verify the results of the tests.
“Predictably, it went well,” Maggiore said after the meeting. “None of this is making us happy. We had a pleasant meeting with kind people, and now I’m just focusing on the treasure hunt for Charlie’s birthday this Saturday.”
“People who know us are aghast at what we are having to go through,” she said. “If you know us, this would seem wholly unnecessary and offensive.”
Several ethicists and other experts consulted by The Times were critical of the parents’ medical decisions -- and those of three doctors who treated Eliza Jane -- but they did not fault county child welfare officials for deciding not to seek Charlie’s removal from the home. They said officials would be hard-pressed to show an imminent risk to the boy.
“Even if they conclude the parents were negligent in letting their daughter die, it is probably not sufficient to do anything about the other child,” said Thomas D. Lyon, a law professor at USC who specializes in child abuse. “Once it’s decided that there is no risk to a child, as there doesn’t ultimately appear to be in this case, the past is the past.”
David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medical School, agreed that the child welfare department was making the right call.
“Taking the child out of the family can cause irreparable harm,” he said. “You only want to undertake something like this if there is a clear and present danger, which there doesn’t appear to be.”
However, Magnus and others said the parents should be investigated on possible criminal charges for their handling of Eliza Jane’s care.
A criminal inquiry is underway, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, focusing on whether the parents were negligent.
But even if prosecutors filed charges and the parents were convicted, Sophy said, the child welfare officials’ position would probably stand. The department could reopen the case, he said, if the parents were incarcerated, and family and friends could not be found to care for the boy.
Meanwhile, the Medical Board of California indicated that it has opened an investigation into three physicians involved in Eliza Jane’s care.
The doctors treated her in the weeks before she died but none had the girl tested for HIV, according to interviews and medical records. Two of the doctors, Jay Gordon of Santa Monica and Paul Fleiss of Los Feliz, have long known Maggiore’s HIV status and that she breast-fed her children, interviews and records show.
The third, Philip Incao of Denver, prescribed antibiotics for the girl two days before she died, although he is not licensed to practice medicine in California, records show.
Gordon, who days ago expressed strong regrets for failing to press the parents to have Eliza Jane tested, said Wednesday that the case has made him more cautious in discussing alternative medical treatments with parents. Nonetheless, he said, he welcomes the medical board’s investigation and believes he will be found to have acted appropriately.
Fleiss could not be reached but said last week that he acted properly and did not believe he could have changed the outcome in the case.
Incao has not returned repeated calls in the last several days seeking comment.