A Florida couple who lost their 9-year-old son to cancer earlier this year are in the midst of a legal battle with the state Department of Children and Families, saying the agency’s actions led to the boy’s death and that bureaucrats discriminated against them because they’re Christians.
Debbie and Richard Brand’s son, Ricky, suffered from Ewing’s Carcinoma, or bone cancer, which was diagnosed in January. After the diagnosis, doctors urged both radiation and chemotherapy for Ricky, but his parents opted against the treatment.
“They wanted us to do aggressive radiation and chemotherapy, but told us it wasn’t going to do anything. It had already spread,” Debbie Brand told WAWS-TV of Jacksonville, Fla.
“We were just going to put our faith in God, we were going to believe,” Richard Brand told WTEV-TV. “We were going to spend as much quality time with him as we could.”
In June, the Florida Department of Children and Families, or DCF, contacted the Brands saying someone had submitted a complaint that the parents were withholding medical treatment from Ricky. After discovering the boy had seen a doctor and had blood transfusions, the agency closed the case.
Then, on Aug. 9, a DCF investigator identified as “Mr. Castro” in a court filing, came to the Brands’ home claiming there had been another complaint received. That visit started a chain of events that resulted in Ricky’s death within hours.
DCF alleged the Brands, who live in Yulee, Fla., were denying Ricky pain medication based on their religious beliefs, a charged the couple strongly denies. Debbie Brand, in fact, kept a detailed journal of what pain medication was given to her son, in what dose and when. The Brands also claim religion was not a factor in their painkiller regimen.
Ricky’s parents say that during the August visit, Castro talked to the boy and asked him about pain medication. The Brands claim Ricky told the government agent he was not in pain and was never denied pain relievers.
That’s when the ultimatum came, the Brands explained. The government worker told the parents they must take Ricky to the hospital for an evaluation and that if they didn’t, DCF would take him – forcibly.
Feeling like their hands were tied, the Brands reluctantly carried Ricky to their van to go to the hospital after first giving him the painkiller Delaudid.
“I said, ‘Ricky, we’re going to have to take you to the hospital because they want to evaluate you for pain,’” Richard Brand recalled.
On the way to the hospital, Ricky stopped breathing. The Brands prayed for their boy and called 911. He began breathing again shortly but then, after emergency personnel helped the couple bring him back to his own bed, the boy stopped breathing again. Ricky was dead.
“We didn’t get to hold his hand, pray with him, talk with him,” Richard lamented.
A post-mortem incident report from DCF, released after an initial request for documents filed by the Brands’ attorney, says nothing about an ultimatum given to the couple. Instead, it simply states, “The parents agreed to take the child to the hospital.”
DCF has said little to the media about the case, stating only: “Whenever a child dies, it is a tragedy we feel deeply; however, the department does not discuss pending litigation.”
Said Anne Phillips of the agency: “Our investigators are not medical personnel, so if there’s a report alleging medical neglect, it would have to be evaluated by a doctor.”
While DCF says a doctor could be brought to the patient for such an evaluation, the Brands claim they begged the caseworker for such an arrangement but were denied.
“I told [the caseworker] if he made us bring [Ricky] to the hospital it was going to kill him,” Richard said. “He wasn’t going to be able to make it.”
Stated the boy’s father: “What do you do when you’re forced? Either they take him, or we take him.”
The DCF report indicates it was Ricky’s hospice physician, Dr. Phyllis Hendry, who contacted DCF that August day, requesting the boy be taken to the emergency room for a pain evaluation.
The police report states Hendry initially refused to sign the boy’s death certificate, saying his parents were “under-medicating him because of their religious beliefs.”
During the confrontation with Castro at their home, the Brands called Hendry and asked that a doctor be sent to their house to evaluate Ricky. According to the court filing, however, Hendry refused, saying only that a bed would be ready for the boy at the hospital.
Debbie Brand says in a phone conversation with Hendry a few days after Ricky’s death, she told the doctor: “The blood of my son is not on my hands; it’s on y’alls.”
Larry Klayman of Walter & Haverfield is representing the Brands legally.
“DCF thought they knew better,” Klayman explained. “They caused the death of a young child and caused a tremendous amount of emotional distress.”
While DCF initially fought the disclosure of documents related to Ricky’s case, two were recently released to Klayman.
A “Bereavement Assessment” drafted by the hospice claims the Brands believed God would “not allow patient to die” and that Debbie Brand had said Ricky “believed he was cured.”
The report also alleges Ricky’s parents “coached” him on how to answer questions about pain, a charge the Brands deny. The facility, Northeast Florida Community Hospice, also claims some members of the family’s church, The Bridge, opposed the Brands’ decision not to have Ricky undergo traditional cancer treatment.
Says the assessment about the period prior to Ricky’s death: “The family is in denial about the severity of patient’s disease and level of his pain.”
The assessment refers to religion many times, saying at one point that Ricky’s father stated “that he did not want anyone to come into the home or have contact with patient who wasn’t a ‘believer.’”
The report’s writer also claimed the Brands said if Ricky were to die, “it was because of the Enemy (presumably Satan).”
Klayman says his next step is to go to the discovery stage, “because it looks like [DCF has] played games with the documents,” he told WND, saying the agency withheld some information.
“We’re going to be filing a civil-rights complaint against various parties,” Klayman said. “We’re gathering evidence to do that right now.”
The attorney says the complaint will allege religious discrimination, violation of privacy and violation of parental rights.
Commented Klayman: “DCF is fixated on religion. … It’s obvious someone had it in for them because of their Christian beliefs.”
“From what we’ve uncovered so far, there’s a very strong case for violation of rights of privacy, religion and other civil rights,” he said.
The Brands are resolute in moving forward with their lawsuit, hoping it might help other families in the future.
Commented Richard Brand: “The system has to change. These people have to be held accountable for their actions.”