Saturday, August 11, 2001

Abuse case tests policy

County gets second opinion

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A shaken-baby case set for trial Monday in Butler County is testing some key issues in such cases, including a new county policy that pays for second medical opinions.

        On Friday, a Massachusetts neurosurgeon issued an opinion that brain abnormalities of Draven Zakkery Howard, a Hamilton child diagnosed with alleged abusive head trauma, could have “(dated) all the way back to birth” in January 2000. That's when doctors at Mercy Hospital Fairfield used a vacuum device and metal tongs to pull on his head during delivery attempts.

[photo] James Neil Howard is set to stand trial Monday, accused of shaking his son Draven.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        The opinion of Dr. Robert C. Cantu arrived just three days before Draven's father, James Neil Howard, 28, is scheduled to stand trial on four felony child-abuse charges — but more than a year after Draven's mother, Angie Howard, first asked for a second opinion, citing possible birth trauma.

        “I have a neutral doctor who took two weeks to look at everything, including the birth records, and even though I have not talked to this man, he came back and said what I've been trying to tell people all along,” Mrs. Howard said Friday. “I wish they would've listened to me.”

        Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper says he doesn't object to the county Children Services Board's new policy of paying for additional medical opinions in disputed abuse cases, as long as the evaluations are obtained before criminal charges are filed.

        The policy was adopted amid debate over the Howard case. Dr. Cantu's opinion could cost up to $5,000, and Mr. Piper takes issue with the way the process has played out.

        “The additional opinions requested in the Howard case have only resulted in confusing the issues, delaying the trial and muddying the waters,” Mr. Piper said. “We need to let the medical experts testify at trial, have the trier of fact hear the evidence, and decide the case.”

        The trial likely will revolve around questions raised about how the county's child-protection system handled the case and controversy over the diagnosis, investigation and prosecution of shaken-baby cases. Mr. Piper said he hadn't seen Dr. Cantu's opinion and he didn't know what effect it might have on the trial.

        Defense attorney Michael Shanks said he will attempt to persuade Judge Keith Spaeth to allow Dr. Cantu to testify about the report at Mr. Howard's trial.

        Michael Francis, chairman of the county's Children Services Board, said the purpose of the second opinions is not to interfere with the criminal process. Rather, he said, the board wants to ensure it makes correct decisions for children's care and placement when medical diagnoses of abuse are disputed.

        Dr. Cantu's opinion resulted from months of wrangling. The board had difficulty obtaining all of Draven's medical records and finding an unbiased doctor who was willing to weather possible political heat, Mr. Francis said.

        Draven — who suffers vision problems, seizures and developmental delays — remained in foster care for nearly a year but was returned to his mother in May.

        His father, who moved out of the home in September so his wife could try to get their son back, was jailed last week on suspicion of violating a court order to stay away from Draven. Mrs. Howard says her husband was in the home to collect more belongings while she and Draven stayed with a neighbor, and that he had no contact with the child.

        Mr. Howard could face up to 32 years in prison if a jury convicts him on all charges.

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