Schiavo abuse claims were old

DCF documents discredit the failed attempt to reinsert Terri Schiavo's feeding tube to conduct an investigation.

Published June 4, 2005

As the day approached in which Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was to be removed, Gov. Jeb Bush claimed there were new and compelling allegations of abuse or neglect that the state Department of Children and Families had to investigate.

That effort led to a dramatic showdown between the governor and the Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge who ordered Schiavo's feeding tube removed on March 18. Bush and DCF continued to seek its reinsertion, claiming the 30 or so new complaints had to be probed.

But documents released by DCF Friday reveal few fresh allegations that Schiavo was abused or neglected. Investigators wrote that there were "no indicators" of abuse in any of the cases.

"The preponderance of the evidence shows that Michael Schiavo followed doctors' orders (regarding) Ms. Schiavo's diagnosis of being in a persistent vegetative state and that he provided her with appropriate care," one investigator wrote.

DCF released nearly 70 pages of documents Friday in the Schiavo case after the St. Petersburg Times sought their release in court. Perhaps the only allegation in the batch not heard before: A March 7 complaint that accused a nursing assistant at Schiavo's Pinellas Park hospice of using an "air freshener substance" in her bath water in July, which caused a rash. DCF investigators learned the substance was an aromatherapy oil that the assistant placed in a spray bottle, not in Schiavo's bath.

Another complaint, made on March 8, said Schiavo was moaning because she was in pain from recent dental work. But other complaints allege that Schiavo received no dental work for years.

Some people called to complain that the blinds in Schiavo's room weren't open wide enough.

Others just repeated allegations that had been made for years: That Schiavo's husband, Michael, abused her. That he didn't seek rehabilitation for her. That he failed to properly care for her.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, who ordered Schiavo's feeding tube removed, had previously found no credibility in those accusations either. Greer issued an order Thursday requiring DCF to release the latest records by Monday.

Asked what in the complaints prompted the state's action to intervene, DCF spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez said in a statement:

"We are required by law to pursue all allegations of abuse and neglect thoroughly and expeditiously. DCF received new allegations, as well as several alleged similar complaints, which we were obligated to investigate. However, the department was prevented from having additional diagnostic tests performed to better assess Ms. Schiavo's level of functioning and responsiveness."

A doctor picked by the state to help assess Schiavo's condition observed her, but did not examine her.

George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo, on Friday declined to comment on the DCF documents because he had not seen them, but said "the intervention of DCF was pretext by the governor to politically interfere."

Bush and DCF officials have denied similar allegations in the past.

David Gibbs III, attorney for Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, also declined to comment Friday on the agency's findings saying he had not reviewed them.

The latest records released are of complaints made during the last weeks and months of Schiavo's life. She died March 31 at age 41. Records of about 70 complaints made in earlier years were released in April. No proof to those allegations was found either.

At least one other complaint to DCF has not been made public because an investigation is still pending or active. DCF officials say they cannot discuss the nature of that investigation - or why an investigation is still active two months after Schiavo's death - because of confidentiality laws.

However, results of an autopsy that the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner conducted on Schiavo's body are still pending as well.

"If the autopsy report contains significant findings relating to Ms. Schiavo's medical diagnosis, this investigation will be reopened and reviewed in light of any new information," a DCF official wrote in the reports released Friday.

Schiavo, whom doctors said was in a persistent vegetative state after she collapsed in 1990, received worldwide attention when her feeding tube was removed in March. Her husband supported removing the tube and fought with her parents in court for years over whether she would want to live in her condition.

Six days after Schiavo's feeding tube was removed, Bush was still pushing to prevent her death. DCF filed a March 23 petition seeking to intervene in the court case, citing about 30 abuse complaints the agency had received about Schiavo within the previous month.

The petition was not only based on the flurry of abuse allegations, but also on a doctor's belief that Schiavo might have been misdiagnosed. That point also was an important part of the state's decision to intervene, said governor's spokesman Jacob DiPietre.

"A noted, credible doctor from the Mayo Clinic" had felt "therewas a distinct possibility of misdiagnosis, that Terri was in fact feeling pain," DiPietre said Friday.

Dr. William Polk Cheshire Jr., a neurologist, had said that he observed Schiavo at Woodside Hospice House on March 1. He also watched videotapes of her. Although he did not formally examine her, he told state officials he thought Schiavo might not be in a "persistent vegetative state," in which someone is not conscious and does not feel pain. He thought it possible that Schiavo actually was in a "minimally conscious state."

One DCF official said in the newly released documents that Cheshire's examination would have helped investigators.

"This inability to more accurately assess Ms. Schiavo's diagnosis hampered the department's ability to conduct a full investigation and arrive at solid conclusions," the investigator wrote.

However, the documents do not mention that Schiavo's diagnosis had been debated in court for seven years, nor do they say if investigators read trial transcripts of court testimony or depositions to learn about Schiavo's condition.

Greer, who denied a request from Bush to let the state intervene in the case to resume Schiavo's feeding and hydration, also rejected Cheshire's affidavit.