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A heavy-hearted appellate panel Monday authorized the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical treatment for an Orange County infant who has been comatose since allegedly being beaten by his father 14 months ago. “We reach our conclusions with his fate in our minds and our hearts,” Justice Richard Fybel wrote, adding that he and his colleagues on Santa Ana’s Fourth District Court of Appeal wish 17-month-old Christopher Ibarra “peace and serenity.” The court’s ruling rejects attempts by the father, Moises Ibarra, to block removal of life support, and places him in jeopardy of charges more severe than child abuse. If Christopher dies, Ibarra could be charged with murder. The father, who’s being held in Orange County Jail, was charged with one count each of child abuse and corporal injury on Dec. 20, 2001, three days after he allegedly violently shook Christopher — who was then 3 months old — and threw him against his crib’s railing. Doctors diagnosed the child with shaken-baby syndrome. The little boy has been hospitalized ever since. He is neurologically devastated, is in a persistent vegetative state, and has no cognitive functions. According to the court’s ruling, he is so frail that his bones fracture during diaper changes. After the child was removed from the parents’ home in Cypress and made a dependent of the court, the mother, Tamara Sepulveda, asked that life support be removed. The father argued that the juvenile court didn’t have the authority to remove life support from a dependent child. Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard Behn disagreed. He concluded there was clear and convincing evidence that withdrawing medical treatment — except for nutrition, hydration and pain medication — would be in the boy’s best interest. The appeal court, noting that there was no reported California case on the issue, affirmed Behn. “The juvenile court’s authority . . . to make decisions regarding medical treatment for dependent children within its jurisdiction,” Justice Fybel wrote, “necessarily includes decisions to refuse or withdraw medical treatment, including life-sustaining medical treatment.” Justices William Rylaarsdam and William Bedsworth concurred. But the justices said the trial court’s decision must be based on clear and convincing evidence after considering 12 factors, including the child’s level of cognitive functioning and quality of life, and whether medical treatment is causing pain and suffering. “This list is not meant to be exclusive,” the court held, “but is intended to provide a set of factors to be considered, analyzed and weighed.” The court also rejected a last-minute argument by Ibarra that social workers hadn’t properly investigated whether Christopher might have Native American heritage and be covered by the Indian Child Welfare act, which requires notification of the proper tribe before a child can be adopted. The mother had indicated that she was part Indian from either the Puma or Pima tribes. The Pumas couldn’t be located and the Pimas disavowed any knowledge of Christopher being Indian. The father argued more notice was necessary, but the court sharply disagreed. “We cannot believe that the United States Congress intended that if [social workers] failed to give more notice to an Indian tribe or the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] under the facts presented in this case, all orders of the juvenile court must be reversed,” Justice Fybel wrote. “This conclusion is particularly true in this case, because clear and convincing evidence has shown that the purposes of ICWA have been frustrated by Moises’ own violent acts.” Ibarra has contended that his only motivation in trying to keep Christopher on life support was love for his son, not to escape a murder charge. According to published reports, Ibarra faces nearly 14 years in prison if convicted of felony child abuse, compared to life in prison if his son dies. The appeal court’s interest in the case was evident by the fact that its 42-page ruling came out only four days after oral arguments were held. Ibarra’s lawyer, Tustin solo practitioner John Dodd, couldn’t be reached for comment. Neither could Kathleen Mallinger, the San Diego solo who represented Christopher’s interests. Deputy Orange County Counsel Jeannie Su referred calls to the Orange County Department of Social Services, whose spokeswoman, Debbie Kroner, was hesitant to comment because the father has 40 days to seek review by the California Supreme Court. “If he does not appeal,” she said, “this decision will become final in 60 days.” In the meantime, little Christopher will stay on life-sustaining medications. “He’s not doing very well,” Kroner said. “He’s not recovering.” The case is In re Christopher L., G031449. The full text of the ruling will appear in Wednesday’s California Daily Opinion Service.

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