COLUMBUS, Ohio – A brain-damaged baby whose father is accused of abuse cannot be removed from life support because a court-appointed medical guardian does not have authority to make that decision, the Ohio Supreme Court (search) said Thursday.
The divided court ruled in the case of 1-year-old Aiden Stein (search) of Mansfield, who was diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome earlier this year.
The majority said Summit County Probate Court exceeded its authority by authorizing a medical guardian to remove him from a machine that helps him breathe before legally ending the parental rights of his father Matthew Stein and mother Arica Heimlich.
Stein is suspected of injuring his son while alone with him March 15 at their Mansfield apartment and could be charged with murder if the baby dies, police said. No charges have been filed and Stein has denied harming the boy, who is at Akron Children's Hospital (search).
Aiden was assigned a guardian because Akron Children's Hospital officials say his parents have a conflict of interest for wanting to keep him alive.
The high court overturned a Ninth District Court of Appeals decision from Summit County that the parents gave up their right to challenge the Probate Court decision when they participated in the four-day guardianship hearing in April.
"The heartbreak and tragedy in this case cannot be overstated," Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton wrote for three justices, who were joined in a separate opinion by Justice Terrence O'Donnell to form the majority.
"A probate court has no authority to allow a guardian to make a decision that will terminate the life of a child, when parental rights have not been permanently terminated," Stratton wrote.
Summit County Probate Judge Bill Spicer had allowed the guardian, Ellen Kaforey, to have the baby's life support turned off, but the state Supreme Court halted Spicer's order in June and later agreed to hear the case.
Kaforey was in court Thursday and not available for comment. A message was left at the office of Edward Markovich, the parents' attorney.
Three other justices wrote separate opinions.
Justice Paul Pfeifer agreed that the baby should stay on life support for a different reason. Summit County, where the hospital is, lacked jurisdiction to handle the case, Pfeifer wrote. The Richland County Probate Court, where the baby lived, should have made the decision, he said.
Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Justice Maureen O'Connor, for different reasons, said the guardian should be allowed to make the decision.
The baby's parents have said they believe Aiden is responsive and would recover if given more time.
A doctor testifying at an earlier court hearing said Aiden was blind, deaf and unaware of his surroundings. Nothing is left of his brain but the brain stem, which sends rhythmic signals to the lungs to breathe and controls other basic body functions.
Matthew Stein had testified in the guardianship hearing that the baby's injuries could have come from being struck by a ceiling fan blade when an aunt lifted him above her head and from accidentally striking his head on his bassinet railing.
But three doctors said that while there was an earlier small injury, the massive brain injury could be caused only by rapid back-and-forth movement that happened the morning Aiden had trouble breathing.