September 2, 2014

Medina
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Where are Amish parents with sick girl? Family gone for month

Loren Genson and Nick Glunt | The Gazette

HOMER TOWNSHIP — Neither the 10-year-old daughter who was ordered by a court to continue cancer treatments against her will nor the rest of her Amish family has been seen since at least last month.

Sarah Hershberger and her parents, Andy and Anna, were not at their Homer Township farm Oct. 30, when Medina County sheriff’s deputies accompanied county Job and Family Services officials on a welfare check.

Anna and Andy Hershberger were not at their farm in Homer Township on Tuesday. The family has been engaged in a legal battle with Akron Children's Hospital over whether to use chemotherapy to treat their 10-year-old daughter Sarah's leukemia. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KIERA MANION-FISCHER)

County Sheriff Tom Miller said his office has no idea where the Hershbergers might be and is not actively searching for the family.

“It would take a court order for us to get involved,” Miller said, “and I’m not anticipating a court order.”

In October, an appellate court granted a request from Akron Children’s Hospital to appoint “limited guardianship” to registered nurse and attorney Maria Schimer granting Schimer the power to make medical decisions for the girl in place of her parents.

Clair Dickinson, an attorney representing Schimer, said he didn’t know the family’s whereabouts.

“All I know is that she and her parents don’t seem to be at her house,” he said.

He said the family was not present at a court hearing in October, and the last time anyone saw the family was during the summer. He said the girl received her last treatment at the hospital in June. Physicians said in court that without chemotherapy the girl would die within a year. With treatment, she has an 85 percent chance of survival.

Dickinson said there was no effort on behalf of Schimer to seek a court action to find the family or press charges against them for not providing health care. When asked if he thought court action might be taken, he said couldn’t comment.

John Oberholtzer, the Hershbergers’ attorney, said he does not know where the family is, but he’s kept in contact because of an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court’s ruling.

“I am certainly in contact with my client,” Oberholtzer said. “And they’re certainly knowing of what I’m doing in the case.”

Oberholtzer said he’s not sure whether the girl has sought therapy elsewhere.

A neighbor answered the door at the Hershbergers’ home Tuesday on Spencer Road and suggested speaking with Alvin Keim, a relative. Another neighbor said Keim had just left for a funeral in New York, and would not return until Thursday.

The case began in April, when Sarah was admitted to Akron Children’s Hospital with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.

Her parents initially accepted chemotherapy for their daughter, according to court records, but stopped it once they saw the side effects it had on the girl. Instead they began using “natural” medicine — including vitamins and herbs.

The hospital responded by filing a suit in Medina County Probate Court that asked Schimer be named as the girl’s guardian. The case bounced between county and appellate courts several times before Oct. 9, when Probate Judge Kevin W. Dunn obeyed an order from the 9th District Court of Appeals to grant guardianship to Schimer.

While attorneys continue battle, the Hershbergers left their farm to seek other treatment for their daughter. David Augenstein, who publishes the online Journal of Natural Food and Health, said he had spoken to the family this month.

He said the family had left the U.S. to seek alternative treatment in late September. He said they have since returned but haven’t gone back to their farm for fear their daughter will be forced into treatment by the hospital.

“I can’t tell you where they’re at, but they’ll call periodically from an undisclosed location using someone else’s phone,” Augenstein said. “I know they are in the United States.”

Augenstein, who lives in the Canton area, said he first reached out to the family after seeing their story published in local news media.

“One of the big issues in this case is not just parental rights — not just about Sarah — but that this opens the door for these hospitals to create a lot of fear in the parents if you don’t obey their orders,” said Augenstein, who is a self-described advocate for parents’ choice in vaccinating their children.

He regularly writes and reports on parental medical choice issues in his online journal. He also serves as the co-director of the Foundations of Health Education, which has set up a fund to help the girl’s family pay for her treatments.

“This case is not just about Sarah and her cancer treatment,” he said in a press release. “It is about the right for anyone to obtain a second opinion and the freedom to choose you own medical treatments without fear of losing your child.

“It is about using the interpretation of law by powerful and profitable corporations like hospitals to force their beliefs in their expensive medical treatments on people who do not want them.”

Augenstein said he plans to follow the case pending before the state Supreme Court.

“They’re violating her constitutional rights,” he said of Akron Children’s Hospital. “It’s not really the loving, healing and caring image the hospital wants to portray.”

Representatives from Akron Children’s Hospital asked for questions in writing following phone calls on Tuesday seeking comment. As of Tuesday evening, they had not responded to emailed questions.

Reporter Kiera Manion-Fischer contributed to this story. Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com. Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.