Lara McDaniel remembers kissing her blonde 7-year-old son goodbye after he died in an accident four years ago. Wyatt, who loved animals and making new friends, had been dead for three days before she was allowed to see his body. An autopsy had already been conducted.
McDaniel wishes she could have viewed Wyatt's body before he was cut open but said an investigator didn’t allow it.
By the time she got to see her son, “It was like kissing a countertop. He was no longer my little boy. He was mutilated,” McDaniel told state lawmakers in March while testifying for House Bill 298, which would ensure parents could see their deceased child’s body under supervision before law enforcement officials conduct an autopsy. The legislation would grant authorities discretion to determine how much contact parents could make — to mitigate concerns from police about evidence tampering in suspicious cases.
The House and Senate have both passed a version of the measure, but time is running out as the legislative session's final day looms on May 29. The Senate version stalled in a House committee; the House version has been referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which meets Thursday. Last session, the Senate passed a similar proposal, and it died in the House.
In 2013, at the family’s equestrian ranch in San Antonio, Wyatt died while playing in a sand pile with his younger brother, Logan. He suffocated after the sand pile collapsed on him. Logan survived.
Wyatt was airlifted to a hospital about 15 miles away. McDaniel and her husband, Charles, drove there, thinking he might still survive. Upon arrival, they were told he didn’t make it and were directed to a waiting room, McDaniel said.
Currently, parents need permission from a justice of the peace or medical examiner to see their deceased child if his or her death occurs outside a hospital or health care institution. Nothing in state law grants parents the right to immediately see their child's body.
Although McDaniel said hospital staff repeatedly told her for almost five hours that she could see her son, a detective eventually said she couldn’t because he was investigating the case as a homicide and her son's body had already been taken to the medical examiner’s office. Child Protective Services also investigated. The family was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Until McDaniel got to see her son's body, she said, all she had to process her grief were the words of medical professionals saying Wyatt was no longer alive.
When she finally laid eyes on her son, bandages kept his body intact. She wasn’t allowed to hold him. His eyes and mouth were sewn shut. He felt ice cold, she said.
“I needed that time. I needed that time at the hospital to be able to come to grips with what my reality was. I needed to be able to look at him and say — OK, this is real. This is really happening,” McDaniel told lawmakers at the hearing. “My child had a soul, and all I wanted to do was to be able to go in there and pray over him and say goodbye to him and for the last time, be able to let everything soak in about him that was him — his essence. They took that from me when they removed him without my consent.”
McDaniel said she felt she couldn’t live the rest of her life feeling this angry, so she approached state Sen. Donna Campbell, R, New Braunfels, with the idea for “Wyatt’s Law." Campbell filed the Senate version of the measure in 2015 and this year. McDaniel is convinced the proposal “would have absolutely made a difference” in her case and hopes it can protect any parents who may find themselves in a similar situation.
Campbell said what happened with Wyatt is a perfect example of a tragic accident compounded by a bureaucratic tragedy. “As a medical doctor, I can think of no reason why a parent, supervised by a physician or law enforcement, should not be allowed to view their child’s body,” Campbell, an emergency room doctor and retired ophthalmologist, said in a statement.
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, the author of the House bill, said the problem happens more often than people would think — multiple times over the past few years in Texas — and described the way authorities handled Wyatt’s death as a “diabolical process.”
Larson said law enforcement had initially expressed concerns over interference in the chain of evidence in cases where parents may not be ruled out as suspects. But he said the bill still gives them authority to determine how much physical contact parents can make, if any.
Judge Bill Gravell, justice of the peace for Williamson County’s third precinct and chairman of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas, testified in favor of the legislation and explained how dealing with a death on the side of the road or on a playground can be complex.
“It is difficult because you’re dealing with law enforcement, you’re dealing with the speed at which to rule out a criminality and often in the distance — in matters like this one — there are TV cameras there and moms and dads crying,” Gravell said.
But he was firm on his belief that Texas “should always afford families closure, the honor, the dignity and the respect they deserve.”
“Ms. McDaniel, you have the word of this lowly judge that we will ... do everything we can to train our judges to do better,” Gravell said. “Ma'am, Texas didn’t give you its best that day. For that, I’m deeply sorry because it was your worst day and we in Texas would have and should have done much better.”
McDaniel said it didn’t matter how complicated the circumstances were, that parents are owed the right to see their dead child.
“If there is suspicion surrounding that death, handcuff them, supervise them, do whatever you need to do to make sure you preserve that evidence — but let them see their child. That is all that I ask,” McDaniel said.
She sometimes reads accounts about dying children who spring to life after a parent’s touch and wonders if she could have done something more for Wyatt.
“It sounds completely absurd and irrational, but the brain of a grieving mother doesn’t process things that way,” McDaniel said.
Even as she grapples with her grief, McDaniel said in an interview she thinks of Wyatt as “an old soul who was wise beyond his years.”
“He was full of love," McDaniel said. "He would give his last toy away to make somebody else smile. I always say he was an angel walking on earth. That child was just special."
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