SAN ANTONIO – Wyatt McDaniel was only 7 years old when he died in a tragic accident.
But almost two years later, Wyatt's passing is sparking attention and potential changes in state law.
On Jan. 25, 2013, Wyatt was playing with his brother in a pile of sand when the sand collapsed on him and he couldn't breathe. Despite CPR efforts by his mother and EMS, Wyatt died. In the process, the McDaniel family not only lost their boy, they lost their chance at a meaningful goodbye and their reputation.
"We were treated like dirtbags, criminals really, from the moment of his death on," said Laura McDaniel, Wyatt's mother.
McDaniel said her son was airlifted to University Hospital, and that was the last time she was allowed to see him for many days. McDaniel and her husband spent five hours at the hospital and were being promised they would soon see Wyatt. McDaniel said instead they were questioned by authorities because their boy's death was being classified as a homicide. Wyatt's body was sent to the Bexar County Medical Examiner's office before his parents were given the chance to say goodbye.
"I have been sitting, waiting to kiss my child one last time and say goodbye to my child and to say a prayer over him and come to terms emotionally with that loss," McDaniel said.
But instead of saying goodbye, McDaniel was only allowed to see Wyatt days later after an autopsy had been performed and his body had been stitched up. Compounding their grief, the McDaniels were also the subject of a Child Protective Services investigation and were faced with potentially losing their children to foster care.
That part of the story goes back to the evening Wyatt died, when the family was released from the hospital.
When the McDaniels finally returned home to their other two children, they were greeted with a knock on the door by a CPS caseworker. It was nearly 11 p.m. and they were asked to allow the worker in to begin an inspection and to interview the other children, including Hogan, Wyatt's brother, who had also played in the sand pile. The McDaniels refused to allow the children be awakened but did allow the worker in. That's when they learned they were under investigation for potential abuse and neglect because Wyatt had died while unsupervised by an adult.
"The caseworker is telling me that my husband and I either need to sign this safety plan saying we are not allowed any unsupervised contact during the ... investigation or my children will be removed," McDaniel said.
The McDaniels scrambled to accommodate the safety plan that night and a friend volunteered to move in. But their bewilderment and anger at being cast in these roles began to grow.
"When you have a child that dies and they come in and want to remove your other two children that same very night without any probing or investigating into what occurred, what happens to those kids?" McDaniel said. "They've received nothing but love and care from their parents and they are removed in the dead of night on the worst day of their life."
Even though the family was cleared of any wrongdoing a week later by sheriff's investigators, McDaniel said CPS's involvement in their lives dragged on for four months. The McDaniels believe changes need to be made to the way law enforcement and subsequently CPS operates. McDaniel said to remove children from a family requires a court order. But in their case, because Wyatt was already dead, he was taken away from them without one.
State Sen. Donna Campbell learned about the McDaniels' ordeal and was appalled.
"It's a perfect example of a tragic accident compounded by a bureaucratic tragedy. This is something no parent should have to go through," Campbell said.
Campbell, an emergency room doctor, said she can't think of an instance where she has seen a family denied the right to say goodbye to their child, no matter the circumstances. Campbell is looking for more cases like the this one in the hope of finding a legislative solution.
"In this case it was definitely, 'You're guilty,' not even assuming any innocence," Campbell said.
CPS for its part said what happened was very tragic, but declined to talk about specifics of the case. CPS shared its protocol in cases where a child dies while unsupervised with KSAT 12 News with the following statement:
"In all abuse/neglect investigations, CPS's role is to protect any child who may be at risk in the home. While we are investigating, we have to make sure all children in the home are safe. This can be achieved by asking parents or caregivers:
- To temporarily relocate out of the home during the course of the investigation
- Voluntarily designate an alternative caregiver (relative or close family friend) who could supervise the children, or one who could temporarily move into the home.
- Temporarily relocate the children with that caregiver in their home
This is done with respect to the family, but ultimately to keep children safe."
Campbell said while child safety is the most important mission for CPS, there should be a way for innocent parents to be sheltered during fragile moments, instead of being forced to weather pain caused by a system that operates outside due process.
"We want to try to change the law should parents find themselves in a similar situation (where) they are protected and not harmed themselves," Campbell said.
The McDaniels family has kept the memory of their son alive with a Facebook page called Wyatt's Page.
They also have been instrumental in getting a walkway between Wilderness Oak Elementary and the nearby Wilderness Oak Public Library dedicated and is now called