Police took a cancer-stricken toddler from his parents, their supporters call it a 'medical kidnapping'
Less than two weeks after 3-year-old Noah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, his mother claimed the cancer was gone.
"We busted out of that hospital - with no cancer cells left to spare," Taylor Bland-Ball wrote on Facebook on April 16. "Doctors are amazed at his speedy healing and strength!"
The 22-year-old holistic birth attendant from Tampa said her son had undergone two rounds of chemotherapy - "because they can get a medical court order to force you to do it anyways for a child with his diagnosis" - but also tried a number of home remedies. Rosemary and colloidal silver, reishi mushroom tea and bitter apricot seeds, to name a few. "This is one of our many alternative therapies for healing. #NatureHeals," she wrote.
But by Monday, police were telling a different story about Noah's healing progress.
"MISSING ENDANGERED CHILD!" read an urgent alert from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that blasted across the news.
"On April 22, 2019 the parents failed to bring in the child to a medically necessary hospital procedure," the sheriff's office wrote, naming Bland-Ball and her husband, Joshua McAdams. "The parents have further refused to follow up with the life saving medical care the child needs."
The alert launched a nationwide hunt for the couple and their son, Noah, a toddler with long curly brown hair and big brown eyes. In a matter of hours, they were located in Georgetown, Kentucky. Noah was taken from his parents and was "now being medically treated," the sheriff's office said in an update. And his parents, meanwhile, were being investigated on suspicion of child neglect.
Since then, the case has attracted national attention as Bland-Ball and McAdams insist they were trying to find their son alternative medical care, accusing the police and medical officials of stripping them of the right to choose their own treatment plan for their son. Their supporters call the state's decision to take custody of Noah a "medical kidnapping" - a term that's become common in communities skeptical of traditional medicine when authorities take drastic measures to provide medical care they see as essential to the child's well-being.
The parents await a custody hearing Friday.
"We're not trying to refuse any kind of treatment," Bland-Ball told reporters Wednesday, according to WFLA. "They think we're refusing treatment all around, putting him in danger, trying to kill him. But not at all. We're trying to save him."
Experts have warned against stopping treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, however.
Bijal D. Shah, who leads Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center's acute lymphoblastic leukemia program, told the Tampa Bay Times that the treatment has been remarkably successful, with a cure rate of 90 percent - but that it can require two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy. Stopping the treatment early, he said, means the cancer will almost always come back.
"I put it in the same box as those who fear vaccination," he told the newspaper. "The reality is, what we risk by not taking chemotherapy, just as what we risk by not taking vaccines, is much, much worse."
But an organization fighting on Bland-Ball and McAdams's behalf, Florida Freedom Alliance, which supports "vaccine freedom," argues that the couple should be entitled to "medical freedom" and freedom from "medical kidnappings."
Modern medicine skeptics have recently claimed "medical kidnappings" in a whole range of scenarios, including among the anti-vaccination groups. Bland-Ball and her husband's case unfolds at a time when so-called anti-vaxxers are clashing with authorities seeking to stop a measles outbreak not seen in decades amid a spread of misinformation about vaccines. In some locations, such as Rockland County, N.Y., authorities have enforced court orders banning unvaccinated children from attending school.
In one notable case in February, police in Chandler, Ariz., busted down a family's door in the middle of the night with their guns drawn to seize a dangerously feverish, unvaccinated 2-year-old and bring him to the hospital. The boy's mother had reportedly ignored a doctor's orders and refused to take him to the emergency room, fearing authorities would report her for failing to vaccinate the boy.
In New York, child protection authorities took custody of a 12-year-old boy fighting leukemia last September after his mother refused additional chemotherapy treatment. The mother, Candace Gunderson, told News 12 Long Island that she took her son to Florida for alternative holistic treatment, but that when authorities found out, her son was seized and returned to New York to continue chemotherapy. She lost custody, she said, calling it a "medical kidnapping."
"They don't want me to be able to exercise my freedoms to choose medical treatment for my child," Gunderson told the news station.
Nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society have long warned against such "alternative" treatments.
In a January article, the American Cancer Society noted that about 40 percent of Americans believe cancer can be cured through alternative, unproven therapies alone, citing a 2018 survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
"This is alarming," the cancer society noted, citing the study's findings, "because evidence shows that people who use alternative therapies in place of standard cancer treatments have much higher death rates."
Bland-Ball has said that she did not want to continue chemotherapy for her son because it was invasive, and since she believed the cancer had gone into remission, she did not believe it was necessary anymore.
"We want him to receive a treatment that has less side effects, because chemotherapy is so brutal on a body, even an adult body, so think of what it's doing to a little person who's only 30 pounds," she told reporters Wednesday. "We want to get him something that's healthier, that is more biologically sound for him, specific to him and not just a standard protocol that they use for everybody, because he's an individual."
She and McAdams said that's what they were looking for in Kentucky. Before they left for Kentucky, photos on Bland-Ball's Facebook feed show her taking him to the beach and feeding him grapefruit for "Vitamin D & Vitamin C Therapy" and trying organic juices and Madagascar periwinkle plants. Once they were apprehended in Kentucky, Bland-Ball defended herself on Facebook, writing, "No neglect here considering his levels are the best they've ever been and still cancer free after two weeks without chemotherapy - shocker!"
Since they were apprehended by police, Noah's parents say they have not seen him and do not know where he is or how he is being cared for, medically or otherwise.
"I haven't slept," she told reporters Wednesday. "I've eaten one banana. I've been a total anxious mess, not being able to do anything except think about him, think about what I can do to help speed up this process to just see him again and know what's going on."
Dozens of supporters have rallied around the family, some of whom have attacked the police for taking the 3-year-old into custody.
"Medical kidnapping is real!" one wrote on Facebook in response to the police's urgent "MISSING ENDANGERED CHILD!" alert.
Katherine Drabiak, an assistant professor of bioethics and genomics at the University of South Florida, told WFTS that if courts and police step in to take a child into custody for medical reasons, it is considered "absolutely a last resort." She said it is worth scrutinizing whether additional chemotherapy was warranted in this case, but that the state "has a duty" to step in if it feels a child is at risk.
This article was written by Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post.