texasmonthly.com: There were many sensitive issues involved with this story—a child, parents’ rights, cancer. Did you change the way you normally approach working on a story? If so, how? If not, why not?
Katy Vine: Oftentimes the meat of my stories comes from scenes I witness myself, but because the concerns in this piece don’t lend themselves to that method of reporting, I relied heavily on court testimony, legal definitions, and interviews with people who know this arena. Shaping that information to explain Katie’s situation more clearly was the challenge.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have any problems gathering the information you needed?
KV: Many of the people involved in the case couldn’t talk, but I could gather their data and opinions from court records.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
KV: I tried to convey specific legal concepts in a way that avoided the lackluster tone of a thesis paper.
texasmonthly.com: Through the course of reporting, did you find yourself pulling for one side over the other?
KV: When I began reporting on the story I found myself convinced that one side or the other was right, but the deeper I got into the story the less sure I became. F. Scott McCown, a retired district court judge who has handled more than two thousand child abuse cases, was very enlightening on this matter. He said, “It’s almost impossible from a distance to find out whether the decision is right or not. Even when you have the facts, sometimes it’s difficult to say what’s the right thing to do.” That pretty well hit the nail on the head.
texasmonthly.com: Is the Department of Family and Protective Services still involved in the case?
KV: In late November, after Katie missed her appointments at M.D. Anderson, Child Protective Services intervened again. I read in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in mid-December that the family provided evidence that she was being treated by a Kansas doctor. As far as I know, the case was dismissed.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
KV: I was surprised to discover that so many people with Katie’s best interest at heart could be so passionately opposed to one another. The fight got pretty ugly behind the scenes.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that this case has been a sort of wake-up call to other parents in the state and the nation? How much say do parents really have in the care of their children?
KV: It does give parents something to think about when they go to the doctor’s office. But the way our laws are written, parents don’t get to do just anything with a child. They don’t own the child; they can’t decide to sell the child or let him or her die. And because our laws are written that way, a judge is the ultimate person to decide whether a child’s health is in danger. Parents have the right to make decisions for their children, of course, but the law tries to prevent them from making very harmful decisions. In Katie’s case, since cancer is different from a gaping wound that needs immediate treatment, the judges were having to wade through more complicated arguments to decide whether Katie’s parents showed medical neglect.
texasmonthly.com: In the end, do you think the state acted in the best interest of Katie Wernecke?
KV: I don’t think anyone who intervened meant her harm.
texasmonthly.com: Do you know the status of Katie’s health today?
KV: Her father said that she’s feeling good. He hadn’t heard back yet on the results of her recent MRI.