As the Texas Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would ensure parents can view their deceased child's body before an autopsy is conducted, a grieving mother shed tears from the gallery.
Lara McDaniel, who brought the idea for the legislation to her lawmakers, lost her son, Wyatt, in an accident four years ago. She wasn't allowed to see his body until three days after his death — after an autopsy had been conducted.
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.
Under House Bill 298, the viewing must be supervised by authorities, including law enforcement and medical staff, if they consider it necessary — a provision aimed at mitigating concerns about evidence tampering in suspected cases of child abuse.
The bill, which has already passed the House, now heads back to the lower chamber. The House would need to sign off on minor changes to the legislation before it could head to the governor's desk.
A similar measure, Senate Bill 239, is one of dozens of proposals considered noncontroversial that are scheduled to be considered by the House on Wednesday.
“I just feel like I can breathe. It’s over. It’s finally over,” McDaniel told The Texas Tribune Tuesday, recalling that she “cried like a baby” when senators voted to pass the bill. She said she prays the measure will clear its final hurdles.
McDaniel said the stress of four years of working toward ensuring no other family would have to endure what hers did had been lifted.
“I wish that somebody had done this before Wyatt died," she said. "That’s why I did it. Because I kept sitting here, thinking, God, if just one person had said, 'This is not right,’ I wouldn’t be going through that."
Wyatt was 7 when he suffocated after a sand pile he was playing in with his younger brother at the family's equestrian ranch in San Antonio collapsed on him. He was airlifted to a hospital about 15 miles away and his parents drove to meet him.
Upon arrival, McDaniel and her husband, Charles, were told by hospital staff that they could see his body, she said. The couple waited for almost five hours until a detective said they couldn't see their child because the case was being investigated as homicide and Wyatt's body had already been taken to the medical examiner's office. The family was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
The bill's author, Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, described the ordeal as a "diabolical process." Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the measure's Senate sponsor, called McDaniel's experience the "perfect example of a tragic accident compounded by a bureaucratic tragedy."
Larson said law enforcement initially expressed concerns about evidence tampering in cases where parents may be suspects but that his bill still ensures they have the discretion to determine how much physical contact parents can make, if any.
Wyatt's younger brother, Logan, who is now 9, accompanied his mother to the Capitol on Tuesday. After the vote, he and his mother went down to the Senate floor to meet Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who offered him candy.
"I thought it would be a good experience for him to see when things don’t go well in your life and you’re angry and sad — even though you might not have control over what happens to you — you have control over how you react to it," McDaniel said. "If you don’t like something, you can change it."
Read related Tribune coverage:
- Lara McDaniel has been on a mission at the Texas Capitol to make sure no parents have to suffer what she did - the inability to see her deceased child's body immediately.
- State authorities in Texas aren't always up front about dealing with deaths. After 55-year-old Keith Clayton died at a psychiatric hospital, his family was kept in the dark.
- The state sometimes fails to keep vulnerable children safe, especially those in the foster care system.