Desperate Measure

updated 09/11/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The moment Miguel Regino and his wife, Adela Martinez-Regino, were dreading had finally come. In an Albuquerque hospital room, the couple coaxed their 3-year-old, Anamarie, into the special stroller she needs to get around. After they put the girl's shoes on, a nurse began pushing the stroller out of the room. "No, Daddy will do it!" wailed Anamarie. But her protest was to no avail. Quickly she was whisked away and handed over to the foster parents she had met just that morning. "We heard her screaming all the way down the hall," says Adela, 32. "We sat there in shock that they actually took her away from us."

Taking a child from its parents is never done lightly, but when the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department assumed custody of Anamarie at Presbyterian Hospital on Aug. 25, it was ostensibly for her own good. Just 41 months old, Anamarie weighs 117 lbs. and stands nearly 4 ft. tall—taller than an average child her age and more than three times heavier. Officials maintain that Anamarie's parents, told by doctors to keep their daughter on a low-calorie liquid diet, have failed to manage a weight problem that pediatricians have said may place stress on her heart and might even threaten her life.

The family has also been told that Anamarie could be the victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which a parent simulates or causes a medical problem in a child in order to get attention for himself or herself. "Why would I want her that way—I want her to have a normal life," says Adela. But, says Dan Hill, a spokesman for the CYFD who declined to discuss the case, "we don't remove children because they're obese. Our mission is to protect children from abuse and neglect."

The parents—who will argue in Children's Court on Sept. 5 that Anamarie, their only child, should be returned to them—insist they have done their best to ensure her health. Born on April 11, 1997, Anamarie was 21 inches long and a modest 6 lbs., 13 oz. "She looked like a normal baby," says Adela, an operations manager for a regional airline. At 9 months, she weighed 30 lbs. and was hospitalized because of a respiratory ailment. "It was amazing how fast she was growing," says Adela. "I kept asking people, 'Is this normal?' "

Clearly not. In and out of hospitals ever since, Anamarie has been subjected to a battery of tests in search of a diagnosis. One test ruled out Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that causes children to eat compulsively. An endocrinologist then suggested Anamarie might suffer from a rare genetic condition in which she was missing a brain receptor for leptin, a protein believed critical to appetite regulation. But everywhere the family turned, the solution proposed was the same: diet and exercise.

Then last June, Anamarie's weight increased to 131 lbs. She spent three weeks at the University of New Mexico hospital and was placed on a near-starvation liquid diet of 550 calories a day. She lost 10 lbs. and was sent home, with her parents instructed to maintain the diet. The liquid had been back-ordered at their local pharmacy, so Adela says she fed her daughter 550 calories of solid food instead.

Things took a turn for the worse a month ago, when Anamarie came down with a 103° fever. Sick and listless, she wouldn't stir, and her weight began to rise. By Aug. 16, she was up to 123 lbs. When she was hospitalized again, this time for analysis of irregular breathing patterns, her weight dropped to 117. Meanwhile, her pediatrician, Dr. Monika Mahal, examined Anamarie and reported the family to the state. "She really feels what is going on with Anamarie is life-threatening," Dr. Irene Moody, Mahal's colleague in a private pediatric practice, told the Albuquerque Journal. "If Anamarie doesn't lose weight, she may not make it. I think it's hard for a parent to hear."

Perhaps no harder than hearing "Please, Daddy, no!" as Miguel, 54, did when Anamarie was taken away. Friends and family say that Miguel and Adela, who married 16 months after Anamarie was born, are totally devoted to their daughter. During each hospital stay, the parents slept in the room with her. A year ago, Miguel, a cabinetmaker with five children from a previous marriage, quit his job at a New Mexico construction company to spend more time with Anamarie and take her to her medical appointments. Adela, after being told that Anamarie's obesity might be genetic, even chose to have a tubal ligation. "I wouldn't take a chance," she says sadly. "Now I regret it."

On Aug. 22, a caseworker told the parents that Anamarie would be given to a foster family. Three days later she was gone. Adela insists she was vigilant and is crushed by the idea that she might have intentionally harmed her child. "I just don't understand how they could think I'm doing this to her," she says. "That night, after they took her, I cried myself to sleep."

Nick Charles
Michael Haederle in Albuquerque

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