Lara McDaniel will always wonder.
Did her 7-year-old son need her in the last moments of his life?
“You hear stories about parents whose kids are pronounced dead and they lay a hand on them and their heart starts beating,” said McDaniel, a San Antonio mother whose oldest child — blond-haired, blue-eyed Wyatt — died four years ago. “I’ve always wondered: Maybe he needed me? Maybe (emergency workers) gave up too fast?
“I just have to accept their word that they did everything they could and he didn’t make it.”
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While she will never know for sure, because she wasn’t allowed to see Wyatt for three days after he died, other parents will see their children — because of her.
McDaniel is the reason Texas lawmakers this year passed Senate Bill 239, known as “Wyatt’s law,” to make sure parents of a deceased child may see their child’s body before an autopsy is performed.
That isn’t always guaranteed now, if a child’s death occurs outside of a hospital or healthcare facility.
This is one of hundreds of new laws that will go into effect Sept. 1.
In McDaniel’s case, she was told she didn’t get to see Wyatt because a homicide investigation was underway, although it was quickly dismissed.
That being the case, she said she later told law enforcers: “Why didn’t you just handcuff me and let me stand at the doorway? That should have been given to me as an option.”
She said she needed to see her child, to see that he had passed, for it to sink in and become real.
“We have a right, as parents, to our children,” McDaniel said. “They stole from me my peace.”
‘A complete day’
McDaniel’s life changed in January 2013.
That’s when Wyatt was playing with his younger brother, Logan, at their family’s equestrian center in San Antonio.
They were making tunnels in a four-foot pile of beach sand their parents had brought in for their kids to play in.
But as Wyatt was making his way through a tunnel, it collapsed and suffocated him.
He was airlifted to a hospital, where emergency workers tried to save his life.
His parents waited hours to see him, and were repeatedly told they would see him, even after they learned Wyatt didn’t survive.
Then the worst day of their life became even worse when they learned a homicide investigation was underway in their son’s death — and child welfare officials were considering removing their other two children from their home.
“It was a complete nightmare and an example on how not to treat a grieving family,” McDaniel said. “How can your life go from perfect to complete disarray and chaos in minutes?
“Accidents happen to good people,” she said. “It’s not something that should make law enforcement treat parents of accident victims like criminals. Those are decisions that are life-changing decisions … and they hurt the parents in the process.”
‘Texas didn’t give you its best’
Within days, the homicide investigation was dropped. McDaniel’s children remained in their home.
But, four years later, she’s left with an aching void.
“Ms. McDaniel, you have the word of this lowly judge that we will … do everything we can to train our judges to do better,” Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell testified before lawmakers earlier this year. “Ma’am, Texas didn’t give you its best that day.
“For that, I’m deeply sorry because it was your worst day and we in Texas would have and should have done much better.”
After Sept. 1, “Wyatt’s law” will make sure that parents may see and say goodbye to their deceased child, even when the child dies “under suspicious circumstances” and an autopsy is ordered.
Supporters said the bill was needed to protect parents rights. Critics argued that the rights of the deceased needed to be protected as well.
“Bureaucratic overreach can sometimes omit the human elements to these tragedies,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Legislators no doubt hope this provision isn’t used but they want to protect parental rights in case such a death unfortunately affects a family.”
‘I didn’t want my child being alone’
The pile of sand is long gone from the McDaniels’ San Antonio property.
But the memories of Wyatt are not.
Wyatt, who loved animals, was the type of child who went up to someone alone on the playground to see if they wanted to play.
“I used to stare at him and wonder, ‘How did I get so lucky?’ He was very easy, sweet and easy,” McDaniel said.
When McDaniel finally saw Wyatt three days after he died, it was at the funeral home, after an autopsy had been performed.
Bandages held his little body together.
His eyes were sewn closed.
And his body was cold.
“It haunts me,” McDaniel said. “He had a soul. I don’t know when the soul leaves a body when you die. But I didn’t want my child being alone, not knowing I’m there.
“I wanted to pray over him,” she said. “I wanted to see him one more time.”