Doctor’s Arrest Sends ‘Chilling Message’
BALTIMORE (AP) _ The case of a psychologist charged with helping to hide a 5-year-old from a mother who allegedly neglected the boy is raising ethical questions for professionals who treat abused children, experts say.
Dennis M. Harrison, who has testified in prominent child custody cases across the nation, was charged Sept. 18 with three counts of conspiracy to harbor or hide Travis Lee Meriweather of Lexington Park.
Travis has been missing since a July 1987 visit to his father in Hinton, Okla. Authorities believe he’s being held by his father somewhere.
Harrison, the boy’s grandfather, and a physician who has examined him, claim the father was justified in vanishing with Travis because he was virtually starved while in the care of his mother.
Some child abuse specialists say they are troubled by the government’s seizing of evidence - handwritten notes and a telephone bill for a call to Hinton - from Harrison’s office and home.
The records seizure and Harrison’s arrest could have a ″chilling effect″ on medical professionals who treat abused children, said Dr. Eli Newberger, director of the Family Development Study at Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
″To have confidential knowledge about a client seized by the state threatens the entire therapeutic enterprise,″ said Jon Conte, an associate professor of social work at the University of Chicago.
Harrison called his arrest an ″outrage.″
″This sends an ominous message to health professionals who try to help troubled kids from broken homes that they are standing on shaky, shaky legal ground,″ said Harrison, who is free on his recognizance and faces trial Feb. 7.
But D. Anne Emery, a St. Mary’s County prosecutor, said she has evidence that Harrison saw Travis at least twice knowing that state and federal warrants had been issued for the boy and his father.
″This is a situation where somebody who doesn’t like the outcome of the court order just takes the law into their own hands and does whatever he wants. It makes the very foundation of our legal system ineffective,″ she said.
The boy’s grandfather, Leroy Meriweather of Hinton, Okla., said Travis had grown increasingly thin while living with his mother, Terry Treadway, 27.
″The baby had a bloated belly like those starving babies you see on television in India and his hair was just falling out of his head when it was brushed,″ he said.
Treadway won custody when she divorced her husband, Michael Lee Meriweather in Oklahoma in 1985. She moved to Maryland and agreed to let Travis spend a week each month with his father.
″We’ve done just about everything we can do to find him and I’m all torn up inside,″ she said in an interview.
Dr. Donna Cosby, an Oklahoma City pediatrician who examined Travis in 1986 and 1987, said he appeared to be underweight.
″He would systematically lose up to a half a pound every time he visited his mother, and gain it back when he was with his dad. Calories at that age are crucial to brain development, and kids just can’t afford to have their weight bounce back and forth like that,″ she said.
Treadway said Travis was perfectly healthy in her care.
″Kids are kids and some of them don’t have the figures that adults might expect them to have,″ she said.
Harrison, 43, has testified on behalf of Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, a Washington, D.C., plastic surgeon who has been in jail for hiding her 7-year- old daughter, Hilary, from the courts since 1987. Morgan has alleged that the child’s father, Dr. Eric Foretich, sexually abused the child, a claim Foretich denies.