Often alone in a tiny hotel room in Chicago, hundreds of miles from her home in Kansas City, North, Michelle Rider prays for a son she is allowed to see just twice a week in hourlong, supervised visits.
She prays that 16-year-old Isaiah, her only child, is safe in a foster home with strangers. She prays that a judge will see that mother and son should be reunited. And she prays that she and Isaiah, who last year was a sophomore at Staley High School, can soon come home to Missouri.
“I feel like part of my heart has been taken,” said Rider, 34, a single mom. “That’s my child, that’s my son. I would never hurt my son.”
But that, Rider said, is what a hospital staff in Chicago has accused her of doing. In mid-April, as she discussed transferring her son — who has a chronic medical history — from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital to a hospital in another state, she says she was reported for medical child abuse and her son was placed in temporary protective custody.
The allegation, which family and friends reject, is that Rider has subjected Isaiah to unnecessary medical care, causing him to suffer.
Ever since, including a 24-day period when she couldn’t see Isaiah, she has been fighting to get him back and bring him home.
Friends and family in the Kansas City area have followed Rider’s plight in Illinois, which started in March when the two arrived at the Chicago hospital so Isaiah could be treated for complications from neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition in which tumors develop on nerves throughout the body. And it continues Wednesday in Cook County family court, where Rider will again take the stand in a hearing that ultimately will determine whether Isaiah remains in foster care or goes home with his mother.
Many supporters in the Kansas City area, and some who have traveled to Chicago to be with Rider, plan to wear “Save Isaiah” T-shirts Wednesday. They hope the court comes to the same conclusion they reached years ago.
“All I’ve seen is here is a kid who loves his mom (and) a mom who loves her kid and wants the best for him,” said Michael Randle, pastor of Mosaic Bible Fellowship Church in Kansas City. “That’s all I’ve seen.”
Added Christina Ricci of Olathe, a friend of Rider for more than two decades: “All she’s ever wanted is to take care of her son and get him the medical help he needs.”
The story of Rider and her son was detailed in an extensive report in the Chicago Tribune last month. It included details from records the newspaper obtained that reportedly show the hospital accused Rider — a former hospice nurse — of interfering with her son’s medical care.
Among the list of allegations, according to the newspaper report: Rider moved her son from hospital to hospital in several states. She didn’t agree with doctors’ advice. And she insisted on medication for her son to relieve pain. Staff members reportedly said the pain lessened when the mother wasn’t around.
The staff also said Rider displayed characteristics associated with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, according to the Tribune. That condition can describe a caregiver who subjects a child to unnecessary medical care.
Contacted by The Star about the Rider case, a spokesperson with Lurie Children’s Hospital emailed a statement: “Due to patient privacy issues we cannot comment on any individual case. Lurie Children’s has a long history of providing family-centered care to all our patients. As part of our 132-year mission, we are committed to ensuring the health and welfare of every child we serve.”
For years, Isaiah has had a leg injury initially suffered at an after-school program when he was 6. Rider said the main goal for most of her son’s childhood was making sure the leg healed and he didn’t lose it. He endured several surgeries — about one surgery a year for nine years — to heal the fracture.
But because of constant issues, part of his leg was amputated at Children’s Mercy Hospital the day after his 15th birthday. The hospital had treated her son for 11 years, Rider said.
Randle, a former teacher in the Kansas City school district, said he was there the day Isaiah’s leg was amputated.
“Michelle was right there by his side, always is,” Randle said. “She’s an involved parent. … When you see that, you applaud. Nothing weird about that.”
Eventually fitted with a prosthesis, Isaiah was determined to run again. But shortly after the amputation, Rider said, her son started to experience involuntary movements in his leg. Then came the pain.
Children’s Mercy, she said, transferred Isaiah to a Boston hospital, where a procedure interrupted the pain. That worked, and the teenager’s health was good for a year, according to Rider.
Then in September 2013, the pain and convulsions started up again. Mother and son went back to Boston. There, doctors found tumors on Isaiah’s spine, a result of the neurofibromatosis.
“We knew he had that,” Rider said. “But our focus was always on the leg.”
All the while, Rider was her son’s advocate and source of support, said her father, Gary Rider. He and his wife, Judy, live near their daughter and grandson in Kansas City, North.
“Every time he had to go to the hospital, she would stay by his side until he could leave the hospital,” Gary Rider said. “I guess from my point of view that’s why I’m outraged at the allegations (from Lurie Children’s Hospital). I don’t understand them.”
The claims of medical child abuse were levied in a hotline call April 15. Michelle Rider’s parents had left the Chicago hospital three days earlier after getting word that their son, Michelle’s brother, had unexpectedly died.
“What a stunningly horrible blow for a family that has gone through almost everything you can think of,” Diana Rendell said of the hotline call. Rendell lives in Greenwood southeast of Lee’s Summit and is a church friend of Michelle Rider.
“I just think she’s been through everything,” Rendell said. “What else can someone go through?”
Rider hasn’t been accused of any crime. The state child welfare agency said there was sufficient evidence to indicate Isaiah was “in substantial risk of physical injury” while in his mother’s care, according to records the Tribune obtained.
Rider says she and her son sometimes spend their hourlong visits at a McDonald’s, Isaiah telling her about life.
She says he insists he wants to come home. Here in the Kansas City area he has plenty of friends and a girlfriend. He misses his job as a busboy at a Liberty restaurant.
Mother and son wait for a judge’s ruling.
When Rider enters family court Wednesday afternoon, Racquel Kos of Olathe will be wearing her T-shirt in honor of a young man she has never met.
She knows Rider through a mutual friend and continues to pray for her. Every time Rider is in a Chicago courtroom, Kos thinks of her. And on Wednesday, Kos’ mind will be focused even more.
“I’ll try to go about my day and pray and wait to see how things go,” said Kos, who runs a day care out of her home. “You can’t get it off your mind all day.”
To show the mother and son in Chicago that people back home support them, Kos organized the T-shirts and rushed an order last week so people could have one to wear Wednesday. A few supporters have posted pictures of themselves wearing the shirt on a Facebook page called Team Isaiah.
Rider said the support of family and friends has been crucial.
“It’s not a situation you ever can prepare yourself for,” she said. “It’s unbelievable that something like this can happen. I never imagined through all Isaiah’s suffering and medical problems that this is the struggle we’d have to deal with on top of everything else.
“It’s so unjust. It’s so hard to tell what can happen.”