TAMPA — A Fishhawk woman who believes a medical marijuana derivative will help save the life of her brain-damaged son is being investigated by authorities, apparently over a complaint that she gave the 12-year-old child the drug illegally.
Renee Petro, who was profiled in a Tampa Tribune story in January, got an unannounced visit from child abuse investigators from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office Tuesday. The sheriff's office handles child abuse investigations for the state Department of Children and Families.
“I feel like this was a violation of our rights. It feels absolutely insulting,” Petro told the Tribune on Friday. “I'm trying to focus on my child's health and getting him better, and I'm doing it in a legal manner.”
Petro said she has been giving her son, Branden, a legal hemp oil “that you can buy in any health food store,” but added, “I was furious. I swear to God I have not given Branden marijuana. If I was going to, I would move” to a state where it's legal. “I'm disgusted with our system and how they treat people.”
Petro has been publicly advocating to legalize a different marijuana derivative that doesn't contain THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a euphoric high, but does contain cannabidiol, or CBD. Some physicians believe CBD can calm seizures in children with Branden's form of brain damage, caused by an infection.
Petro said a sheriff's deputy came to her home Tuesday, arriving while she was picking up her 9-year-old daughter from school, and said she needed to investigate an allegation that Petro was giving her son marijuana illegally and failing to give him prescribed medication.
She said the deputy interviewed her and asked to interview her daughter separately. The deputy also photographed Branden, who had just recovered from a seizure and was sleeping, as well as the home, including the children's rooms and the inside of the refrigerator.
The deputy also asked to see Branden's medications, prescriptions, and blood test results, Petro said.
She said the deputy questioned her daughter about whether she had seen Branden receiving his medications.
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Petro said she cooperated with all the requests, but refused to allow drug tests of herself and Branden.
But she said the incident has caused disruption and emotional trauma to her family.
“My daughter thinks they're going to take her away, my son is seizing more because of stress, and his dad is furious, asking if he needs to come back home” from his military deployment, she said.
Petro's husband and Branden's father, Fadi Petro, is an Army colonel who works with the U.S. diplomatic service and has spent eight of the last 11 years in the Middle East. He's not allowed to say where or to talk about his work.
He normally comes home for, at most, four visits a year, he told the Tribune in January, and can't leave the Army because the family depends on Tricare, the military health care program.
But Renee Petro said Friday he has asked about the possibility of a “compassionate deployment” back to the U.S. and has been told he could get one if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Morgan & Morgan law firm, whose principal John Morgan is backing a constitutional amendment drive to legalize medical use of marijuana in Florida, has offered Petro pro bono representation, said Ben Pollara, manager of the amendment campaign.
In a news release, Pollara said he was outraged by the event, adding that it illustrates the need to pass the amendment.
“This story is sickening, but it's unfortunately not the only one,” Pollara said. “Across the state, there are people who feel persecuted simply for wanting to give their loved ones the best care available.”
A DCF spokeswoman said she couldn't confirm or deny a pending child abuse investigation involving the family.
Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said the office couldn't comment on any specific investigation, but added, “Any child abuse case that comes before us will be thoroughly investigated, both for the protection of the child and the accused.”
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Petro's account of Branden's illness is heartrending.
He was once a bright, happy child — a forward on the Fishhawk Elementary School soccer team who studied Hebrew and Arabic. He wanted to be president and liked to flirt with girls.
When the family was on a visit to her ancestral home in the Middle East, Branden, then 8, was stricken by a sudden, devastating infection that left him comatose. He emerged from the coma with severe brain damage, and had to learn to walk and talk again.
He was left with a form of epilepsy including frequent seizures, severe learning disabilities, suicidal depression, aggressiveness and withdrawal.
Renee Petro said his frequent seizures sometimes leave him partially paralyzed and with difficulty breathing. She fears the seizures could kill him — or that he'll harm himself.
“I just want my son back,” she said.
In January, she went to Tallahassee to testify before a legislative committee on legalizing a marijuana derivative called “Charlotte's Web,” high in CBD but low in THC. It was named for a Colorado child whose seizures, similar to Branden's, it alleviated.
Legislation to allow use of certain kinds of marijuana is moving in the state Legislature, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. The House and Senate bills have both passed committee stops with few “no” votes.
“I've been advocating for medical marijuana, but I've been doing it in a legal manner so we don't end up where we are right now,” Petro said. “I'm trying to go thourgh the system, through the laws, so we don't have to uproot and move. I feel like by advocating and speaking up, people want to seize on that.
“I'm disgusted with our system and how they treat people.”
Tribune staff writer James Rosica contributed to this report.