BRANDON — A child abuse investigation has been closed with a finding of innocence in the case of Renee Petro, a Fishhawk mother who's seeking to use a medical marijuana derivative to help her brain-damaged, epilepsy-stricken child.
Pleased at the outcome, Petro went to see Gov. Rick Scott as he made an appearance in Brandon on Tuesday as part of a statewide re-election campaign kickoff tour.
In a brief conversation with Scott after his speech, Petro thanked him for promising to sign a bill just passed by the state Legislature that would legalize the derivative and urged him to learn more about medical uses of marijuana.
Scott responded with sympathy for her family's difficulties, noting that he feels fortunate because he and his wife “have two healthy children and three healthy grandchildren.”
Petro, profiled in the Tribune in January, got an unannounced visit last month from child abuse investigators with the Hillsborough County sheriff's office, apparently looking into allegations that she had given her 12-year-old son Branden marijuana illegally.
The sheriff's office handles child abuse investigations for the state Department of Children and Families.
A female deputy questioned Petro and her 9-year-old daughter, photographed Branden and asked to look at his medical records and medications, Petro said.
Petro says she has never given her son marijuana, but says she obtains a legal oil derived from hemp that contains high concentrations of a chemical found in marijuana believed to help prevent seizures in children stricken with epilepsy.
The chemical, cannabidiol or CBD, doesn't cause a marijuana high. The oil contains little or none of the chemical that does, which is tetrahyrdrocannabinol or THC.
She also gives Branden an array of drugs intended to prevent seizures and allay other mental and physical problems. She told Scott the boy has become “an addict to pharma drugs.”
Petro said she received a letter recently from informing her that the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office case has been closed “with no indicators of abuse, neglect or abandonment.” The letter came from Maj. Robert Bullara with the office's child protective investigation division.
“Of course I feel happy, but this should be an eye-opener to people that we're vulnerable to this,” Petro said. “I feel this was a total victory. If you're not doing anything wrong you shouldn't be treated like this.”
Bullara couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday; Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter said under state law, the department can't discuss or even confirm or deny the existence of a child abuse investigation.
Petro's husband and Branden's father, Fadi Petro, is an Army colonel who works with the U.S. diplomatic service and spends most of his time in the Middle East, usually coming home for about four visits a year. Renee Petro said her husband has been seeking a compassionate leave because of the investigation.
Fadi Petro told the Tribune in an interview that he, like his wife, doesn't want to administer illegal marijuana but does want to be able to try a medicinal marijuana product to help their son.
Until age 8, according to his parents' description and photos, Branden was a bright, happy, athletic child.
That year, he was stricken by a sudden, devastating infection, leaving him comatose, while the family was on a visit to her ancestral home in the Middle East.
He emerged from the coma with severe brain damage, and had to learn to walk and talk again. The damage caused a form of epilepsy including frequent seizures, severe learning disabilities, suicidal depression, aggressiveness and withdrawal.
Renee Petro said his seizures sometimes leave him partially paralyzed and with difficulty breathing. She fears they could kill him. Medications haven't controlled them, but neurologists say there's evidence some children with the same syndrome benefit from marijuana derivatives.
In January, Petro testified in Tallahassee on a bill, since passed, that would legalize 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, were alleviated.
The Florida bill passed both houses and Scott has told legislators he'll sign it, said House Speaker Will Weatherford, who attended Scott's event in Brandon.