CLEVELAND — The parents of an 8-year-old boy who died from Hodgkin lymphoma after suffering for months from undiagnosed swollen glands have pleaded guilty to denying him medical treatment.
Monica Hussing, 37, and William Robinson Sr., 40, both of Cleveland, face up to eight years in prison at sentencing. They pleaded guilty Monday to attempted involuntary manslaughter in a last-minute plea deal before their trial was about to begin.
Willie Robinson collapsed at his home on March 22, 2008. Prosecutors say he had begged his parents to take him to see a doctor but was rejected. Hodgkin lymphoma is a highly treatable cancer.
Hussing's attorney, John Luskin, said his client took responsibility in the case but, given her education and background, didn't realize the boy was seriously ill and was treating him with cold medication.
"She is a mother that just did not have the capability to recognize" cancer, Luskin said Wednesday.
Robinson's lawyer, Thomas Rein, called it a "sad, horrific case" that drew him inquiries from the White House as changes to federal health care law were being considered in 2009.
"Had he had regular health coverage, it possibly could have prevented this," Rein said of the boy's death.
Luskin and Rein said the parents had financial problems and tried to get checkups for their children but couldn't afford it.
"The kid had what appeared to be swollen glands," Luskin said. "This was not a tumor that was getting bigger. It would come and go. He would have his good days, he would have his bad days."
Hussing's daughter, Lillian Hussing, said the family didn't have money for medical care when they lived in Warren, tried repeatedly to get help from social services and visited a free clinic but left when told they would have to pay $180.
"We did not know it was cancer," she said. "We tried and tried to get help and were denied every time," said the daughter, who's 18.
The family soon moved to Cleveland and the boy died within weeks.
Prosecutors say that while the boy was suffering, the parents claimed financial hardship but paid $87 to have a pit bull treated for fleas. Luskin said the dog belonged to Hussing's parents and her parents paid for the treatment.
Trumbull County Children Services says it had worked with the family to provide Willie health care, getting involved after receiving a phone call in July 2007. Agency officials said a case worker visited the family at least monthly and pushed the parents to have a medical follow-up on his swollen neck but they didn't.
However, Rein said a social worker who visited the family in January 2008 "indicated the kids were healthy and happy." He said no one knew the boy had cancer until he died and an autopsy was performed.
And Lillian Hussing said a case worker had told the family the boy's lump looked like a swollen gland and to hold off until they could secure financial assistance before getting it checked.
About two weeks after they moved to Cleveland, she said, her brother came down with something. Her mother treated him with cold medicine and he died within three days.
She said the boy never complained about his neck.
"He played, he went outside, he wrestled, he played video games," the boy's sister said. "He was the happiest kid you could imagine. It never seemed like he was suffering."
The emotional aftermath from their son's death led the couple to split, according to Luskin.
The couple's four other children under 18 were placed in the custody of a family member. Luskin said the daughter, upon turning 18, decided to return to live with her mother.
Rein said Robinson agreed to plead guilty so his children could be spared any further grief and wouldn't have to suffer by testifying. Lillian Hussing said her mother took a plea bargain because of the uncertainty of a trial and fear she could be sent to prison for a long time.
As part of the deal, the prosecution agreed to drop four counts each against each parent, including child endangering. Prosecutors didn't agree to a sentence recommendation. Both Luskin and Rein said they hope the judge will consider probation.
"There's not a day my client ... starts without shedding a tear for his son," Rein said.
The coroner ruled that the boy was a victim of medical neglect and died from pneumonia due to Hodgkin lymphoma.
Hodgkin lymphoma is a highly treatable cancer, with as many as 95 percent of patients in early stages of the disease surviving for five years or more with treatment. It's one of the most common forms of cancers among children.
Dr. Stanton L. Gerson, director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University, said parents should watch for glands that are swollen for more than two or three weeks, particularly if accompanied by weight loss and nighttime fevers.
Associated Press writer JoAnne Viviano in Columbus contributed to this report.