Police and poison control experts were allowed for the first time Wednesday afternoon to search the West Seneca home where Deborah Pignataro and her two children apparently were poisoned with arsenic.
Investigators hope the search will help them determine whether the poisoning was an accident or a crime.
Authorities said late Wednesday they had removed a number of household items to analyze but found no obvious signs of any arsenic in the house.
"We got permission to look around in there from Mrs. Pignataro, and we'll be looking for pesticides, herbicides, rat poisons or anything else in the home that might have contained arsenic," said Detective Capt. Florian Jablonski of the West Seneca Police before the search.
Experts from the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital accompanied police and investigators from the Erie County district attorney's office as they examined the home.
Mrs. Pignataro, 42, suffered nearly fatal arsenic poisoning, and her two children -- Ralph, 12, and Lauren, 9 -- were also exposed to arsenic. Although she has been hospitalized for more than three weeks, Mrs. Pignataro did not allow investigators to check the home until Wednesday.
"At this point, we're still in the position of trying to determine whether a crime has been committed," District Attorney Frank J. Clark said. "We're not looking at anyone as a suspect because we don't know if it was a crime."
Clark declined to speculate why hospital tests showed that Mrs. Pignataro's husband, Anthony, was not poisoned by arsenic. Pignataro, a former doctor who served a prison term for criminally negligent homicide after a breast-enlargement patient died in his office in 1997, has been unavailable to comment since the investigation started last week.
Authorities also confirmed on Wednesday that the two Pignataro children have been temporarily placed with an uncle by Erie County Social Services officials while police attempt to find the cause of the arsenic poisoning.
Ralph and Lauren have been released from Children's Hospital, where they were examined after unusually high traces of arsenic were found in their blood, authorities said.
Their mother is still recuperating in South Buffalo Mercy Hospital from a much more severe case of poisoning.
"She is still so weak she needs help making a phone call," said Denis A. Scinta, a family attorney. "She may be in the hospital for another month."
Instead of turning the children over to their father, county Child Protection Services authorities put them in the temporary custody of Frank Rago, an uncle living in the Buffalo area, Scinta confirmed late Wednesday.
"They've given the children, at least temporarily, to Mr. Rago, obviously because of this poisoning incident," said Scinta, who represents Rago and has also represented Mrs. Pignataro. "CPS is trying to get to the bottom of this, and they're also acting to protect the children."
Scinta said Rago is Mrs. Pignataro's brother.
Rago will file papers asking a Family Court judge to make sure that the children are eventually placed back with their mother, rather than being sent to a foster family, Scinta said.
"Deborah isn't in a position to take care of her kids right now," Scinta said. "She's upset that she can't be home with them."
Scinta, who has spoken to Mrs. Pignataro in recent days, was asked if Mrs. Pignataro knows how she was poisoned.
"She doesn't know," Scinta said.
The attorney confirmed that the couple has had some marital difficulties in recent months. He said Pignataro has visited and spoken to his wife in the hospital.
When asked if the Pignataros will get together after Mrs. Pignataro recuperates, Scinta responded: "I don't know. Let's see what the investigation brings."
County Social Services Commissioner Deborah A. Merrifield said she could not confirm or deny what actions were taken regarding the Pignataro children.
"I can only tell you, speaking about our general procedures, that we would temporarily move children away from their parents when there might be some unanswered questions, or if the children might potentially be at risk," she said.
In giving that information, she was not referring to the Pignataros or any other specific case, the commissioner said.
"They're just playing it safe, making sure the kids are safe, until all this has been sorted out," added a law enforcement official who is familiar with the situation.