The recent measles outbreak in several states has highlighted issues confronted by the courts in balancing parents who object to immunization of their children with public health. Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals recently addressed this issue in the context of a child placed with the Juvenile Court after being adjusted to require assistance, in an opinion called In re K. Y-B.
Under Maryland law, a child qualifies as a Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) when the child has been abused, neglected or has a mental or developmental disability, and the parents are unable or unwilling to care for the child properly. The court’s opinion indicates that when this child was born, the Department of Social Services immediately petitioned for this child to be declared a CINA, as were five of his seven siblings. The record indicated that the mother had mental health issues, and both parents were charged with child abuse.
After a hearing, the Juvenile Court determined that the child was a CINA and placed in shelter care. It also indicated that the Department of Social Services could determine what routine immunizations were appropriate. The mother claimed that she had religious objections to immunizing the child, and the court indicated that she could appeal that issue. The appellate court noted that this was not a case where a parent was absent so that others who qualified to make immunization decisions needed to follow her known wishes on the issue.
The appellate court noted that when a child is in shelter care, the Juvenile Court becomes responsible for the child’s care, safety and welfare. Without deciding whether the mother had a genuine religious objection to immunization, the lower court was found to have the authority to balance her objections to immunization with the best interests of the child and the public. The appellate court said that while a parent was free to believe what she wanted, “she cannot act on her beliefs in such a way as to pose a serious danger to the child’s life or health or impair or endanger the child’s welfare.”
Noting the resurgence of measles and the science of immunization, the appellate court affirmed the authority of the Juvenile Court to allow routine recommended vaccinations to protect the child as well as the public. While this ruling is limited to CINA children in shelter care, it shows how courts address parental objections to immunizing children in light of today’s scientific consensus on the benefits of immunization.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.