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Who Makes Health Care Decisions for Your Child?

By Neetal Parekh | Last updated on

When a child is sick, parents bear the initial responsibility for their medical care.  But, what if you disagree with the doctor's orders?

As a civil rights case that started seven years ago, which was decided in favor of the parents, and then recently overturned in favor of the State shows, there is no definitive law on the issue.

In 2002, the Mueller family, then living in Idaho, negotiated the tough scenario when their five-week old daughter fell ill with a 100+ degree temperature.  Corissa Mueller, the baby's mother and a chemical engineer, disagreed with the doctor's order to conduct a spinal tap of the child to determine whether the baby had meningitis.  A spinal tap is an invasive procedure that bears some risk to the patient.  Her refusal to consent to the procedure prompted a call to Child Protective Services (CPS) and a not-so-neighborly hospital visit by Detective Dale Rogers.

What ensued over the course of the next few hours was a tug of war over the baby's care between the State and the family.  When the infant experienced a temperature spike to 101 degrees, Detective Rogers stepped in and declared that she was in imminent danger and turned her custody over to the State of Idaho.  After securing permission for the procedure from the State, doctors performed the routine spinal tap and administered antibiotics.  The baby's spinal tap showed no signs of meningitis, and the little one recovered without incident.  The baby was returned to the custody of her parents the next morning accompanied with the district court's assessment that evidence indicated "Corissa and Eric Mueller are loving parents who at all times had the best interests of [the child] in mind" and that there was "absolutely no evidence of abuse or neglect, and no allegation that either parent was in any way unfit."

However, the court case was just beginning.

The Muellers, infuriated by the State's usurping of authority regarding healthcare decisions for their child, sued.  They filed a suit against the hospital, the doctors, the officers, and Detective Rogers.  They were represented by the Center for Individual Rights and hoped to make a broader statement about health care procedure within the state, and the nation.

In 2007 a federal district judge found that some of the Muellers' constitutional rights were violated.  Namely, it found that Eric Mueller--the baby's father who was caring for the couple's other two children at home, so was not present at the hospital-- was denied his right to be be given pre- and post-deprivation notice before a healthcare decision was made regarding his daughter.  The court reiterated the standard, that state officials cannot assume custody of a minor child without notice and a hearing unless the child is in imminent danger.  The district court specifically held that Officer Rogers was not protected by qualified immunity regarding his decision not to notify Eric Mueller about the decisions being made regarding his daughter's health. Qualified immunity protects officers from being sued for actions taken in the course of their job when the law doesn't clearly establish that the actions violate the Constitution and the officer's interpretation is reasonable.  

Just this week, however, the district court decision was overturned.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court was wrong to rule in favor of the father and that Officer Rogers was protected by qualified immunity

Notably, the recent decision aims to protect officers such as Detective Rogers who endeavor to act in the best interest of a sick child---and does not set forth any clear rule on whether parents rights trump the rights of the State's to make healthcare decisions for their children.

Though the Muellers' case may have been handed down its most recent decision, the debate will undoubtedly continue.

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