When Can a Parent Deny Medical Treatment to a Minor Child?

Every day parents face difficult medical decisions regarding their minor children. For example, parents need to decide when to seek medical care and treatment for their sick child or whether or not to vaccinate a healthy child. What seems like an easy decision for one parent is often a difficult decision for another parent.
Each parent draws on his or her own experiences, education and religious beliefs in making medical decisions for his or her child. But what happens when a parent makes the wrong decision? Can the state intervene to help the child?
When the State Can Make Medical Decisions for a Minor Child
State laws typically give much leeway to parents and allow them to make medical decisions for their own children unless their decisions endanger the life of a child. Many courts will allow a state child protection agency to make medical decisions for a child if:
  1. The medical community is in agreement about the appropriate course of treatment for the child;
  2. The expected outcome of that treatment is a relatively normal life with a reasonably good quality of life;
  3. The child would die without the treatment; and
  4. The parent is refusing consent for the treatment.
If any of the criteria described above are not present in a given case then many states will defer to the parent’s decisions regarding medical treatment for the minor child. For example, if a child has a terminable condition and several doctors are in agreement that treatment is no longer beneficial for the child then the parents have the right to refuse treatment and seek hospice care for their child. Similarly, if different doctors suggest different courses of treatment then the parent is entitled to choose which doctor’s advice to follow without fear of being charged with a crime in what is already a heart wrenching situation.
Possible Consequences for the Parent
A parent who denies his or her child necessary medical care could face the following consequences:
·         Loss of custody. The state may find that the parent is neglecting the child and place the child in state custody in order to protect the child.
·         Criminal charges. The parent may face child abuse, child neglect and / or assault charges for failing to provide the necessary medical care for the child.
Religious Beliefs are Not a Defense for Denying Medical Treatment to a Minor
Adults have the right to refuse medical care for religious or personal reasons. However, they may not impose religious practices or personal beliefs which endanger the welfare of a child on minor children. Instead, most states require parents to provide a reasonable degree of medical care for their children or else face legal consequences.
Children are entitled to protection. Often, that protection comes from their parents. However, when it does not then the state has the responsibility to step in and act in the best interest of the child until such time as the parent is deemed capable of protecting the child or the child reaches the age of majority.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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