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Supreme Court: State can immunize children in its custody

Hannah Hoffman

Statesman Journal


The Department of Human Services can order children in its custody to be immunized, even if the child is in temporary custody and even if the parents object to the immunizations on principle, according to an Oregon Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday.

The state took custody of the eight children involved in the case — ages 1 to 10 — in January 2012 after finding their home “bestrewn with garbage and food, the children dirty, and the children’s educational needs barely addressed by mother’s home-school curriculum,” according to the court’s decision in Department of Human Services v. S.M. et al.

The state ordered the children be placed in foster care after several weeks of working with the family because “the condition or circumstances (of the children were) such as to endanger (the children’s) welfare or others’ (welfare),” the court opinion said.

The state alleged the parents had failed to provide their children with adequate shelter, necessities, education, hygiene or healthcare and also alleged the father had been violent toward the mother.

The family admitted to all charges but the lack of medical care.

A juvenile court judge granted permission in April 2012 for the state to immunize the children, and the parents objected. Their mother cited religious objections, specifically to the use of stem cells in some immunizations.

However, the Marion County Circuit Court — and later the Oregon Court of Appeals — upheld the juvenile court’s decision.

The court disagreed with both the parents’ legal arguments, one of which said the court had never ruled they were unfit to make medical decisions for their children, and the state should have no authority to make decisions beyond the scope of the issues that brought the children into its care.

Their other argument was that the state had no legal authority to make medical decisions beyond anything necessary for the children’s short-term health.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that the state had the authority to force the immunizations for several reasons:

• Oregon laws allow a legal guardian — the human services department, in this case — to make decisions for its ward that include surgery and “other decisions…of substantial legal significance.”

Immunizations constitute a legally significant decision, the court said, and are otherwise more routine and less invasive than surgery. As such, immunizations meet the standard for decisions a legal guardian can make for its ward.


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