Standing Up for Parents’ Rights

The Turner family

This is adapted from my article published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs blog InterAlia.

Imagine traveling outside the state where you reside and your child becomes ill. At first reflection, you wouldn’t hesitate to take her to the best and closest hospital. Well, after reading about the parents of 16-year-old Justina Pelletier from Connecticut who were charged with medical neglect, I will now hesitate before having my child treated by someone other than our family doctor.

In February 2013, when Justina began experiencing some gastrointestinal problems, a Tufts University doctor treating her wanted the girl to visit a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). Justina was taken by ambulance to BCH because she was in a wheelchair at the time and heavy snow was falling in Boston. She was taken to the emergency room and her parents informed doctors that she was there to see a specific gastroenterologist. The intern at BCH instead called upon a psychologist who diagnosed Justina with somatoform disorder. This disorder is a mental condition where the patient’s symptoms have no physical or biological explanation.

The Pelletier family refused to accept this new diagnosis and kept repeating that she was at BCH for the specific purpose of seeing a certain gastroenterologist to treat her diagnosed mitochondrial disease as directed by her doctor at Tufts University. Her parents never requested a new evaluation of Justina and repeatedly refused to accept this new diagnosis and accompanying psychiatric treatment. The BCH doctors called in Massachusetts Children and Family Services to take custody of Justina and had her parents escorted from the hospital.

Justina’s parents live in Connecticut and were forced to hire lawyers and travel between Connecticut and Massachusetts during their fight to regain custody of their child. Poor Justina spent a year in a locked psychiatric unit at BCH and then was moved to another locked facility in Massachusetts. Her parents were only allowed a one-hour weekly visit and 20-minute phone call for the 15 months when she was in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, Justina is now going home. However, it was only because her father risked going to jail by breaking the judge’s gag order to speak with the press. That there is even a discussion about who has rights over children – the parent or the government – is profoundly disturbing.

Consider recent legislation that passed in Michigan that provides children 12-17 years old the option to deny their parents access to their online medical records. One mother went to the press and expressed her dismay when medical personnel at her doctor’s office informed her they would be having a private conversation with her 17-year-old daughter to discuss this new right of privacy from her parents. The doctor’s office manager also reportedly said that during the five-minute private conversation with her daughter a nurse would discuss birth control options, HIV, and share information about sexually transmitted diseases. When this mother refused to allow the conversation, they informed her she could not opt out of this new medical records access law. Sounds pretty heavy-handed.

Parental rights are doubtless more secure in Oklahoma than in some of the more liberal states. Oklahoma’s newly enacted Parents’ Bill of Rights (pdf) may be seen by some as duplicative, given that Oklahoma already has laws that firmly protect parents’ relationships with their children. However, given Washington’s desire to assert its preeminence over the states, Oklahoma policymakers must remain vigilant and active.

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