HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state’s child welfare agency cannot vaccinate children placed temporarily in its custody when the parents object.
Justices said in the 7-0 decision that state law allows the Department of Children and Families to provide medical treatment to children in temporary state custody, but ruled that immunizing them against diseases does not constitute medical treatment.
The ruling overturned a lower court decision that allowed DCF to vaccinate two young children in its care. The lower court ruling was put on hold pending the appeal to the Supreme Court.
The case involved a couple, whose names were not disclosed, who oppose vaccinations on religious grounds.
The parents lost custody of the children after Rocky Hill police arrested them for fighting last year. Police said they learned the parents and the children, who were 1 and 2 years old at the time, had been living out of a minivan for several months as they moved from Florida to Connecticut.
A DCF social worker who met the children at the police station said they smelled of urine, were filthy and had multiple bruises. The agency filed neglect allegations against the parents, and a judge granted DCF temporary custody of the children.
The parents pleaded no contest to the neglect charges, but sought to prevent the department from vaccinating their children, which led to the court fight, according to court records.
The children remain in temporary state custody.
Connecticut Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers noted in a concurring opinion that state law allows parents to opt not to vaccinate their children on religious grounds.
“The Connecticut legislature has already concluded as a matter of public policy that the interest of parents in opting not to vaccinate their children on religious grounds outweighs the child’s interest in being immune from certain diseases and the state’s … interest in ensuring the well-being of the child and the public at large,” she wrote.
Benjamin Wattenmaker, a lawyer for the father of the two Connecticut children, said Tuesday’s ruling was important for both clarifying DCF’s authority in making medical decisions and bolstering the state’s public policy exemptions for childhood immunizations.
“It’s important principally because it makes clear that the statute which was at issue in this case only allows DCF to seek emergency medical treatment for children who are in temporary custody,” he said.
Laws on vaccinating children in temporary state custody vary around the country.
The Texas House of Representatives in May passed a bill that would restrict emergency immunizations given to children removed from troubled homes. Maine’s highest court ruled in 2015 that the state could order immunizations for children in its custody against the parents’ wishes — a ruling similar to a 2014 Oregon Supreme Court decision that also allowed such immunizations.