November 6, 2017

In re Elianah T.-T.

326 Conn. 614
August 15, 2017
Abuse and Neglect, Medical Needs

Respondents are appealing from the trial court’s decision that denied their motion to keep the Commissioner from vaccinating their two children, Elianah and Nathaniel. The issue in this appeal is whether General Statute § 17a–10(c) allowed the Department of Children and Families to give vaccines to children in the Department’s custody contrary to a parent’s wishes.

In April 2016, the Department filed neglect petitions and orders of temporary custody regarding the two children, and these were later sustained by the trial court. The children were put in the Department’s care temporarily, with reunification being the end goal. The trial court was informed that the respondents opposed vaccinations for the children because of their religious beliefs. Respondents made an oral motion to keep the Department from vaccinating the children.

The trial court had a hearing where it conducted examinations of the Department’s witnesses, including a clinical psychologist, a pediatrician, and a nurse consultant. The mother testified as well about her religious beliefs. In January 2017, the trial court denied the respondent’s motion, allowing the Department to vaccinate the two children. The trial court had not relied on the respondent’s religious beliefs when making the decision because the children were in the Department’s custody. The trial court found the source of the Department’s “authority and obligation to vaccinate” in § 17a–10(c).

Respondents argued that § 17a–10(c)’s provision for “medical treatment” does not cover vaccinations, further specifying that this only pertains to “existing” injuries or illness. The Department counters that the statute allows for medical treatment in the best interests of the children.

The Supreme Court in analyzing what “medical treatment” meant in the context of § 17a–10(c) looked to the legislature’s intent and whether the statutory language applies in this case. The court was also looking to whether the statute was ambiguous. In its analysis, the court looked to the dictionary definition of “treatment” which included cures for illnesses. This does not match the Department’s definition which interprets “treatment” as “mitigation” against illness.

The court found ambiguity in the statute when looking at the rest of the statutory language which included the purpose to “insure the continued good health or life of the child.” This statement is contradictory to the dictionary definition of “treatment” which assumes a present medical issue. As a result of the ambiguity, the court looked to other statutes in the title discussing both “treatment and prevention.” This suggests that if the legislature wanted to include prevention treatment in § 17a–10(c), it would have. The court went on to consider the statute’s legislative history, which only sought treatment in case of emergency. This demonstrated that the legislature didn’t intend to give the Department non-emergent medical care for children in their custody contrary to a parent’s wishes.

The court held that § 17a–10(c) does not give the Department the ability to give vaccines to children in their custody without parental consent, reversing and remanding the trial court’s decision.

Chief Justice Roberts concurred to clarify that the Department does not have carte blanche guardianship over the children in their custody in regards to medical treatment. Instead she argues, that there is a “joint guardianship” with the parents if there has been no termination of parental rights. The Chief Justice points to the fact that the legislature allows parents to not vaccinate their children because of their religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court later granted the Department’s motion for reconsideration in this case, where the Department argued that § 17a–10(c) should be considered using both §§ 17a-93 and 17a-98. The Department says that these statutes gives them the authority required to vaccinate children. The court denied the relief that the Department requested because they had not brought up the argument previously, but did not bar these arguments from being used in the future.