The current measles epidemic across the U.S. has brought the issue of vaccination to the forefront. Many states allow parents to refuse to vaccinate their children for religious or other reasons. While New Jersey law allows an exemption from mandatory immunization for medical or religious reasons, that right is not absolute. A recent New Jersey Appellate Division case dealt with vaccination over parents’ objection in a very limited circumstance, but it’s reasoning may be relevant in broader situations.
The matter of New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. J.B. and C.R. involved two minor children who were removed from their parents’ care based on the substantiated and admitted abuse and neglect of the parents. The children were put in the care of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“the Division”) who sought court approval to vaccinate the children. The mother objected to vaccination based on religious grounds. The child’s pediatrician testified that the children should be vaccinated as per the published guidelines.
The lower court held that the Division was authorized to proceed with the pediatrician’s recommendations to vaccinate since it has custody of the children. Further it found vaccination was necessary to safeguard the children’s health and life. The mother appealed the decision.
The Appellate Court recognized that parents have a constitutionally-protected interest in raising their biological children, even if those children have been placed in foster care. However, the State has the right to intervene and override the desires of parents who refuse to consent to medical treatment if “it is necessary to prevent harm to a child.”
New Jersey law allows exemption for pupils from vaccination on religious grounds, but not for philosophical, moral, secular, or more general reasons. However, the Appellate Court stated this law did not apply in these circumstances “because this matter does not concern the children’s attendance at school. … Rather, this is a matter of ensuring the health and safety of children in the care and custody of the Division.”
Under the Child Placement Bill of Rights Act, children have an independent right to receive adequate and appropriate medical care and the Division can pursue any legal remedies to provide medical care or treatment for a child when necessary to prevent or remedy serious harm to the child. The Appellate Court looked at the safety and benefits of immunization finding that it was a reasonable means of ensuring the health and safety of the children in the care and custody of the Division, especially during a measles outbreak.
As a result, the Court held “When children are removed from parents under Title 9, the Division is charged with the duty to provide appropriate medical care and treatment. We view this duty as encompassing the authority to administer age-appropriate immunizations over the religious objections of the parents.”
What does this mean for parents who may object to immunization? This case is limited to certain situations where children are in the care of the Division. However, disputes over vaccination can come up in several ways in a family law matter. Parents should consult a qualified attorney to understand their rights.