In a ruling legal experts said diminishes the power of the state’s Department of Children and Families, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the department can’t vaccinate children in its custody without parental approval.
In finding vaccinations do not constitute medical treatment Tuesday, the court said the cases of parents whose rights are not terminated have the authority to say whether their children can be vaccinated for childhood diseases. The decision overturned a lower court’s ruling.
The high court’s 7-0 ruling sends a strong message to DCF moving forward, attorneys said.
“This absolutely will have significant consequences for children who have been removed from parents prior to termination (of their parental rights),” said Benjamin Wattenmaker, attorney for the parents in the case. “Unless there is an emergency medical situation, DCF cannot unilaterally obtain medical care without the parents’ consent. It could mean that DCF will now go back to the Legislature to ask for broader power.”
Wattenmaker, an associate with Feiner Wolfson in Hartford, added, “This affects every single child in the foster care system and every parent who has had children removed before termination.”
Susan Filan, a solo practitioner in Westport who’s handled many family law matters, said the decision sets a clear line on the powers of DCF regarding medical treatment.
“What the Supreme Court did was draw a line that defines when DCF can act instead of the parent and when it has acceded to the wishes of the parents unless parental rights have been terminated,” said Filan, a former NBC and MSNBC legal analyst and prosecutor. “I think the agency may view this as curbing some of its powers of authority, but what it does is clarify when it may or may now act contrary to parents’ wishes. It’s a helpful decision for parents and for DCF because some of the questions they deal with on a daily basis can seem murky, but this [ruling] is helpful.”
Most lawyers who deal with such cases may not be affected, according to attorneys following the decision.
“For lawyers who practice in juvenile court, this settles the law under the narrow facts of the case. But, are there far-reaching ramifications for the vast majority of practitioners? I would say not,” said Patrick Tomasiewicz, an adjunct professor at the University of Hartford and a partner at Fazzano & Tomasiewicz.
The justices—citing previous case law —agreed with the parents that preventative vaccinations are not “medical treatment” because “treatment” is defined as the steps taken to cure an injury or disease.
The specific case in question dealt with parents Giordan and Nicanol, whose last names were not released, and the removal of their 1- and 2-year-old children following an April 2016 physical altercation between the couple. A DCF social worker observed the children “smelled of urine, were filthy and were covered with multiple bruises.”
The parents made nolo contendere pleas regarding neglect and consented to the children being committed to DCF custody. While the couple does visit the children, they now live with another family in the state.
The parents asked that their children not be vaccinated on religious grounds. DCF argued for vaccination and a New Britain Superior Court judge agreed. The vaccinations were stayed by the trial court and the Supreme Court, and the minors were never vaccinated, according to Wattenmaker.
The office of the state Attorney General represented DCF. Jaclyn Falkowski, spokesperson for the office, declined to comment.