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Special Rules Governing Minors

Terms:


Guardian Ad Litem:
A special guardian appointed by the court in which a particular litigation is pending to represent an infant, ward or unborn person in that particular litigation, and the status of the guardian ad litem exists only in that specific litigation in which the appointment occurs.

Parents’ Rights v. the State

The state has an interest in the education, health and safety of children.  As such, if parents are deemed deficient in these areas, the state may impose reasonable regulations on parents to ensure these interests are met.

Conflicts in the area of education often occur when the parents’ view differ with state requirements due to religious beliefs.  Where interference with religious freedom occurs, it is not sufficient for a state to show that there are no less restrictive alternatives for achieving its goals. Generally, a compromise occurs if most of the state’s requirements are met.

EXAMPLE: Parents of two Amish students (age 14 and 15) requested an exemption from Wisconsin’s compulsory education requirement of attending school until age 16.  The parents were successful is arguing that their religious beliefs of teaching their children to earn their living through farming and other rural activities was more important than exposing their children to the influences of attending school to age 16. The Supreme Court applied the highest standard - strict scrutiny - to conclude that “an exemption must be granted unless the state could show an interest ‘of the highest order,’ which could not be served by means other than denial of an exemption.”  See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).  Thus, since the Amish children remained in their own communities, they did not need the same education as the general population.

Another problematic area where parents’ wishes and the state may differ is in the area of medical care.  Parents sometimes refuse to consent to medical treatment for their children, citing religious beliefs.  Generally, where the treatment creates slight risk and lack of medical treatment would endanger the child’s health, courts often order the treatment over the parents’ objection.  On the other hand, where the medical treatment involves substantial risk, courts are very reluctant to order treatment.  Furthermore, the wishes of the child are considered.

EXAMPLE: A 16-year-old child with paralytic scoliosis (94% curvature of the spine) is faced with the choice of having surgery that may correct the condition.  Without corrective surgery (spinal fusion), the child will continue to be unable to stand and may become a bed patient.  Since the child’s mother is a Jehovah’s Witness and her religious beliefs prohibit blood transfusions (necessary for the operation), the mother refuses to consent to the operation.  The child’s life is not in immediate danger.  Taking into account the child’s wishes (he did not want the surgery) the court decided the child did not have to undergo the operation.  The court reasoned that “a state may not interfere with religious beliefs” unless its interest is of sufficient magnitude.  Particularly, the courts are more persuaded to let states interfere if the child’s life is in danger.  See, e.g., In re Green, 292 A.2d 387 (Pa. 1972).

The result may be different if certain death is the alternative to treatment.

EXAMPLE: Recently a Texas couple faced a showdown with the state over the medical treatment for their 12-year-old daughter, who suffered from Hodgkin’s disease (a type of cancer).  Specifically, the parents said the disease was in remission and their daughter did not need radiation treatment because she had already undergone a round of chemotherapy.  Their daughter also did not want the treatment.  The state disagreed and said the parents’ refusal for this additional treatment amounted to medical neglect.  The parents lost custody and the child was put in foster care so that she could receive treatment because the state claimed the parents were not doing enough to treat her.  See, e.g., http://prayforkatie.blogspot.com/.

Federal law also plays a part in determining when overriding the parents’ wishes in medical treatment is warranted.  Under 45 C.F.R. § 1340.15, hospitals receiving federal funds (essentially all hospitals) are strongly “encouraged” to set up Infant Care Review Committees to decide whether a handicapped infant should receive treatment, and if so, what type of treatment is justified, despite potential parental objections.  Failure to provide treatment could rise to the level of “medical neglect.”  See 45 C.F.R. § 1340.15(b).  Nevertheless, there is no federal statute or regulation expressly requiring that such treatment be given to disabled children over the parents’ objections.  See Bowen v. American Hospital Assoc., 476 U.S. 610 (1986).

In addition to providing medical care, parents also have an obligation to provide psychiatric care for their children.  A balancing act with the child’s rights comes into to play when this care requires commitment to a mental institution.  In general, the U.S. Supreme Court has held these two principles are to be balanced by presuming that the parents have the maturity and experience to act in the child’s best interests.  Nevertheless, there is also a need to have an impartial party, such as a physician, evaluate the case.  Yet, there is no requirement under due process for the child to be given a judicial hearing before being admitted.  See Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 (1979).

The worst case scenario regarding refusal to seek medical attention is that the child dies.  In those instances, some courts have allowed the parent to be prosecuted for manslaughter.

EXAMPLE: Larry is a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist.  When Larry’s son, Malcolm falls ill, Larry treats him with prayer versus seeking medical attention.  Larry took this approach for religious reasons.  Unfortunately, Malcolm died, and the state charged Larry with involuntary manslaughter.  Larry sought to have the charges dismissed because his religious beliefs about medical treatment should prevail.  The court held that prosecution of Larry did not violate his federal constitutional right to exercise his religious beliefs.  Specifically, the government’s action was warranted because states have a compelling interest in the lives of children. In addition, these interests have to be weighed against the parent’s religious beliefs.  See, e.g., Walker v. Superior Court, 763 P.2d 852 (Cal. 1988).

Miscellaneous Rules

There are legal restrictions placed on the activities of minors besides those involving contracts and torts.  For example:

  1. Property: A minor may own property, real or personal.  If a minor holds title to property, creditors of other family members, such as parents, cannot reach the minor’s property.  A minor may also convey property; however, such conveyances may be disaffirmed upon reaching majority or within a reasonable time thereafter.
  2. Making a will: State statues govern the minimum age (usually 18) before one can make a will.
  3. Court actions: A minor must be represented by a guardian ad litem if he or she is suing or being sued.