Court Finds Child Neglect Where Parents Refuse to Consent to Life-Saving Surgery “because it stops the heart.”

Matter of Eli H. v. Barbara H., nn-01297-08, decided on November 28, 2008 by Judge Barbara R. Potter of St. Lawrence County Family Court, required the court  to balance the religious beliefs of “loving, caring parents” of an infant born on April 1, 2007 with life-threatening congenital heart defects with the court’s duty as “parens patriae” to ensure the infant’s health and safety.

The heart defects were initially treated by the surgical insertion of a shunt between his aorta and his pulmonary artery to increase the blood flow to his lungs. Due to the infant’s growing body, the shunt became too small, requiring that it be replaced and that the hole in his heart that he was born with be repaired in order to prevent him from dying early in childhood.  The infant’s parents refused to consent to the surgery.

Thus petitions were filed by the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services alleging that the infant is a neglected child pursuant to Family Court Act 1012. The parents’ objection to the surgical procedure was based upon the ground that the procedure, a “complete repair”, involves stopping and starting the heart while a cardio-pulmonary bypass machine is in use.

The infant’s parents are members of the Schwartz-entruber Amish community.

Testimony presented at the hearing included testimony by the infant’s father, the parents’ Bishop and the chair of the Anthropology Department of State University of New York – Potsdam, Professor Karen Johnson-Weiner.  According to the testimony, although the parents’ religious beliefs permit the Church’s members to receive medical care including surgery, stopping and starting the heart is not permitted.  In addition, the surgery could have possibly required the infant to need a pacemaker, which is also against the Church’s religious beliefs.

The parents, while expressing an understanding that the court could order the surgery, also expressed a lack of understanding how that could be so when America is “not found that way – they have religious grounds.” In deciding to order the surgery, the court found that there is an imminent risk of actual harm to the child’s health if he does not receive the “complete repair” surgery.  Medical testimony established that there is no alternative to the “complete repair” procedure.

Further, medical testimony established that delaying the surgery not only creates more opportunity for an adverse event to occur, and but also increases the likelihood that the infant would not survive the surgery. The court stated: “This Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that E.H. is a child whose physical condition is in imminent danger of being impaired as a result of the failure of his parents to exercise a minimum degree of care in supplying him with adequate medical care.”  As such, the court concluded that the infant is a neglected child as defined in Family Court Act 1012 [f][1][A].

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