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Md. appeals court upholds vaccination over mother’s objection

The state’s interest in immunizing an infant in its protective custody against disease trumps a parent’s religious objections to immunization, Maryland’s second-highest court has ruled in upholding a judge’s immunization order for a child placed in emergency shelter care due to his parents’ alleged abuse.

In its reported 3-0 decision Friday, the Court of Special Appeals called the order valid even though the infant had not been declared a Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) and parental rights had not been terminated as removal proceedings were pending.

The appellate court’s decision did not address whether a judge could order immunization for a child not in the state’s protective custody.

“The juvenile court confronted a situation in which the child was only two weeks old and was in the care and custody of the Department (of Social Services) pending an adjudication of whether he was a CINA,” Judge Kevin F. Arthur wrote for the Court of Special Appeals. “The (juvenile) court could properly consider the well-known facts that infants of a certain age are acutely at risk of contracting infectious diseases and other serious illnesses unless they receive the vaccinations that are recommended by authorities in pediatric medicine.”

The Baltimore City Department of Social Services won a court order to place the child, identified in court papers as K. Y-B., in emergency shelter care custody based on the department’s petition that the mother and father had faced criminal charges of abuse and neglect of their other children. With CINA proceedings pending, the department sought an order from Baltimore City Circuit Court, sitting as a juvenile court, to have the child immunized over the mother’s objections based on her Muslim faith.

The juvenile court, citing the state’s interest in protecting children, ordered the child vaccinated, an order that has been stayed pending appeals.

The Court of Special Appeals, in upholding the Jan. 22, 2019, order, cited a litany of medical research attesting to the importance of childhood vaccinations to prevent a raft of diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and chicken pox.

The appellate court also cited the Maryland Court of Appeals’ 1963 decision in Levitsky v. Levitsky that a mother’s “freedom to believe whatever she chooses is absolute, but her freedom to act is not.”

“The ‘guaranty of religious freedom’ does not protect a parent who acts on his or her religious views to deny a child ‘medical care necessary to save his life,’” Arthur wrote, quoting from Levitsky.

“In deciding whether a child should be placed in shelter care, therefore, it is entirely appropriate for a juvenile court to evaluate whether a parent’s religious beliefs pose a serious danger to the child’s life or health or impair or endanger the child’s welfare,” Arthur added. “The (juvenile) court did not err in evaluating those issues in this case and in concluding that the mother’s religious beliefs must yield to the child’s health and welfare.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which represented the department, hailed the court’s ruling in a statement Tuesday.

“Consistent with the overriding purpose of the CINA statute to protect the best interests of children, the decision appropriately prioritizes the health and safety of the child,” the office stated.

The head of Maryland Legal Aid’s Baltimore child advocacy unit, which represented the infant, said the agency was “thrilled” with the court’s ruling.

“We hope it will guide other courts regarding vaccinations for children entering foster care,” Joan Little said.

No decision has been made on whether the mother will seek Court of Appeals review of the ruling, said Brian Saccenti, who leads the Maryland public defender’s appellate division, which represented the infant’s mother. Saccenti declined to comment further on the case Tuesday.

Arthur was joined in the opinion by Judges Christopher B. Kehoe and Michael W. Reed.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in In Re: K.Y-B., No. 3150 September Term 2018.

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