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Statutory Right to Treat Minors

All states have laws that allow children to be treated without the parents' or guardian's consent in certain circumstances. These laws are designed to protect either the child or the public health of the community.

All states allow persons in need of emergency care to be treated without consent; nevertheless, many hospitals and physicians have been reticent to treat children without parental consent. To encourage the prompt treatment of sick and injured children, many states have passed laws that allow certain relatives of a child to consent to emergency medical care when the parents are unavailable. Since consent to treatment is not required in true emergencies, the primary purpose of these laws is to assuage physicians' fears of litigation.

Most states allow a physician to treat a child who is suspected of being the victim of abuse or neglect, without the consent of the parents. These laws also require that the physician notify the proper authorities so that the case may be investigated and the child protected if necessary.

Most states allow a child to be treated for communicable and venereal diseases without parental permission. This treatment benefits the child and also helps prevent the spread of disease in the community. This exception to the need for parental consent is usually limited to diseases that are reportable under the state's communicable and venereal disease reporting laws. These diseases must be reported and the child welfare agency notified in certain cases where the disease (such as venereal disease in a young child) raises the suspicion of abuse.

Many states allow minors to seek treatment for alcohol and drug abuse without parental permission. These laws may or may not require child welfare agencies to be notified. Because of the prolonged nature of these treatments and the possibility of hospitalization, it is usually impossible to carry out the treatment without involving the parents. (Very few hospitals accept a minor without parental permission and a guarantee of payment.) These laws are most valuable when dealing with runaways and abandoned minors.

Pregnancy and childbirth pose the most legally difficult conflicts between the rights of parents and those of their children. State laws differ greatly and are frequently modified by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The courts are attempting to balance the rights of the minor to determine her own medical care, the rights of a parent to control the medical care that a child receives, and the rights of the fetus. In general, the laws allow and encourage pregnant minors to seek prenatal care. There is also a more limited right to birth control information and devices. The most limited right is abortion, which is discussed in Chapter 25.


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