When a parent refuses necessary medical care for a child, it is usually for religious reasons. Parents may refuse all care or just specific treatments, such as blood transfusions. They may belong to an organized religious group, such as the Christian Scientists, or have personal beliefs that may be shared with only a few other people. The strength and importance of their religious beliefs can sometimes be determined by how the child was brought to the medical care provider. If the parents brought the child to the physician or emergency room, they should be assumed to want help. However, if the child is brought in by neighbors or the police, the physician should expect no cooperation from the parents.
The child should be evaluated at once to determine if immediate care is needed. If it is, a judge should be contacted to arrange a temporary guardianship. The child welfare department should also be notified because denying a child necessary medical care is neglect in most states. Because many states allow children who are abused or neglected to be treated without parental consent, the child welfare agency may be able to authorize treatment for the child without a court order. Although the court may decide to accede to the parents’ religious beliefs, the physician’s duty is to advocate for the child until the court rules that the child need not be treated.